For the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, one of the more satisfying outcomes of the 1984 election was the Senate victory in Iowa of Tom Harkin over Roger Jepsen. The coalition went out of its way to back Harkin, a five- term congressman with a flinty populist bent. It characterized Jepsen as "a loyal foot soldier" of the National Rifle Association. At times, the NRA treated Jepsen like a general. It lavished $118,000 on his reelection campaign against Harkin.

The money didn't matter. It now turns out that Harkin's victory might not have mattered either. On July 9, he pleased the NRA by voting for legislation that would weaken the Gun Control Act of 1968, a law passed following the gun deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The vote was 79-15.

The bill, proposed by Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) was promoted by the NRA as a way of "clearing up the ambiguities and inconsistencies" of the 1968 law. It would give gun seekers and gun sellers greater freedoms than the ones that already make the handgun murder rate in the United States 100 times greater than England's and 200 times higher than Japan's.

Amendments were defeated to ban interstate handgun sales, to require a 14-day waiting period between the purchase and delivery of handguns, and to allow stringent federal inspections of gun dealerships. The crime of a dealer's knowingly violating the law would be a misdemeanor, not a felony.

On the votes against the three amendments -- interstate sales, the waiting period and inspections -- Harkin voted against McClure and the NRA. That was batting practice. Harkin looked impressive. In the game that counted -- the final overall vote that went 79-15 -- Harkin switched uniforms and joined such NRA heavy hitters as Jesse Helms and Barry Goldwater to support the gun lobbies.

The Iowan was one of several Senate liberals -- Democratic and Republican -- who thought well of the NRA's trigger-happy zeal for weaker controls. These included Don Riegle (D- Mich.), Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Alan Dixon (D- Ill.), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), William Proxmire (D-Wis.), Joseph Biden (D- Del.) and Robert Packwood (R-Ore.).

It wasn't a day for guts. "We didn't realistically expect to win," said Michael Hancock of the coalition, "but we had hoped that our natural allies in the Senate would have shown the political courage to stand up to NRA. Why did they defect? I'm truly mystified. I can only think that they'd rather risk the wrath of groups like ours and our supporters than the NRA's wrath and their supporters."

An official of Handgun Control, a group similar to the coalition, believes that "the fear factor" was at work. Barbara Lautman said that gun groups warned senators from point-blank range not to trifle with the nation's 80 million firearms owners. One gunner organization wrote a letter that said, "We intend to do everything in our power to inform the 80 million gun owners in this country regarding voting behavior in this crucial public issue." Lautman believes that the threat of this political pistol whipping was enough "to scare a lot these senators into voting for the bill."

Some liberals run scared. Others merely run. Rep. Barney Frank (D- Mass.), long known as tireless in his liberalism, is now saying this: "Liberals should stop pushing affirmatively for stronger gun-control measures, because we're losing without any gains. I'm conceding that the opposition's political position is strong. The votes aren't there for us, and it's a mistake to push it. There's no chance to affect public policy."

What's next in these displays of chickening out? Liberals' defeatism is on the rise of late, but rarely has a political fight been slinked away from in the gutless manner in which they are conceding the issue to the gun lobby. The NRA has the noise but not the numbers.

Opinion polls consistently report that the public overwhelmingly supports what the NRA doesn't support: severe restrictions on the availability of handguns. Police organizations concur. With handguns accounting for 10,000 murders, 12,000 suicides and 1,000 fatal accidents yearly in the United States, the public -- i.e., the unofficial victims' lobby -- is saying that it wants protections, not defections.

Two months ago Vice President George Bush was welcomed by the NRA as a lifetime member. He joins Ronald Reagan. For Bush, it was no honorary freebie. He sent the NRA a check for $300. Perhaps the organization can offer liberals in the Senate and House a hard-times discount and charge them only $295 for membership. A bonus bumper sticker could be designed to commemorate the 79-15 vote: "Aim Left, Vote Right."