When the petition drive started this summer, no one thought it would emerge as a money-where-your-mouth-is challenge to Takoma Park's impeccable liberal credentials. Today no one doubts it has become just that.

A push to ban handguns within Takoma Park is pitting some left-wing residents against their more pragmatic elected leaders, who worry about entangling the small, idealistic enclave in an expensive lawsuit with gun users. Organizers of the petition drive say it's time for the city to put principle ahead of pocketbook.

"Someone in the group said this was a struggle for the soul of Takoma Park," said John Guernsey, an artist and piano player who has lived in the city for 20 years. "If a town like Takoma Park isn't going to do this, who is?"

Fed up with the "out-of-controlness" of gun violence, Guernsey and 25 compatriots have collected enough signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot that would ban the sale, ownership and possession of handguns within city limits.

A Takoma Park ban would be similar to one that's been in place in the District since 1976, but it would be unique in Maryland. Maryland law prohibits cities and counties from regulating guns without state consent, and no community has managed to ban handguns.

Friendship Heights once attempted to ban ammunition to get around state oversight but was deemed out of order by the Maryland attorney general. Supporters of a ban in Takoma Park hope to take advantage of a provision in state law that allows localities to adopt gun regulations that protect minors.

The Takoma Park City Council will meet tonight in search of a compromise that would head off a tussle over state law. But the debate has highlighted a phenomenon increasingly common in Washington's Maryland suburbs: Liberals find local governments are becoming less friendly to causes that threaten the treasury.

This summer, the Montgomery County Council rejected a proposal to more than double the minimum wage for members of the county's growing working-poor population because it could have harmed economic development. In May, the Prince George's County Council reversed itself on a pro-labor measure that would have made it more difficult to hire outside companies to do county jobs.

Now the Takoma Park City Council may turn to the courts to block the ballot measure to ban handguns. In a city where non-U.S. citizens are allowed to vote, the move has stunned some longtime residents who have arranged for an attorney to take their case pro bono to ensure that the question makes it onto the ballot.

"This is a more cautious, conservative council than we had a decade or so ago, but that is a sign of our times," said Betsy Taylor, a 12-year Takoma Park resident and member of Citizens Against Hand Guns, as the petitioners are known. "We're willing to cut new ground here to challenge the dominance of the gun industry. If they are backing off of a principled fight with the gun lobby, I have a problem with that."

Takoma Park's recent history has shorn the council of its woolly edges. A few years ago, the city lost a costly legal battle over its law banning cigarette vending machines, a showdown officials are loath to repeat. City leaders say the handgun ban not only would be impossible to enforce but also could attract a lawsuit from the deep-pocketed National Rifle Association that would dent the small city treasury.

"We're in a very difficult position," said Mayor Kathy Porter (D), who is seeking a second term in November. "The threat of an NRA lawsuit is certainly a concern. I hope it doesn't get to that, because I don't relish spending taxpayers' money on a lost cause."

Windmill tilting has been a pastime for decades in Takoma Park, population 18,600. The original band leader was the late mayor Sammie Abbott, whose liberal passions perfectly reflected his constituency. It is his legacy, some say, haunting the handgun-ban debate.

City residents got their first taste of how expensive idealism can be in the late 1980s, a few years after the nuclear-free rules took effect. That resolution prohibited Takoma Park from patronizing firms with ties to the nuclear industry.

In 1987, when the city's small police force was pricing a fleet of new patrol cars, General Motors Corp. appeared on the banned list because of military work done by a subsidiary. One leading alternative? Nuclear-pure--if expensive--Volvo sedans.

Facing public outcry, city officials found a "non-nuclear" Chrysler patrol car to fit the bill. But the problem would repeat itself when Takoma Park had to outfit the fleet with radios. Motorola Inc., it turned out, was also taboo.

"The economics came crashing home," said David Eisner, owner of the House of Musical Traditions since 1972.

Eisner embodies Takoma Park's clashing commercial and liberal currents. He signed the handgun-ban petition but would not display it in his store. Some customers travel from rural areas for zithers--a harplike folk instrument--and may have different views concerning the right to bear arms.

"Many people think of Takoma Park as a bunch of daffy left-wing bleeding heart liberal types," said Eisner, a self-described lefty. "But [our] heads are screwed on firmly. We're not the richest city in the world. Could we financially withstand a suit by a major [group] that wants to use us as a test case?"

The petition drive to ban handguns started door-to-door along Takoma Park's lovely leafy streets, where gun violence is rare. Four people have been killed by handguns in the city since 1995; 10 homicides are attributed to firearms of all kinds this decade.

The campaign moved into the organic food co-op, farmers market and neighborhood video store to enlist customers in the cause, eventually collecting more than 2,400 signatures. Guernsey's inspiration for the campaign was partly personal: His friend's 22-year-old son killed himself with a handgun in the spring.

The measure would qualify for the November ballot unless city officials can persuade a court to block the measure. Because a valid petition has been submitted, state law prohibits Guernsey from withdrawing it.

"The NRA will sue, and we want that, too," Guernsey said. "I think a majority of Takoma Parkers would like to use their tax dollars to stand up to the NRA."

Even the most staunch gun-control advocates say Takoma Park would trample on a 14-year-old state law prohibiting jurisdictions from regulating firearms if voters passed the measure. Other towns across the country have adopted gun regulations, but only in states that do not proscribe them from doing so.

"They've got a problem," Brian Morton, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., said of the Takoma Park petitioners. "They really need to go to Annapolis, and given the climate in Maryland, they may be able to get it lifted."

Guernsey disagrees.

"I've been told we're acting irresponsibly, but I resent that," he said. "The NRA knows how to get things done. They spend money and get right to the heart of it. But we liberals just sit around bickering."

CAPTION: John Guernsey led the petition drive in Takoma Park. Next to him are maps showing where he and others canvassed.