At first blush, the tiny Bethesda neighborhood across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue and around the corner from Gucci hardly seems the sort to flex its political muscle, thumb its nose at the state and federal government and take the law into its own hands.

The 32-acre "special taxing district" called Friendship Heights is composed largely of retirees who gather at the village center for tea and cookies in the afternoon, listen to the organist and talk about their grandchildren.

But this month the Friendship Heights Village Council passed an ordinance restricting the use of handguns. Friendship Heights became the first local government in the state -- and the fourth small village in the nation -- to take such an action.

From Berkeley, Calif., to Boise, Idaho; from Surfside, Fla., to Lebanon, Maine -- and now to Friendship Heights -- small cities, towns and villages nationwide are reasserting local control on issues ranging from divestiture of South African investments to the regulation of handguns or hazardous substances.

"People are getting fed up," said Barbara Lautman, spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., a national handgun control lobby. "They don't want to wait any longer for Congress to do something."

"There's a growing level of frustration about bureaucratic inaction and the federal government's failure to address problems that concern people's everyday lives," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a national public interest group founded by Ralph Nader.

One fertile area for these grass-roots movements seems to be Montgomery County, where for years civic activism has been close to a countywide religion. Garrett Park, on the southern border of Rockville, voted to become one of the United States' first nuclear-free zones four years ago, making it illegal to transport, store, manufacture or activate nuclear weapons in the town. Takoma Park then joined 40 American towns and small cities in following suit.

Also, about 60 towns and cities across the country have passed ordinances prohibiting the spraying of certain kinds of pesticides or requiring the posting of notification signs before the pesticides are used, according to Nancy Drabble, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

The hamlet of Friendship Heights -- whose 5,000 residents live in high-rise condominium buildings and include restaurateur Mel Krupin, President Kennedy's personal secretary and many diplomatic families -- enacted its handgun ordinance May 12 after a frustrating five-year effort.

"It's time there was a grass-roots attempt to do something about what is probably the greatest threat to public health," resident Henry C. Huntley said in an impassioned speech at the council meeting this month. "The murder rate in this country is 10 times what it is in other countries."

The village's handgun vote came three weeks after Congress approved the McClure-Volkmer bill weakening the 1968 Gun Control Act, which was passed after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. "Our action was basically symbolic," said Village Council Chairman Alfred Muller. "We hope it sends a message to the federal government to strengthen handgun regulations, not weaken them."

Three Chicago suburbs, Morton Grove, Evanston and the Village of Oak Park, have passed similar laws in the past five years. Morton Grove, the first, became famous when it enacted its ban to prevent the opening of a gun store in the community.

It was Morton Grove's action that inspired Muller, who has led the Friendship Heights Village Council for the past 12 years. "There had been a few muggings here, and we were concerned about the Friendship Heights Metro opening," said Muller. "Then I saw an article about Morton Grove in the paper."

Friendship Heights first tried to pass a handgun ban in 1981, but it was told by the Montgomery County Council that state law prohibited localities from regulating handguns. The village then passed an ordinance banning bullets, but the measure was overturned by the County Council. A similar bullet-banning measure was later passed by the County Council but blocked by the state courts.

Undeterred by the size of their community, which forms a pie-shaped wedge bordered by Wisconsin and Willard avenues and the Somerset Park area, the village activists did not give up. "Little people can do big things," said Alice Bushnell, the Friendship Heights Village manager. "We thought, 'Was this silly for a little group to do? Was it a drop in the bucket?' But you have to start somewhere."

Friendship Heights boasts a history of citizen involvement that has included going to court to try to block county-backed development plans for the commercial corridor along Wisconsin Avenue and hiring a private security force to patrol the village borders.

As a special taxing district, the community uses its local income tax revenues to collect the garbage, maintain the streets and watch after the general public safety. A blue and white village shuttle bus stops at the village's trademark high-rises every half-hour to transport residents to the grocery store, shopping center or one of the two perfectly manicured parks dotted with pansies.

Friendship Heights' latest community victory bans handguns for all except law enforcement officers, members of the armed forces and people who have state permits to carry a handgun.

The village and Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs contend that the ban is legal under a state law that went into effect last July, but that view is disputed by opponents of the ban, led by the National Rifle Association. The village and Sachs believe that although the law prevents counties and municipalities from regulating handguns, rifles, shotguns, ammunition and firearms components, it allows "special taxing districts" to regulate those weapons "within 100 yards of parks, churches, schools, public buildings and other places of public assembly." Most of Friendship's village is within 100 yards of parks and public buildings.

The law provides for a fine of up to $500 for possession, purchase, sale or transport of a handgun in the village. Friendship Heights will rely on county police to enforce the measure because the village's security force is equipped mainly to deal with traffic violations.

Grass-roots handgun control efforts have not been as successful in other parts of the country. In the remote ranching town of Pinedale, Wyo., an ordinance to prohibit taking a gun into any of the town's three bars was defeated in 1984 after a powerful counterattack from the National Rifle Association