One year into his tenure as attorney general, Edwin Meese III has come under fire for the first time from the police groups that have stood by him since he was a California prosecutor two decades ago.

Their target is Meese's position on legislation that would allow interstate sales of handguns and generally weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act. While Meese has privately expressed concerns about the bill, which is being pushed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), he has publicly endorsed it. And law-enforcement groups were stunned last week when Meese rejected their plea for a meeting and dispatched an aide instead.

"It's very puzzling and disheartening to us," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation. "It's a puzzle why Meese is not out publicly leading us in this fight. In 24 years, I've never seen anything to compare to the outrage in the police community over this bill."

"We've been baffled at his lack of willingness to meet with us, given our previous level of support," said Jerry Vaughn, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It disappoints me tremendously."

Meese's uncomfortable posture over the McClure-Volkmer bill, officially known as the Firearms Owners Protection Act, stems from more than just the considerable clout of the gun lobby.

To be sure, the NRA helped secure a White House endorsement of the bill as early as 1982, one signed by Meese as counselor to President Reagan. And the NRA gave $1.4 million to congressional candidates in 1984, including donations to most of the 170 House members who have signed a discharge petition to force the bill from the Judiciary Committee to the House floor.

But it is the bitter split between the NRA and police groups -- such as the National Sheriffs' Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Troopers Coalition -- that has torn the public figures who usually support both sides. The acrimony erupted last year over the NRA's opposition to legislation to ban armor-piercing, "cop-killer" bullets.

That bill became one of several factors in the maneuvering over McClure-Volkmer, which is sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.), Justice Department sources said that when the NRA agreed last year to stop lobbying against the bullet bill, the administration promised that it would keep pushing the measure.

"Ed Meese is a team player," one department official said. While Meese privately shares the concerns raised by senior officials at the Justice and Treasury departments, "He is certainly not going to take a public position that contradicts the administration position."

Congressional politics is also involved. When the Senate passed McClure-Volkmer, 79 to 15, last July, all 22 Republican senators up for reelection this year backed the bill.

"The Republicans in the Senate were assured that the administration would support this bill," the Justice official said. "They all jumped on board. We don't want to turn around now and kick them in the teeth. It would be suicide."

Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee that is considering the bill, said that Meese and other officials "have gone along with the NRA line" for political reasons.

"They've got themselves locked into a position on the bill, even though they recognize it has major problems and could be potentially disastrous in some areas," Hughes said. He said that administration witnesses "had a terrible time" trying to defend the bill at a hearing last week, and that Meese deliberately "ducked" an invitation to testify at the last minute and did not send anyone from Justice to testify in his stead.

"It's inexplicable to these guys because Ed Meese is the best friend law enforcement ever had," a police official said.

An internal memo by Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms criticized 13 aspects of the bill, including a ban on surprise inspections of gun dealers, easing of record-keeping rules and narrowing the use of mandatory penalties for violent crimes committed with a gun. The memo said such changes would make it harder to prosecute armed criminals.

The NRA says its critics are distorting the legislation and exaggerating the administration's concerns.

"Meese is feeling pressure from the heads of law-enforcement groups who are opposed to the bill," said NRA spokesman Andrew Kendzie. He said these police leaders "have always had an anti-NRA stance" and "don't represent the rank and file. The overwhelming majority of beat officers are with us on this."

Vaughan of the police chiefs' group replied that the NRA's tactics have been "outrageous, deceptive and improper."

Opponents are clearly nervous about the House discharge petition, which needs fewer than 50 signatures to reach a majority of 218. "If your congressman won't sign [the] discharge petition, he is no friend of law-abiding American gun owners and hunters," the NRA said in a recent mailing.

The administration is backing the petition, which would bar any amendments to the bill, as the only way to avoid a divisive House-Senate conference that would doom the measure, Justice sources said. They said Meese's concerns hinge on "nuance" and "interpretation" of the law and can be cleared up through a dialogue on the House floor.

That approach does not satisfy Meese's most loyal constituency, whose support of his embattled nomination was instrumental in Meese becoming attorney general a year ago today.

"I'm new to Washington," said Vaughan, who was previously Newark's police director. "I'm baffled by how someone can say publicly they support something and privately they don't."