The Maryland Senate today gave final approval to a substantially weaker version of Gov. Harry Hughes' strict handgun penalty bill, sending one of the year's most volatile political issues to an uncertain fate in the House of Delegates.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to a proposal to raise the state's gasoline tax by 4.5 cents over the next two years, after supporters managed to stave off several amendments to kill the controversial election-year tax. "We beat off all the amendments," said Senate President James Clark Jr. The gasoline tax comes up for a final vote on Thursday.

The handgun bill passed by a 28-to-16 vote, after its sponsor, Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore), argued that failure to approve it would be "a signal to encourage gun ownership."

The bill, which includes a hastily added "self defense" loophole, was attacked by gun control opponents, who said it would punish law-abiding citizens who carry guns out of fear. Sen. Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester) said, "I think this bill is to punish the innocent."

The bill calls for a one-year jail sentence for anyone convicted of unlawfully carrying a loaded handgun in public. But because of fears of snaring normally law-abiding citizens who have taken up arms against criminals, Gov. Hughes and Curran included a clause allowing judges to impose a lighter sentence if they explain that decision in writing.

Last week, Senate opponents of gun control further weakened the bill by adding amendments to let judges consider self-defense as a factor and to allow judges to explain lighter sentences orally. Both amendments were part of the measure passed Tuesday.