WASHINGTON — Washington. -- This may long be remembered as the year that the rat-a-tat-tat of brutal urban violence broke out of the inner cities and became all America's concern.
European tourists have been brutally attacked, nine of them killed, in Florida. Drive-by car shootings and carjackings have erupted nationwide. Gang activity has reportedly spread to 125 cities including many suburbs -- even outer-ring suburbs. Some 100,000 American children, Time reports, carry guns to school.
After a mother and her two children were brutally slain in comfortably suburban South Windsor, Connecticut, the Manchester Journal Inquirer editorialized:
''The suburbs as a haven against a heartless world are an illusion. . . . Those who think they can escape gangs by leaving Hartford for [safe suburbs] are mistaken. All of America's urban problems reach the clean, well-lighted places eventually. These problems are genuinely the nation's, not a small part of the nation's.''
Not surprisingly, crime is a major issue in the New York mayoral and New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections this fall. And quite suddenly, the gun-control issue seems to have metamorphosed. Now it's not only safe, but politically smart to defy the National Rifle Association and call for broader handgun limits.
At last! By every measure, we are the most violent, mayhem-prone nation of the developed world. As long as a suburban nation figured it was just the inner city's problem, we ignored it. But today's cresting level of utter hopelessness among inner-city youth -- combined with the bath of television-, movie- and video-administered violence that infects the minds of our young people -- is translating into stray bullets flying in more and more communities.
Unless our continent-wide wave of senseless violence suddenly abates -- and there's little reason to believe it will -- violence is poised to become an overarching issue of American politics, state, local and federal.
But to what avail? Do we know what to do? Do we have the courage to do it?
The early signs are not encouraging. President Clinton continues to press for the Brady bill for a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases -- not a bad idea, but not likely to make
much difference, either. A little more substantively, Mr. Clinton keeps saying he would like to get assault weapons out of the hands of teen-agers. Just teen-agers? Why should anyone except a military combat soldier have an assault weapon at his disposal? What's the difference if it's a 21-year-old instead of a 17-year-old who shoots up a schoolyard or swimming pool?
Fearful of seeing the bottom drop out of a lucrative foreign-tourist trade, Florida politicos are talking of making handgun possession by a minor a felony. Florida is already seeking the death penalty against 13- and 14-year-old killers. It's talking of expanding prisons to hold offenders longer. All the solutions sound great, but experience tells us killings aren't reduced by threats of incarceration or death penalties. America's prison population has nearly trebled since 1980 -- while handgun murders have gone from 4,000 to nearly 16,000 a year.
Is it time to think of much more imaginative, albeit extreme measures? Example: What if a neighborhood is so gun- and crime-infested that businesses are driven out and citizens live in constant fear for their own and their children's lives? Shouldn't neighborhood residents be able to petition for an unscheduled police sweep of every house, a sweep that would check exclusively for unregistered firearms and confiscate all that are found?
Civil libertarians howl with protest at such an idea. But what are we preserving? People's freedom to be shot?
So how else do we start disarming ourselves? The Brady bill and anti-gun-running accords among states may help. But we need a lot more.
We might try the stiff 25 percent tax on all firearms that Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., proposes and Hillary Rodham Clinton endorses -- or perhaps the 1,000 percent tax on ammunition suggested by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.
We could ban all assault weapons, except for the military. We might outlaw importation of any handgun or assault weapon. We could shake up and then fully fund the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms so that it can and will abandon its lackadaisical enforcement of gun-sale laws and start keeping careful tabs on every gun seller in the nation.
We could enact a strict weapons-licensing system. We might launch full-scale gun buy-back schemes: With 200 million guns in circulation, there's a long way to go. And we could insist that consumer warnings be attached to ''war toys'' and toy guns.
Callous greed is motivating the makers and sellers of handguns and assault guns. We should handle this crowd with the same consideration and dispatch we'd show if a chemical firm started leaking toxic chemicals into our water supplies. The results are no less deadly.
Today's wave of national alarm about guns and violence will soon roil the political waters. But expect no tangible results unless we're willing to choke off the sources of these murderous weapons.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.