Wayne McLaughlin of Lynchburg, Va. was trying to explain why he expects the antigun-control issue will be a successful weapon in the campaign to elect Republican Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton as Virginia governor. "The one thing that will take a union man away from his union is his sport," he said.

McLaughlin is cochairman of Sportsmen GO for Dalton, a group of "concerned sportsmen" that is raising money for an anti-Henry E. Howell pro-Dalton campaign. Howell, who has strong support from unions, is Dalton's Democratic challenger.

Neither Howell nor Dalton initiated the gun-control issue. But now that the powerful antigun-control interests have brought it up, Dalton has aggressively touted his anticontrol stance and Howell has been battling to prove that he is as much against gun control as Dalton is.

Sportsmen GO for Dalton is just one progun group massing forces to campaign. The National Rifle Association's political action arm has mailed a pro-Dalton letter to its 30,000 members and says it may send another. A Dalton campaign adjunct called Sportsmen for Dalton has printed up flyers and bumper stickers.

Gun control does not appear to be an important concern among Northern Virginians, and neither candidate has dwelt on it at lenght in appearances in the Washington area. But elsewhere in the state the issue generates great emotion. McLaughlin estimates, based on the number of hunting license applications and contestants in shooting matches, there are as many as 300,000 sportsmen likely to be against gun control in Virginia. Organized and motivated, that group could be a powerful voting bloc that McLaughlin thinks will "put it over for Dalton."

Nor is any effort by the NRA dismissed. In last November's election, for example, the NRA endorsed 349 House and Senate candidates and 73 per cent of them won. The AFL-CIO's political action arm endorsed 390 candidates; 71 per cent won.

Dalton's position is that he has, as the NRA said in its letter, "a spotless record in support of hunting, shooting and the right to gun ownership." He is against any form of gun control.

Dalton and his supporters say that Howell "cosponsored a gun registration bill" and that he was "the only announcer yesterday. He taped player-state senator to vote against putting a guarantee of your right to keep and bear arms in the Virginia Constitution."

The "gun-registration bill" was a 1964 proposal that would have allowed localities to enact requirements that gun purchasers fill out an application in triplicate. It also would have forbidden gun dealers to sell a pistol to anyone under 18 or to anyone dealers have "reasonable cause to believe" had been convicted of a crime of violence, was an habitual drunkard, drug addict or of "unsound mind."

A key provision of the bill, of which Howell was one of several cosponsors, not the chief sponsor, was that localities could at their option delay the sale of guns for three days after the application was made.

According to Howell staffer Tom Oliver, who research the candidate's record on gun control, the purpose of this section was a "cooling-off period" because "someone will get angry and go buy a pistol and shoot somebody." The bill was defeated.

In a speech in Wytheville, Dalton did not mention that the bill was a local option measure, according to one of his press releases. There and in a subsequent interview, Dalton took the position that the bill would have required that "the vast majority of lawabiding citizens who purchase pistols register their purchases with the state."

Oliver noted that in the same 1964 legislative session a resolution reaffirming the right of Virginia's citizens to keep and bear arms was introduced and that Howell voted for it.

The question of Howell's vote on the constitutional amendment goes back to the 1969 redrafting of the state Constitution. The amendment essentially echoed the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution that upholds the right of a citizen to keep and bear arms. According to Oliver, Howell voted against it because it was not introduced in a legislative committee as other amendments were and thus had not been subjected to the normal debate that such a forum allows.

Howell, he said, was concerned over the effect of the amendment on the state's militia. Howell has always supported hunting. Oliver said, and quoted from the record of the 1969 constitutional debates on the issue:

"I'm not talking about the right to hunt, which is one of the most healthful pursuits known to man." Howell said at the time. "You get up in the morning, 15 below zero and wrap up in thermal underwear, put on those boots and go out and stand in that water, wait for the sun to come up and fire away. The bird has a free chance to take wing and the winds. You have a chance to level on him and feel close to God and all is right in the heavens."

The vote on the amendement was 31 to 1, Howell being the dissenter.

Lest the public think that gun control is a partisan issue, however, Oliver noted that Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin, a strong Dalton supporter, asked the legislature in 1976 for a law to require that a statewide record be kept of all new handgun purchases. A bill drafted to allow central indexing was introduced and cosponsored by, among others, Republican Party chairman George N. McMath, a House member. That bill was also defeated.

Asked about his position on Godwin's proposal, Dalton said recently that Godwin had not consulted him on the issue and that he would not have recommended it if he had. "I did not make any speeches in connection with that bill," Dalton said.

"It's so difficult to talk about gun control rationally in a political context," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arl.), who last year introduced a bill to ban the manufacture and sale of concealable handguns. "I can see why John Dalton and Henry Howell and every other politician shy away from it."