One of the Dumber Ideas Around : Let Russia sell cheap handguns in the United States? Please . . .

Looming just over the horizon as a potential threat to regional peace and security is Iran, which has been spending a lot of money buying military weapons and technology, including the stuff that could one day help produce nuclear arms. As it happens, Russia has been one of Iran's major suppliers, selling Tehran's theocratic regime warplanes, tanks, submarines and missile technology. These sales are worth about $1 billion a year, no mean amount to a country whose export earnings have fallen precipitately.

The Clinton Administration, alert to the possible dangers posed by a still aggressively radical Iran, has been urging Moscow to end or severely reduce these sales. President Boris N. Yeltsin said in Washington Wednesday that Russia would. The United States, in compensation, is thinking about letting Russia export to the United States a number, perhaps a large number, of one of the few products its factories make besides vodka that seem sure to find eager customers in the American market: semiautomatic pistols.

Here, surely, is one of the dumber ideas in recent memory. That it is even being seriously considered is a disheartening comment on the quality of creative thinking within the Clinton Administration.

One U.S. importer has applied to sell as many as 7 million Russian firearms. The Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is less than enthusiastic. The State Department, however, thinks that allowing some measure of arms imports is a reasonable way to offset Russian hard currency losses if arms sales to Iran are in fact cut back. As one official rationalized it to The Times, "if we want them to listen to us on issues like Iran, we have to let them compete on the world market with products they can sell."

Well, yes. But with handguns, in our market? No, thank you.

With an estimated 212 million firearms now extant in the United States--one-third of them handguns--and with violent crime at the apex of public concerns, surely it's evident that the U.S. arms market is saturated and that opening the gates to yet more cheaply priced weapons is emphatically not in the national interest.

Those in the Clinton Administration who are sympathetic to this bizarre idea because they are eager to do Moscow a favor have looked at Russian trade figures and asked, "Why not?" What they really ought to be doing is taking another look at American homicide figures and asking, "Why?"

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