Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s call for a ban on handguns is "unrealistic" but could help the governor's push to mandate "smart guns" by making that proposal appear more moderate.

Curran (D) has proposed an eventual prohibition on handgun ownership by nearly everyone except law enforcement officials, some people who shoot for sport and some who need personal protection. Recognizing such a ban would require a long political struggle, Curran said state lawmakers should take the interim step of adopting a series of new gun restrictions, such as Glendening's plan to require technology on new guns that prevents them from being fired by anyone but their owner.

Gun control opponents have been outraged by Curran's call for a handgun ban, and Glendening (D) said the controversy could actually help his efforts.

"By comparison, my bill now tends to be more centrist and moderate," he said in an interview. "All we're saying is make the guns safe."

Until Tuesday, when Curran announced his plans to reporters, Glendening's call for smart guns had been the most aggressive gun control push in Maryland in several years. Curran's announcement escalated the drive even as Glendening called it a "non-starter."

"It's unrealistic and unpassable," he said.

Curran acknowledged it would take years to win approval for handgun restrictions and said that is why he favored interim steps such as Glendening's proposal as well as other changes in gun laws he would push for in the next General Assembly session. "But," he said in an interview, "I also say, what's the goal? Now's the time to put the brakes on."

Curran's proposal for an eventual handgun ban is a much tougher stance than many gun control groups advocate. Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and the national organization, Handgun Control Inc., have not urged a ban, for instance.

Gun control opponents, meanwhile, said they were suspicious of Curran's motive and questioned whether the attorney general was engaged in some contrived maneuvering.

"Maybe they're going to ask for a mile and settle for an inch," said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson (R-Carroll), who sits on the Maryland Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, which considers gun legislation.

Curran and Glendening said there had been no coordination between them. Curran spoke to the governor about the proposal for the first time Tuesday afternoon, and Glendening said he supports many of the attorney general's other proposals, such as expanding the background checks done on people purchasing guns.

The governor, however, said he would focus his lobbying efforts on his smart guns proposal because he deemed it more likely to pass the legislature than Curran's package.

"There are responsible gun owners out there," Glendening said. But "the more extremists have a conspiracy mentality."

Ferguson, a longtime gun control opponent, said he planned to fight any restrictions, declaring that any attempt at a ban would "run into a buzz saw." He called Glendening's smart gun bill "a dead issue."

Virtually all gunmakers, except Colt's Manufacturing Co., have said the technology is not yet possible to make handguns that either read a fingerprint or use another device to allow only their owners to fire them.

"We continue to believe the governor's position is unrealistic," said John Stierhoff, a lobbyist for Beretta U.S.A., Maryland's only major gun manufacturer. "The technology is not available for production at this time."

Curran has yet to detail exactly who would be eligible to own a handgun under his proposed ban, saying only that "individuals with a professional need to have a gun--law enforcement officers, gun collectors, some business owners and certain other professional groups--will continue to keep handguns on business premises or for use on the job."

But some opponents said talk of a handgun ban could reenergize a potent gun lobby to fight any new laws restricting gun ownership.

"It awakens a sleeping giant," said John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, which he said has 4,500 members. "We tend to lay back and not bother anybody. But attack us, and expect to get a response from us. My phone has been ringing all morning."

Ferguson said that Curran's move has prompted him to push in the other direction. He said he will seek legislation in the next session to make it easier for people to get concealed weapons permits; there was a hearing on a House version of the bill yesterday. He also supports a bill preventing municipalities from suing gunmakers as nearly 20 cities and counties across the nation have to recoup the costs of treating gunshot victims. Curran has said he wants legislation to make it easier to sue.

Curran is "going to put in his bill. I'm going to put in mine," Ferguson said. "He moves his bishop, and I move mine. It's a chess match."

CAPTION: Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. wants the state to ban most handgun ownership. The governor's plan would require technology allowing only owners to fire their guns.