BARRING SOME UNANTICIPATED ambush in the House, Congress has wrapped up its response to an 18-year barrage by the National Rifle Association against this country's handgun laws with a parting shot at the NRA on behalf of infuriated law enforcement authorities. On Tuesday, some last-minute provisions put together by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond narrowed some of what police and other authorities had attacked as dangerous "cop-killer" loopholes in the gun bill. While the police, sheriffs, state troopers, widows and their families are still bitter about the NRA's treatment of their concerns, they are pleased that Congress cared enough to preserve at least some protections against totally uncontrolled interstate traffic in concealable weapons.

What police sought and won in the final round is hardly restrictive -- and has nothing to do with the legitimate concerns of sportsmen and other gunowners whose interests have taken a back seat to handguns, machine guns and silencers on the NRA's agenda these days. One provision is a requirement that gun dealers keep records of sales from their personal collections, without which police say it would be impossible to trace many of the guns used by criminals. Another clarifies the definition of a gun dealer. A third specifies the extent to which people carrying handguns across state lines must keep them unloaded and inaccessible.

Sen. Thurmond and others who understood the police pleas for these minimal provisions to help law enforcement authorities do their jobs and stay alive managed to carry the day; but the NRA's favorite congressional sergeants-in-arms -- Sen. McClure and Rep. Volkmer -- would have preferred to forget them. What gave the NRA pause -- and the police a nod -- was the prospect of efforts by Sens. Kennedy, Mathias and Metzenbaum to push votes on such sensible proposals as a ban on silencers and plastic handguns. After all, this is an election year, and some of the colleagues might feel under the political gun, so to speak, to do the safe thing and support these safety measures. That action, we can hope, is only temporarily set aside for another time.