PRESIDENT REAGAN will address the membership of the National Rifle Association this week, and it's a safe bet that he's being urged by political advisers to stay on the right side of this powerful and well-organized interest group. The NRA is riding high these days; its determined efforts to stop gun control legislation have been increasingly successful. It won a big victory in a referendum on handgun control in California last fall, and even got Congress to consider weakening already minimal federal gun control laws.

The proposal that the NRA backed--the McClure-Volkmer bill--would have amended a law enacted in 1968, partly in response to the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The law makes it harder to obtain a gun through the mail if the purchaser is not a resident of the state, or if he is a felon, a fugitive from justice, a narcotics addict or a person who has been judged by a court to be mentally defective. These are sensible, if modest, restrictions which require no registration of weapons. But the gun lobby sees only harassment, burdensome regulation and infringement of constitutional rights in the law, and wants to roll it back. The McClure- Volkmer bill was not passed by the 97th Congress, but it remains high on the NRA's agenda.

Those of us who live in big cities where violent crime is a fact of life tend to think of guns in terms of crime. In other parts of the country, the connection is with hunting, and probably most members of the NRA joined it because they are hunters. What is difficult to understand or justify is their relentless opposition to the control of handguns, the weapons that kill 60 Americans every day and which are used in the commission of 300,000 felonies every year.

The president himself is a victim of a handgun assault. He knows from his own experience that these guns are incredibly easy to obtain, to conceal and to use. His own attorney general, William French Smith, has called for vigorous enforcement of federal gun control laws, and the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime went even further, urging a modest strengthening of the law. Wouldn't the president, then, be just the right person to tell these gun owners of the very real concerns of crime victims and to support the position of his own Justice Department before the NRA? Will he do it?