The National Rifle Association is riding the coattails of the popular Persian Gulf war to solve its own problems. Facing a growing credibility gap and a gun-control bill that Congress may actually pass, the NRA has sent out a fund-raising letter that equates the freeing of Kuwait with the rights of American gun owners.

The letter is part of the NRA's desperate campaign to fight a reasonable gun-control measure known as the Brady Bill, named after former White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was permanently crippled in the 1981 attack on President Reagan.The Brady Bill would require a seven-day waiting period before a gun purchase to give police time to check whether the buyer has a criminal record. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Feighan, D-Ohio, has the backing of NRA darling Ronald Reagan, and so much support on Capitol Hill that the NRA is spooked.

Hence, the fund-raising letter tapping into the national pride over the war. The letter, signed by NRA lobbyist Wayne La Pierre, says that 22 Marines in the gulf wrote to him just before the allied ground offensive began against Iraq. They asked "that we not forget one of the most precious freedoms they were defending - the right to keep and bear arms," according to the NRA letter. La Pierre's letter does not convincingly explain what the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had to do with the right to carry guns in America. Nor does it explain how the war meshes with the Brady Bill. But La Pierre does ask the recipients to write to Congress protesting the bill.

"If (the bill) passes, it will put the federal government on the back of every law abiding gun owner in America," the letter says. "That is why we must take the time and heed the words of these Marines. We must act to protect our rights. We must prepare our own defense of freedom."

The logic is flawed, but the NRA has nothing to lose. Its membership numbers are dropping, and its credibility is strained as it fights even reasonable gun-control measures while gun-related violence in America soars.

But don't count the NRA out of the game. Instead of fighting the Brady Bill head on, the NRA has wisely chosen to push an alternative record-check proposal. Instead of a seven-day waiting period, the NRA supports an alternative bill, sponsored by Rep. Harley Staggers, D-W.V., requiring an on-the-spot record check by the gun stores, tapping into a nationwide computer network. It sounds like a great idea, and the nicest thing about it from the NRA perspective is that it probably won't work.

The Justice Department says that developing such an instant national checking system would take up to five years. But the Staggers bill requires that the system start up within six months after approval. Three states, including Staggers' home state of West Virginia, don't even have computerized criminal records. Any member of Congress who voted for Staggers' bill could stay on the good side of the NRA, get rid of the pesky Brady Bill, boast about being tough on crime and rest easy in the knowledge that the bill, with its six-month deadline, would be meaningless. Staggers' spokesman told us the bill is realistic and more effective than the Brady Bill.

Our associate Scott Sleek talked to several congressional insiders who said the Staggers bill, despite its impossible demands, is being taken seriously. Many members of Congress know that the public wants something done about crime, but the lawmakers are also indebted to the NRA for big campaign contributions, and some have a large constituency of gun enthusiasts who have bought the NRA line.

That line keeps moving. Two years ago in its advertisements, the NRA said law-abiding citizens shouldn't have to get government permission to buy a gun. But, in 1976, an NRA pamphlet said that a reasonable waiting period "could help in reducing crimes of passion and in preventing people with criminal records of dangerous mental illness from acquiring guns."