ANNAPOLIS -- Fred Griisser says it just isn't so.

His decision to challenge Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary isn't sour grapes. It has nothing to do with Schaefer's support of a handgun control law that Griisser and the National Rifle Association spent $6 million attempting to repeal in 1988.

Griisser and his lieutenant governor running mate have for years been leaders of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, but they aren't going to make gun control an issue in the governor's race. And he hasn't asked the NRA for help.

"A lot of people thought it would be a vendetta-type, gun-type race, which it isn't," said Griisser, 36. "I knew the NRA was not going to help me. Politically, they would be foolish to get involved."

Despite his assertions, critics contend that, for Griisser, the governor's race this year is a low-budget sequel to the 1988 referendum campaign he lost as chairman of the Maryland Committee Against the Gun Ban.

"He got beat badly at the ballot box and he's mad about it," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who helped lead the fight for the handgun law in the General Assembly. "It's a protest movement, not a legitimate political candidacy. These people are ideologically fixated. The gun issue is their North Star."

Even if Griisser wanted to replay the gun referendum, there are some sympathizers who remain dubious about the effectiveness of the issue this year.

Del. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester), who last week got the NRA's endorsement in his congressional race, said that even the pro-gun coalition that existed two years ago couldn't be activated in a Democratic primary.

"There is some anti-Schaefer sentiment on the Eastern Shore directed at Schaefer spending too much money," Colburn said, "but there's not sentiment against the governor on {the gun} issue. And even if he might do well on the Eastern Shore, he'd still lose."

In some ways, Griisser fits a pattern this year. He finds himself in much the situation of many abortion-rights candidates for the legislature: Perceived widely as subliminal one-issue politicians, they insist on fighting against the perception all the harder. So in his campaign, Griisser emphasizes such issues as taxes and crime.

What is certain for Griisser, an Anne Arundel County real estate agent, is that 1988 was a defining event in his political life. To that point, Griisser said, his political activism was limited to writing letters to his representatives.

That year, with drug-related shootings on the rise in Maryland cities, the legislature approved a bill designed to control the sale or manufacture of some cheap handguns, often called Saturday night specials. The pro-gun lobby attacked the bill as an infringement on the right to keep and bear arms, warning that it could lead to a ban on all weapons in private hands. As head of the Rifle and Pistol Association, Griisser formed the Committee Against the Gun Ban and collected enough signatures to petition the law to a statewide referendum.

The gun law campaign pitted most of the state's political leadership, including Schaefer, against the money and organizing prowess of the NRA, as wielded by Griisser and his current running mate, Sanford M. Abrams, of Silver Spring.

"It got Sandy and I very activated," Griisser said. "It showed us we could talk on television and debate with legislators and even the attorney general. I'm a super negotiator."

At the time, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D), who supported the gun law, described Griisser as a "very decent chap."

But the campaign also left Griisser bitter and contemptuous. "There's no such thing in politics as lies and truths," he said in an interview. "There are only opinions."

At the height of the campaign, allegations arose that the Committee Against the Gun Ban was paying "walk-around money" to inner-city ward leaders in Baltimore. As part of an investigation into the accusations, police entered the committee's Baltimore headquarters in search of records.

"The other side pulled . . . that commando-style, Gestapo raid on my campaign headquarters," Griisser said. "They orchestrated it, and it worked to destroy the network we set up in Baltimore. It even scared people away from voting."

Griisser denies inappropriate spending in the campaign and adds that he personally took "not a penny of the $6 million."

In the end, the gun law was upheld by a margin of more than 264,000 votes out of 1.6 million cast in Maryland. After conceding defeat that Nov. 8 evening, Griisser said only, "I'm going to abide by the law."

Since then, Griisser's organization has toyed with the idea of boycotting businesses that contributed to the campaign in favor of the gun law and pushed without success in the 1990 General Assembly session for a state constitutional provision guaranteeing the right to keep and bear arms.

Now, during his gubernatorial campaign, Griisser says he sees no need to repeal the gun control law. "How many guns have been banned? None. Maybe one or two," he said. Actually, the state Handgun Roster Board, which approves guns, has authorized 1,100 while banning 16 weapons for sale in Maryland.

Griisser, though reiterating that guns are not an issue in his gubernatorial campaign, acknowledges that his small network of support is left over from the past organizing effort. In addition, much of the approximately $7,000 he has raised in campaign contributions has come from sportsmen's clubs, he said.

"They know I'll be committed to more places to shoot," he said. "I'm just as committed to getting food assistance and medical care."

As for his chances, Griisser hopes that voters will consider him as an option to Schaefer in the Sept. 11 primary.

"Even though I may not be the one to beat him, we wanted to say to people, 'Here's an alternative,' " Griisser said. "Fred Griisser and his no-money campaign is no threat to the most powerful politician Maryland ever made. Nobody else had the guts to run against William Donald Schaefer."