HANDGUN-HAPPY Marylanders--as opposed to the majority of residents who in poll after poll have supported controls--should be appropriately chagrined to learn that Gov. Harry Hughes is ready to get tough: he is expected to sponsor legislation that would impose a mandatory one-year prison term for almost anyone caught carrying a handgun without a permit. Since all rational, law- abiding citizens must be at least uncomfortable in the knowledge that too many others in their midst are walking around armed, the proposal should enjoy strong--and better yet, vocal--support when it comes before the state legislature.

The idea is not original, just effective: Massachusetts has such a law on its books, and it has cut down the number of gun assaults and deaths. For Maryland, Gov. Hughes is looking at similar language, with perhaps one change patterned after an "escape clause" contained in a less severe New York statute; it would give prosecutors and judges sufficient leeway to waive the prison-term penalty if there are extenuating circumstances.

Such a clause, kept narrow enough, could avoid the mandatory imprisonment of an out-of-state visitor carrying a gun without a permit--if it is the first offense. But for everyone else, the legal word could be loud and clear that anyone taking to the streets with a gun and no permit for it is risking a year in prison.

As one longtime sponsor of such a bill, Del. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), has noted, support for such a proposal is not limited to any ideological, political or other group. Getting tough on handguns, as she says, "appeals to liberals and conservatives, whites and blacks." Presumably, members of these groups do have in common some respect and concern for their lives. State Sen. J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D-Baltimore), another backer of the proposal in past years, points out that the legislation is gaining support because it is an obvious way to "immediately target the street criminal."

No single state can hope to erase the terrible threat of handguns in this country, nor even to stem the traffic in these concealable killer-weapons. But today in Maryland--where every year, some 30,000 handguns are purchased--the urgency of making the streets safer is beyond question, and the complete and vigorous support of Gov. Hughes for a crackdown should be greeted with enormous relief and public approval.