RICHMOND, AUG. 31 -- Despite an emotionally powerful appeal by the wife of wounded presidential press secretary James S. Brady, key Virginia legislators said today the next General Assembly will probably reject any attempts to toughen the state's handgun control laws.

"I don't anticipate any major initiatives" on gun control being passed by the assembly's 1988 session, said Del. Clifton A. Woodrum (D-Roanoke), the chairman of a subcommittee of the State Crime Commission that has been studying proposals for stricter gun statutes since June.

Woodrum's comments, made during a break in a five-hour public hearing here that drew a handful of gun enthusiasts and an equally small number of firearm control advocates, were echoed by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), one of the legislature's more ardent supporters of tougher gun laws.

"I don't realistically expect very much of anything," Stambaugh said, adding to his statement by way of explanation: "This is the Virginia General Assembly."

Stambaugh and Woodrum noted that the legislature's longstanding hostility to stringent gun control proposals cropped up again during the most recent session, when the state Senate and House of Delegates passed a measure barring localities from adopting gun control ordinances unless specifically authorized by the General Assembly.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles signed the measure into law, but at the same time asked the crime commission to study the implications of new armor-piercing ammunition, plastic firearms and other "related threats" to police and the public.

At Stambaugh's insistence, the Woodrum committee broadened its study to include mandatory waiting periods to perform background checks on prospective gun buyers before sales could become final.

Today, though, more than a month before the committee is to report to the full crime commission, Stambaugh said he held no hope for passage of such legislation.

Committee members did say they expect the assembly to take some action restricting the availability of "ballistic" knives, spring-fired blades that some law enforcement officials say pose a particular threat because of their accuracy and easy concealment.

Sarah Brady, whose husband was shot through the head in the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life, sent Woodrum's committee six pages of written testimony calling for an array of restrictions on handgun and ammunition sales.

"Unfortunately, Virginia takes fewer precautions on handgun sales than it does issuing driver's licenses," Brady said in the statement, which was presented by a member of Handgun Control Inc. Brady, the group's vice chairman, was in Illinois today with her husband.

"Virginia," she added, "is considered a gunrunner's haven by law enforcement authorities . . . . I ask that you take a step that will finally begin to make it possibile to keep handguns out of the wrong hands."

Presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr. obtained the gun he used in the incident at a Dallas pawnshop.

Spokesmen for the National Rifle Association and other groups said a mandatory waiting period would create a bureaucratic nightmare and would be a back-door form of gun registration.