THE HOUSE leaders' refusal to move gun safety legislation before the Memorial Day recess was just what the NRA lobbyists ordered. The delay allows the gun-market-boosters time to slap together a counterattack aimed at shredding the work of the Senate. The NRA leaders' assault on the Senate bill is camouflaged in a decoy "background check" measure they tout as cutting out "all the bureaucracy" in the Senate bill. Translation: Pull all teeth in the Senate bill and let those gun-show side deals flow unregulated.

The NRA paints its proposal as a "better way" to require background checks at gun shows. It supports instant criminal checks but would kill Senate protections that call for retaining this information for 90 days. What is so punitive about holding potentially valuable crime-fighting information for a reasonable period before purging it? "Unreasonable . . . unworkable . . . and to our Founders who gave us the Second Amendment, unthinkable," says NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Besides, an NRA "fact" sheet states, the Senate version "gives enormous power to federal firearms police to interpret a host of undefined terms that have never appeared in firearms law -- terms that can be used to prosecute and imprison honest gun owners."

While the scare tactics still may work on some NRA members, more and more Americans -- including the honest gun owners who have nothing to fear -- are refusing to buy this line anymore. They sense the urgent need for rational controls on the lethal-weapons market.

The House could buy all the Senate proposals and still wouldn't begin to stop the gun-show side deals. Instead of entertaining NRA mischief, responsible members should concentrate on ways to strengthen the Senate bill. Why should lawmakers balk, for example, at efforts to limit the number of handguns that anybody may buy in a given year? What does anyone think happens to most of these bulk purchases? Is it coincidence that in states that have enacted limits, the gunrunning has run elsewhere?

Why does President Clinton say he supports gun registration as an effective safety measure -- and then bristle when asked why he won't push for it? During an interview Friday, he grew testy when Charles Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning America" quoted an unnamed Clinton ally as saying that after the shootings in Colorado, the president "had a chance to roar on gun control, and he meowed." President Clinton snapped, "For you to say that I shouldn't take what I can get and instead I should ask for things that I am absolutely positive will be defeated in the Congress is quite wrong."

It is wrong if you value racking up political score-sheet victories more than taking forceful, politically courageous positions. It is why so many politicians are content to "respond" to public concerns about guns with whatever minimum-strength legislation will let them vote for something and then change the subject.

It is also why anyone with the slightest hopes that Congress might do a little something about gunfire should urge the House to support more protections than the Senate enacted, not fewer.