Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes today accused the National Rifle Association of spreading misinformation in an attempt to muster opposition to a handgun measure the governor supports.

Hughes opened his weekly press conference with a defense of the bill, which would increase the penalty for carrying a handgun illegally. He also said he supports in principle the idea of local communities such as Friendship Heights enacting their own handgun control legislation.

In a letter to Neal Knox, executive director of the National Rifle Association's legislative lobbying arm, Hughes said a recent "NRA Alert" newsletter to the organization's members "contains several misstatements of fact" and "does violence to the legitimate legislative process."

The two-page newsletter accuses Hughes, the media and key legislators of forming "an alliance to bring 'Massachusetts style' restrictive 'gun control' to the state of Maryland." It warns NRA members that anyone "convicted of carrying a handgun without a permit" would be subject to a mandatory one-year jail sentence as is the case in Massachusetts.

Hughes said today the bill he supports would not change the current law about who can legally carry a handgun, but would only increase the current three-month penalty to one year for those caught illegally carrying an unregistered, loaded handgun in public.

The bill originally contained a provision that would permit judges to impose sentences of less than a year if they explained their decisions. Yesterday, anti-gun control forces in the state Senate broadened that provision by adding an amendment that would allow judges to consider "self defense" as a mitigating circumstance when sentencing handgun violators.

Hughes said the NRA letter had prompted a flood of letters to legislators from constituents. "It's obviously an attempt to defeat the bill through misinformation," he said. "I can't believe that they misunderstood the bill."

Current law makes it illegal for anyone except law enforcement officials, businessmen traveling to and from their businesses, target shooters, trappers, dog trainers and gun collectors to carry loaded handguns in public.

Hughes said he has not decided whether to actively oppose the "self defense" loophole, which the bill's sponsor, Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore), said yesterday would make the bill weaker than the present law. Curran said the amendment would send a message to citizens that they will not be prosecuted for taking up arms against criminals, and he promised to try to defeat the amendment in the House of Delegates.

Officials from Rockville and Friendship Heights came to Curran's Judicial Proceedings Committee today to urge lawmakers to permit them to adopt local gun control laws.

Friendship Heights, following the lead of Morton's Grove, Ill., last year passed a bill banning handguns--later amended to ban bullets only--but the measure was thwarted by a state law that reserves all gun regulation for the state legislature. A bill introduced by Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) would enable localities to enact their own gun controls.

J. Elliott Corbett, a spokesman for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, told the committee that giving power to localities would resolve the traditional rural/urban factionalism that has stymied past state gun control efforts. Corbett argued that Baltimore, with its high crime rate and proliferation of guns, should be allowed to ban guns if it chooses, while the communities of Western Maryland, where crime is low and hunting is popular, should be allowed to reject gun control.

Opponents of the measure argue that it would create chaos, with myriad local gun control ordinances.