IT MAY TAKE a while for America's lawmakers to catch up with their constituents' mounting pleas for more safety and sanity across this land, but more and more people all around the country are demanding their freedom from handguns--and defending their right to ban arms in their midst. You might call it the Spirit of Morton Grove-- named not for some hero of folklore, but for a Chicago suburb, where the people have acted to ban all handguns except those used by police, military personnel, collectors and gun clubs. And the spirit is catching.

In varied forms, measures to protect citizens from the dangers of handguns are gaining attention and legislative consideration in many cities, towns and states, including Maryland, where every year some 30,000 handguns are purchased and where, in 1980, 187 of 399 murder victims were killed by handguns. Clearly, the message has been heard in Annapolis; the danger there is that legislators may still fall for the arguments (and contributions) of the National Rifle--read Handgun--Association that everyone should be free to mill about loaded, armed with handguns and a faulty sense of security in the name of "self-defense."

The original legislation in Maryland this year, supported by Gov. Harry Hughes, called for one year in jail for anyone caught carrying an unregistered, loaded handgun in public. To allow some discretion in cases where law-abiding citizens might be involved in actual life-or-death confrontations, state senate sponsors agreed to a provision allowing judges to impose lighter sentences if they explain in writing the reason for their decisions.

But when the bill reached the senate floor, handgun pushers--along with those citizens frightened into thinking that handguns in their hands will help ward off crime--managed to create a loophole: a provision exempting people who claim "self-defense."

Judicial discretion is one thing, but to allow a flimsy excuse to ruin a strong stand against the loaded handgun in society is not a responsible legislative stand. If the Maryland legislators are serious about making the state safer for its citizens, they will join the campaigns elsewhere--from Morton Grove to Chicago to San Francisco, East St. Louis, Ill., Houston, Dade and Broward counties in Florida, Santa Monica and Alhambra, Calif., the state of Massachusetts--in enacting effective controls.

In Maryland, the village of Friendship Heights did follow the lead of Morton Grove last year, passing a bill banning handguns. But it was thwarted by a state law that reserves all gun regulation for the state legislature. Now State Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) has introduced a bill that would enable localities to enact their own gun controls; Baltimore could proceed to do so, for example, while other parts of the state might choose not to.

The handgun threat to public safety is nationwide--and, ideally, that is how Americans should best respond against the arsenal of concealable weapons stored, carried or fired in the United States. But until state and federal lawmakers listen more carefully to the grass roots, the localities deserve the opportunity to take the matter in hand.