With the Maryland General Assembly considering increasing the state's mandatory prison term for illegal possession of a handgun, the story most often recounted here by opponents of gun control is about a 65-year-old Salvation Army volunteer who, because she worked in a tough neighborhood of Boston, packed a loaded pistol in a paper bag underneath her prayer leaflets.

One day she dropped the gun at a police officer's feet, and he arrested her. Under Massachusetts' strict gun law, she faced a mandatory one-year jail term for illegal possession of a firearm.

To placate fears about netting law-abiding citizens, sponsors of the bill to stiffen Maryland's mandatory handgun penalty have included an "escape clause" to give judges some leeway.

The bill, introduced by Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore) and Del. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), would increase the current three-month penalty to one year, but allow judges to impose a lighter sentence if they explained their decision in writing. With the escape clause, the bill has received the strong backing of Gov. Harry Hughes and the legislative leadership.

The Massachusetts law, considered the toughest in the country, has no such "escape clause," but gun laws in New York and Connecticut allow judges some choice in sentencing.

With violent crime on the rise, Maryland legislators feel an increasing need to approve harsher penalties, an attitude bolstered by a recent poll that found two of three state residents favoring a one-year mandatory sentence for unlawful possession of handguns.

But at the same time, the rising crime rate has sent many law-abiding citizens scrambling to arms, often spurred on by the urgings of public officials such as Baltimore State's Attorney William A. Swisher, who recommended that residents shoot first and ask questions later.

And repeated stories of frightened Americans taking up arms against criminals, such as the Baltimore cabbie who a week ago Sunday shot and killed two would-be-robber passengers, have posed an election-year dilemma for lawmakers.

House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin said "there are those legislators who would probably tell you off-the-record that the laws we have now are tough enough. But there's attention on the criminal justice system this year."

Hollinger, who has pushed for a stiffer handgun sentence during three legislative sessions, recalls that the first time she introduced the one-year jail term without the escape clause "it got three votes" out of 24 on the judiciary committee. Last year, with the escape clause, the same bill received eight votes. This year, the bill already has passed Curran's Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and House Speaker Cardin predicts it will pass in the House.

The escape clause underscores the political reality of trying to push a mandatory-sentence bill through a General Assembly that has traditionally rejected binding penalties.

"That's the only way it will pass," said Del. Joseph E. Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a self-described "non-believer" in mandatory penalties. "It the escape clause recognizes that mandatory sentences are not the route."

Del. Ann Perkins (D-Baltimore) said that with the escape clause, the legislation is "almost a hoax . . . . We're bending to the fact that a lot of people out there are carrying guns who shouldn't, just because they're scared."

Even so, the bill has become the centerpiece of Hughes' package of tough crime legislation. It has also become a national priority for gun control groups such as the National Coalition to Ban Handguns and Handgun Control Inc., which see in Maryland the potential for a major, if only symbolic, victory to bolster other gun control efforts across the country.

"If Maryland passes the handgun penalty bill, it will be a symbol for small towns across the country," said Charles Orasin, executive vice-president of Handgun Control, Inc.

But even in this anti-crime year, the gun bill's fate is far from certain. The National Rifle Association has set the bill in its sights. And the bill's Senate opponents have managed to delay a floor vote on the measure until Tuesday, hoping that the opposition will mount. "A delay here means another nail in the coffin," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), a supporter and member of the Senate panel that approved it.

The NRA, a powerful gun-owners advocacy group, has launched a full-scale lobbying effort here, including an "NRA Alert" newsletter to its members that prompted a blitz of letters and phone calls to legislators. The NRA has suffered a series of recent setbacks as crime-weary local officials have adopted handgun penalty laws.

Like their gun-control adversaries, the NRA has been bolstered by the rising crime rate. The traditionally rural-based gun lobby of hunters and sportsmen has found an important new constituency among frightened urban dwellers who have taken up arms. "These people fear for their lives," said NRA spokesman John Adkins. "They fear the streets."

That group of scared and well-armed Americans has provided the NRA with a potentially pivotal new base of support as it wages handgun control fights coast to coast. In California, gun control advocates are pushing a citizen's initiative requiring gun registration for the November ballot. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne wants to freeze the number of handguns in that city and require registration for the guns already there. Another registration bill is before the Ohio legislature.

To combat these gun control efforts, and to improve their own image, the NRA late last year launched a $1 million advertising campaign, including television commercials showing a young boy unwrapping his first rifle under the Christmas tree. Also, an "I'm the NRA" ad series in national magazines features an astronaut, an 8-year-old boy with his first BB gun and a 16-year-old girl on the junior Olympics shooting team, among others.

"We are getting quite a response now from urban people," Adkins said. "Part of that response is in the face of rising crime. Possibly, out of a sense of frustration, they are turning to the NRA." He added, "The ads were not intended to prey upon this situation."

The effort in Maryland began with a Feb. 11 two-page leaflet mailed to NRA members, warning that "Gov. Hughes, the media, and key legislative leaders have formed an alliance to bring 'Massachusetts style' restrictive 'gun control' to the state of Maryland."

Without mentioning the "escape clause," the newsletter warns that "for every person convicted under the proposed law, the prison system will have to release a felon convicted for more serious crimes . . . ."

The gun lobby also has targeted several other anti-crime bills this year, including a bill to allow localities such as Friendship Heights to adopt their own gun control ordinances, and another bill to require individuals to report to police whenever they sell a handgun privately.

The NRA, which claims 40,000 Maryland members, also plans to "use our resources" to get involved in the upcoming election campaigns, according to NRA lobbyist David Marshall, a former Maine legislator who was President Reagan's 1980 Maine campaign coordinator.