In a unanimous opinion, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that Montgomery County's 1983 law restricting the sale of handgun ammunition to owners of registered weapons is "invalid."

The appellate court's decision Wednesday upheld an October 1983 ruling by Circuit Court Judge William C. Miller that such legislation is the responsibility of the General Assembly and that the County Council exceeded its power in attempting such legislation.

Although the state's 1972 gun law prohibits the passage of local laws affecting firearms sales, the county had argued that ammunition was a separate issue. Judge John C. Eldridge, author of the appellate opinion, wrote that "it makes little sense to suggest that the General Assembly was not concerned with regulating guns loaded with ammunition."

In Maryland, purchasers of guns at sporting goods stores are required to obtain the approval of state police. Guns are not registered, however, and resale by private owners requires no paperwork or notification. Purchasers of ammunition are required only to show proof that they are at least 21 years old.

The Montgomery County law was designed to encourage owners of handguns to register them voluntarily. Council member David Scull, who as the chief proponent on the council for the law, said it "would have encouraged the owners of 200,000 unregistered guns in the county to register them with police. It would have made the county a safer place."

But Steve Schneider, a partner in Atlantic Guns Inc. and one of the four individuals who filed the Circuit Court suit against the law, called Scull's statement "an absolute joke."

"The law went into effect for one month" before the hearing, according to Schneider, "and we lost a good percentage of our sales from people going into another county to buy ammunition."