Federal and local authorities announced a stepped-up effort in the Maryland suburbs yesterday to impose stiffer sentences on convicted felons who are caught carrying guns, partly by more strictly enforcing laws already on the books.

The program, dubbed "Project Disarm," refers repeat offenders who are charged by local police with gun crimes to the federal courts, where the punishment for firearms violations is typically more severe.

Project Disarm, which is headed by the U.S. attorney's office, began in 1994 in Baltimore. It expanded to Prince George's and Montgomery counties and counties in Southern Maryland. Since the program started, 126 previously convicted felons from the Maryland suburbs have been prosecuted for gun crimes in federal court.

Although the program is not new, an array of prosecutors and law enforcement agents pledged at a news conference at the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt to crack down on gun-toting criminals with renewed vigor.

"We want the convicted felons to know that if they carry a firearm, they will go to jail and they will stay in jail," said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia. "We've been able to identify those people with long records so they can be taken off the streets."

Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell said state statutes often don't go far enough to punish gun crimes. "Unfortunately, in the State of Maryland, illegal possession of firearms by convicted felons is a misdemeanor--just a misdemeanor--and that's wrong," he said.

Under state law, a convicted felon charged with illegal possession of a handgun would face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and could be eligible for parole. Under federal law, the same criminal could get up to life in prison without the possibility of parole, although the average sentence meted out under Project Disarm has been about seven years.

The gun-fighting campaign in Maryland is similar to a federal program in Richmond called "Project Exile," which has been credited with helping to reduce the city's homicide rate by 30 percent a year since 1997 by handing out hefty federal sentences to felons who are caught with guns.

Unlike its counterpart in Maryland, Project Exile has benefited from a six-figure advertising budget that has paid for billboards and TV and radio commercials touting the tough punishments that await repeat offenders who dare to flout the law by carrying firearms.

Maryland authorities yesterday unveiled their own modest public relations campaign, including a toll-free number--1-800-ATF-GUNS--that tipsters can call anonymously. Officials also said they would distribute posters publicizing Project Disarm in jails, probation offices, police stations and other places where crooks are likely to congregate.

"If you are a convicted felon and carry a firearm, you will go to jail, no exceptions," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler. "We need to remove these types of individuals from our community swiftly, efficiently and punish them appropriately."

Few felons from Montgomery, however, have been prosecuted under Project Disarm.

In the past three years, a total of 12 suspects arrested on gun crimes in Montgomery have been prosecuted in federal court, including eight since April, Gansler said. In comparison, Prince George's prosecutors and police have referred more than 100 convicted felons to Project Disarm.

Gansler said most crooks arrested for gun violations are prosecuted in state courts because they are usually also charged with other crimes--such as robbery or rape--that allow for hefty combined sentences under Maryland law. He said Montgomery prosecutors reserve Project Disarm for suspects with lengthy criminal records who are caught with guns but who are not facing other charges that might otherwise keep them in prison for a long time.

CAPTION: Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler promises a crackdown on armed felons.