ONE OF THE longest-running acts of collective cowardice going is the inability of so many politicians to stand up to the gun lobby run by the National Rifle (and anything else that shoots to kill) Association. But now there is one congressman from Virginia who has decided to call the NRA's bluff and endorse its archenemies: public safety and common sense. He is Rep. G. William Whitehurst, a Republican who is proud to call himself a conservative and who by no stretch of the imagination could be considered soft on crime. Mr. Whitehurst summed up his reasoning for a recent House Judiciary subcommittee hearing:

"Who, I ask, really wants softer gun laws? If I were a criminal, I certainly would. If I were a gun dealer who didn't respect the law, I certainly would. And if I were involved in drug trafficking, you bet I would."

So, too, do the NRA lobbyists hell-bent now for passage of the Volkmer-McClure bill, which would strip away federal protections against sales of dangerous firearms. The NRA approach is about as subtle as a cannon on a front porch: either support passage of this bill or suffer mass mailings from the NRA stock of form letters.

Why do so many members of Congress bow to the NRA? Mr. Whitehurst says they fear they could be hurt at the polls. Of Mr. Whitehurst, who is retiring next year, NRA spokesman John Aquilino says that his new positions on firearms controls reflect an "I'm-not-running-for-reelection" surge of bravery.

Actually, Mr. Whitehurst started bucking the NRA tide two years ago. He cosponsored a bill with Rep. Mario Biaggi to ban bullets that can penetrate bulletproof vests -- a measure to protect police officers.

"I'll be darned if I didn't get some letters from people who belonged to the National Rifle Association, taking me to task for sponsoring this bill," Mr. Whitehurst says. "I was thunderstruck that any law-abiding citizen would take exception to that legislation. I couldn't believe that anyone, aside from criminals, could object to forbidding the sale of these kinds of bullets to the general public. It just kind of lit my fuse."

Maybe someday more congressional fuses will be lit. Maybe some thinking members of the NRA will figure out that the legitimate pursuits of sportsmen, collectors and others are not at issue here. Why can't the NRA acknowledge that maintaining and strengthening protections against handguns is not a first step to banning all guns? Or is the world firearms and munitions market simply more important to the NRA than public safety?