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Two takes on guns // A WORTHWHILE IDEA

Election-year gambit or not, President Clinton's proposal for tracking illegal gun sales to youths could be an important weapon in the fight against juvenile violence.

The $2-million program will work like this: Seventeen cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, St. Louis, San Antonio and Washington, D.C., have signed a voluntary agreement to report information to the federal government on guns seized from juveniles. The information will be entered into a federal computer databank run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Each gun will be traced back to its original seller, primarily through its serial number, in order to determine who sold it to a minor. Illegal gun dealers will be prosecuted.

A pilot version of the program in Boston, where no youths have been killed by guns this year, has been heralded as a success. The recent explosion of juvenile violence elsewhere in the country makes expanding the program a necessity. According to a recent Northeastern University report, the number of homicides with handguns committed by youths under age 18 increased 418 percent between 1984 and 1994. The figure makes a clear case for bolder, broader approaches to fighting juvenile crime, and the president's program counts as one.

Since federal law _ and some state laws _ already makes it a crime to sell handguns to minors, there is no new legislation involved in the president's program. That makes it all the more difficult to argue against and may be why the National Rifle Association has been silent on the issue. Some Republicans have accused the president of rehashing old ideas in order to win over crime-weary voters, but that sort of criticism proves the substance of the program is hard to attack. Besides, likely GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole is guilty of similar pandering. Witness his recent call to charge juveniles as adults for serious crimes.

Making it harder for teenagers to get their hands on guns will not be easy given the proliferation of illegal weapons in this country. Only with increased coordination and cooperation at every level of law enforcement will the goal be attainable. It is encouraging that 17 cities have agreed to take part in the new program, but many more will need to sign on if it is to reach its goal.