The gun industry, already facing dozens of lawsuits filed by cities and public-interest groups, yesterday expressed frustration and bewilderment at the Clinton administration's plan to join those suits on behalf of the country's public housing authorities.

Just a year ago, when New Orleans became the first city to ask for reparations for gun violence, the industry scoffed, dismissing the suit as the work of the same money-hungry lawyers who had attacked the tobacco business. Any changes in gun regulations, they said, should be made in Congress, not in the courts.

Since then, as litigation against the industry has gathered steam, firearms makers say they have agreed to concessions that would have been unimaginable a few years ago--such as voluntarily shipping safety locks with their guns and agreeing to fund programs to help gun dealers recognize buyers who are "straw purchasers"--buyers acting on behalf of someone who could not legally own a gun.

"The industry is meeting with the ATF and going above and beyond the law to help get the bad guys," said Robert Delfay, head of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry association. "To find out that the very government you're trying to help is going to sue you. . . . You just don't know where to turn."

On Tuesday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo said that his agency would file a massive lawsuit on behalf of the nation's 3,191 public housing authorities, which spend $1 billion a year trying to keep their 3.25 million residents safe from gun violence.

At his regular press briefing yesterday, President Clinton supported the idea, saying that he was disappointed that his administration had not been able to pass "common-sense gun legislation," particularly after numerous school shootings, and that he thought it was appropriate to use executive authority to press the issue. He noted that the suit is not intended to get money from gun manufacturers, but rather to pressure them to change "irresponsible marketing practices" and add safety features to their products.

Gun control advocates said they believed the administration's entry into the fray and the public outcry regarding recent school shootings have turned the momentum against the industry.

"It's a pretty sad statement when you can get action faster through litigation than through legislation," said Richard S. Order, an attorney representing Bridgeport, Conn., in its lawsuit against gun companies. "Congress has too many roadblocks."

Most gun industry representatives continued to say that they would meet with representatives of the White House to see if they could agree to settle the various lawsuits and prevent yet another one. Several smaller manufacturers have already filed for bankruptcy. And the insurers of many of the larger companies have said they will not pay to defend them in the lawsuits.

But others in the industry were adamant that they will continue to fight.

"Such misguided efforts are legally and factually wrong," said Stephen L. Sanetti, general counsel of Sturm, Ruger & Co., the nation's largest maker of firearms. "We will fight them with all of our resolve."

"I don't know anybody who thinks these lawsuits will succeed," said Jeff Reh, a spokesman for Beretta USA. "It's tantamount to harassment."

Firearms makers have emphasized that they are a heavily regulated industry and that when crimes are committed with their products, it is the responsibility of the federal government to prosecute those crimes. That hasn't happened, they said, citing a Syracuse University study this year that showed prosecutions of federal gun crimes were down by more than 40 percent. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said that was in part because of cutbacks in manpower at the agency and a shift to prosecuting gun traffickers.

Congressional reaction to the HUD announcement was muted because lawmakers were scattered throughout the country on recess. But House Republicans were quick to point out that HUD general counsel Gail Laster told a subcommittee on Aug. 4 that "HUD does not plan to bring any action on its own against the gun industry" and "HUD has no authority on its own to bring litigation."

Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a vocal opponent of gun control, wrote Cuomo yesterday questioning why Laster would make such statements if the department was in fact contemplating a suit. Barr wrote that he has asked the panel's chairman "to consider taking action against [Laster] for misleading, if not lying to, the subcommittee."

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Triggering Lawsuits

Numerous lawsuits have been filed recently years against gunmanufacturers, saying they are liable for deaths and injuries caused by their products. Among the cases:

* A landmark Brooklyn case, Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, found some gun companies liable for their distribution practices, but the verdict was appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and will be argued early next year.

* NAACP and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association have filed suit in New York against gun manufacturers, seeking injunctive relief for some gun distribution practices.

* Numerous cities and counties have filed suit, including:

New Orleans

Chicago

Miami

Bridgeport, Conn.

Atlanta

Cleveland

Wayne County, Mich.

Detroit

Cincinnati (Thrown out)

St. Louis

San Francisco (Includes Berkeley, Sacramento, San Mateo County, Alameda County, Oakland and East Palo Alto)

Los Angeles (Includes Compton, West Hollywood and Inglewood)

Camden County, N.J.

Los Angeles County

Gary, Ind.

Wilmington, Del.

SOURCE: Center to Prevent Handgun Violence