When Paul Milvy talks to church groups and college audiences about the initiative on a nuclear weapons freeze that will appear on the D.C. general election ballot Nov. 2, he tries to bring the message home with a bang.

"To say that there are three tons of TNT for every man, woman and child in the world doesn't quite illustrate the magnitude of the problem," says Milvy, a biophysicist and member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, repeating the message he has given several of his audiences.

"I checked with the Pentagon about the explosive capability of the modern American hand grenade," he says, "and if the Russians hit the U.S. with all of their strategic weapons -- or vice versa -- it would be like having a grenade explode every square foot. That means a grenade in the lap of everybody seated in a movie theater or 100 grenades going off in the average American bedroom."

The audiences wince and moan, he says.

So far, there has been no announced opposition to what will appear on the ballot as Initiative No. 10, which "supports a United States-Soviet Union nuclear weapons freeze as a first step toward arms reduction, encourages redirection of resources to jobs and human needs and recognizes prevention of nuclear war as the only defense against nuclear destruction."

If passed, the initiative would authorize the mayor to appoint a nuclear weapons freeze advisory board, authorize him to lobby Congress and the president to begin immediate negotiations to implement the freeze and add the District of Columbia to a list of 276 municipalities around the country that has approved such measures.

Judging from the responses that Milvy and other advocates get on their speaking tours and broadcast appearances--a campaign that has cost roughly $38,000 so far--the weapons freeze proposal appears headed for an easy victory. But some of its supporters say that is not enough.

"What we're striving for is the largest plurality of any area voting on this referendum," said D.C. City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who is chairman of the D.C. Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze. "As residents of the nation's capital, we live at Ground Zero -- we'd be the first to go. We can't even get out of here when it rains, let alone if everybody is in a panic."

Referendums on proposals for a nuclear weapons freeze are expected to be on the November ballots in 10 states and a large number of cities, according to the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign Clearinghouse in St. Louis.

Altogether, the places holding referendums on the proposal represent 25 percent of the national population, meaning 1 of every 4 American voters will have a chance to express their opinion on a nuclear weapons freeze this fall.

"We hope to establish a citizens mandate in support of a nuclear weapons freeze," said Pam McIntyre, resource coordinator for the clearinghouse. "Hopefully, that kind of expression of concern on the part of so many citizens can be translated into registering their concern with representatives in the House and Senate."

John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said the accumulated passage of weapons freeze initiatives around the country could have a significant effect on foreign policy.

"I don't think there is any question that this kind of evidence of public concern will have an effect of making the administration take arms control more seriously," Steinbruner said.

"It is not just that this is a message from the voters," he said, "but a measure of the intensity of people's feelings about the issue. When people take the trouble to get involved, that is a sign of concern."

"Fear is the glue that has everybody coming together," said Wilson. "Americans are the kind of people who believe that if you have a car, you drive it. If you have a television, you turn it on and watch it. If you have a bomb, you drop it. You can't convince people that we're keeping all of those bombs for the fun of keeping bombs."

The campaign for Initiative No. 10 began here in January, amid nationwide discussion of a nuclear war being survivable. A petition drive, sponsored primarily by a coalition of religious groups, soon netted the 24,000 signatures required to put the measure on the ballot.

The effort has drawn the support of some of Washington's best known leftist activists from the 1960s, some of whom have since moved into powerful positions within the government.

They include Wilson, a former antidraft leader; Takoma Park Mayor Sammie Abbott, a onetime ardent opponent of freeway construction here, and D.C. City Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At-Large), who is an honorary co-chairperson for the nuclear freeze campaign and who for years has been involved in civil rights and human rights activities here.

Last week, directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments voted to endorse a freeze on the development of nuclear weapons. The 13-to-3 vote, with two abstentions, was an unusual action for the organization, which traditionally has limited itself to regional issues. Abbott was the sponsor of the COG proposal.

Other jurisdictions that have passed resolutions similar to that on the ballot here include Montgomery, Howard and Harford counties in Maryland and Loudoun and Shenandoah counties in Virginia.

Fairfax City Mayor John Russell, a COG member, voted against Abbott's proposal. "I haven't heard of any city in the Soviet Union talking about a freeze, so this thing would not be bilateral. Most people who feel as I do are hard-working and don't have time to go rabble-rousing and protesting. When the Russians go for a freeze, then come talk to me."

An unusual aspect of the campaign over the freeze initiative has been what some sponsors referred to as the "pre-war" consequences of the arms race.

"Everybody is naturally concerned about the postwar effects of a nuclear holocaust, but many people -- especially blacks -- are concerned about the tremendous consequences that the arms buildup has had on employment and inflation," said A.C. Byrd, the religious and minority coordinator for the freeze campaign.

"When there is a huge shift in monies from butter to guns, it causes chaos in the black community. We're already the last hired and first fired, so huge shifts in funds affect us disproportionately," he said.

During a talk show on radio station WHUR-FM last week, Byrd and Milvy were generally well received by listeners. But there were some skeptics, too.

"If you check out what's been happening in Poland, where madmen are in control, there should be no doubt in anybody's mind that there will be destruction," one caller said. "When madmen get into power, they can put down opposition. So what hope do we have?"

Milvy replied, "I personally feel that it is easier to lead a life believing that there will be sanity in the end. I think people sleep better knowing that they have tried."