The National Rifle Association, after threatening for several years to leave Washington because of what it said was the city's high crime rate, excessive operating costs and hostile political atmosphere, has decided to stay here.

Sparked by insurgent new leadership, NRA members voted almost unanimously at their annual convention in Cincinnati last month to keep the national headquarters in Washington.

The ousted leadership had proposed that the 300-employee headquarters operation be moved to Colorado Springs, Colo.

In an interview yesterday, Harlon Carter, newly installed NRA executive vice president, brushed aside previous NRA complaints about the cost of living, street crime and prevailing anti-gun attitudes among city officials here.

"Washington, D.C. is, after all the capital of this nation," he said. "This is where the action is."

Specifically, he said, the NRA lobbying office - called the Institute for Legislative Action - "would have to stay here anyway . . . and you really can't separate our legislative activity from the rest of the NRA."

Carter estimated that 35 of the NRA's 300 employees work in the legislative action institute All 300 are housed in an eight-story building containing an extensive firearms museum at 1600 Rhode Island Ave. NW.

Carter, who replaced Maxwell E. Rich as executive vice president, said both the crime rate and business operating expenses in Washington are not perceptibly different from those situations in a number of other places in the United States."

As far as political hostility here is concerned, he said, "The climate of acceptability here is pretty much like the rest of the big cities in this country. We have a majority of the people with us, people who are opposed to government intrusion in the constitutional right to own firearms."

He said NRA-affiliated gun clubs in the Washington area are "flourishing."

Last year, the D.C. City Council enacted one of the nation's toughest gun control laws, banning the purchase of all new handguns, except those of police officers and security guards, and imposing strict registration requirements on all other weapons.

The NRA sought to kill the legislation on Capitol Hill when it underwent congressional review, but failed.

The organization also canceled its planned annual convention here last May and moved it to Cincinnati, contending that various provisions of the new gun law would limit or prohibit firearms displays and demonstrations.

At the Cincinnati convention, anti-gun registration hardliners took over, ousted Rich and installed Carter.

Neal Knox, publisher of Handloader and Rifle magazines in Prescott, Ariz., and one of the key dissidents in the takeover, accused the ousted leadership of softening lobbying efforts against gun control in exchange for financial support from several foundations, including the Ford Foundation. He said the NRA was becoming more involved with general outdoor sports and conservation projects, rather than sticking to its traditional purpose of fighting government intrusion in the right to bear arms.

Carter said yesterday that members also voted "almost unanimously" to keep NRA headquarters in Washington.