If U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.) had not served as an Army captain in Iraq, the Bucks County congressman might be suspected of running scared as he faces a spirited challenge for reelection.

It sure looked that way yesterday, when Murphy voted with the National Rifle Association - and against the best interests of cities in his own backyard trying to stem gun violence, including Philadelphia.

Murphy was among 85 House Democrats who joined 181 Republicans in approving a bill that would roll back gun-safety measures enacted by the District of Columbia, after the Supreme Court struck down the city's 32-year-old handgun ban in June.

The legislation would undo gun- registration and trigger-lock requirements, as well as a ban on semiautomatic weapons. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said the measure would "endanger public safety in a city that is already a target for terrorists," permit "dangerous people to stockpile dangerous weapons," and hamstring local officials in combating gun violence.

Take that approach nationwide, and it would become easier to buy and own firearms in already dangerous urban areas. That makes no sense, and it's certainly an odd place for Murphy to be.

As CeaseFirePA President Phil Goldsmith noted in an open letter, Murphy is viewed as "a supporter of reasonable, common-sense handgun safety reforms." What's more, his district - even with its slice of Northeast Philadelphia - trends progressive. Hardly NRA country.

Aides insist the congressman hasn't changed his stripes. He still favors a ban on assault weapons and supports "reasonable gun laws." The District of Columbia vote was about "striking the proper balance between constitutional rights and reasonable restrictions."

But it's hard to see the gun vote as anything but political gamesmanship. With a Republican challenger who's trying to score points about Murphy's commonsense view that the United States needs to extract itself from Iraq, Murphy's vote on the gun bill deprives his GOP opponent - retired Marine Col. Tom Manion - of another issue.

Is there a political price to be paid in his Bucks County district for pandering to the NRA? Murphy will get the answer from voters on Nov. 4.

Meanwhile, Murphy might spend some time talking to Mayor Nutter and other mayors from around this region who this week vowed to enact their own local gun laws in defiance of likely NRA legal challenges. The congressman would learn that these local elected officials - just like city officials in Washington - don't have the luxury of giving lip service to gun control.

That won't stop the killing.