The Arlington County Board will begin considering a measure tonight that would allow the county to do what the Virginia legislature consistently has refused to do: require handgun registration.

"I've been a little tired of seeing Arlington policemen killed in action and little kids blowing their heads off," said board member Joseph S. Wholey, who has made enactment of the proposal one of his top priorities before leaving office later this year.

But whether Wholey's commitment will be enough to win passage of the measure remains to be seen. Both Wholey and Commonwealth's Attorney William S. Burroughs Jr., who drafted the measure, concede it is highly controversial and likely to provoke strong debate in the county.

"Guns are much more harmful to nonsmokers than are cigarette smokers," Wholey said. "We had a big furor over whether somebody can smoke a cigarette in a supermarket and I want a big furor over whether somebody can carry a gun in a supermarket."

The board, after heated debate last month, banned cigarette smoking in public places such as supermarkets.

Burroughs has said the ordinauce would "effectively" result in registation of "all handguns with the police," making the proposal certain to provoke local gun clubs and lobbyists. Just the suggestion that the county might consider a gun control ordinance was enough last year to generate 50 letters to the board, only one of which supported the concept of gun controls.

The Burroughs measure goes well beyond the requirements of Virginia law which place few controls on handguns. Under the proposal a police permit would be required in Arlington for either the purchase or possession of a handgun.

Lighter, less sophisticated "concealable" hanguns such as the so-called "Saturday Night Specials," could be owned only with a permit from the local circuit court and the chief of police, under the proposal.

Legislation that would have imposed restrictions on handgun sales and manufacture in the state twice has been offered in the General Assembly by state Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington), but has never been able to get out of committee.

Although the Arlington board is generally regarded as more liberal than the legislature, three of the five county board members have expressed doubts about the gun measure. "I remain to be convinced that we can do anything significant locally," said John Purdy, the board chairman, in an interview.

Board members Walter Frankland Jr. and Ellen Bozman both expressed reservations about the proposal. "I lean toward asking many questions as to the real need for any more legislation," Frankand said.

"If we had a regional ordinance we might get somewhere," Purdy said. But no one in Northern Virginia at least, is talking about the need for regional gun control measures, he said.

Representatives of area gun groups said they were surprised that the Burroughs proposal was being placed before the board. "It's not going to stop the criminal element. It never has and it won't in Arlington," said Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, a conservative lobbying group based in Alexandria.

Wholey, however, argues that if Arlington acts first, its action might spur other localities. "Obviously localities cannot make huge inroads on the field of gun control," he said. "But it's very important that each level of government do what it can."

There are no state laws in Virginia governing handgun sales, according to Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr! Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax County require a police permit for such sales in those localities.

The District passed a law in 1976 requiring registration of all handguns in Washington and placing a limit on the number of handguns allowed in the city. Only persons who had registered their handguns before the effective date are allowed guns under District law.

District police and ohters have argued that Virginia, because of its lack of handgun laws, is a source of many of the guns used by criminals in the city. Maryland law requires individuals to obtain police permits to carry hanguns.

The Arlington board agreed to consider the measure last summer after policeman John W. Buckley was shot and killed during a bank robbery. The draft of the proposal was not completed until December.

At tonight's meeting, the board is expected to consider what parts of Burrough's proposal, if any, it is interested in implemeting, Wholey said. Those portions of the measure will be submitted to a public hearing before the board votes on the proposal, he said.