WITH IMPRESSIVE STRENGTH and matching good sense, the state senate of Maryland has responded positively to grass-roots pleas for an assault on a deadly weapon--the handgun. If similar concern for public safety prevails in the house of delegates, a year in prison will be a sure thing for those caught toting a handgun for no good reason and without a permit. And-- hold it right there--this measure, approved 28 to 16, would not threaten any on-premises carrying of those dresser-drawer or under-the-counter handguns that some people like to believe will go off only against enemies and not friends, relatives or other innocent victims.

Excepted, too, is anyone carrying an unloaded handgun in a holster to a target practice, gun show, repair shop or certain other missions spelled out in the bill. In addition, the prison sentence can be avoided if a judge decides that imposition would be "unduly harsh" or finds that someone "was acting in self-defense." With proper judicial discretion, this would not excuse anyone who decides to roam the streets with a loaded pistol and a flimsy excuse of "just in case."

The purpose is not to make life scary or oppressive for the majority of handgun purchasers cited in a letter to the editor today from Martin D. Walther. But just as certain conditions are attached to the operation of another deadly weapon, the automobile, which most motorists do not purchase or use to kill anyone, crime control does call for handgun control. And if this modest, reasonable policy can save one human life (187 were ended by handgun- wielders in Maryland in 1980), every law-abiding citizen of the state should welcome the result and appreciate the protection. Members of the house of delegates who sense the popular demand for freedom from handgun dangers and for safer streets can respond effectively right now, by voting in the house judiciary committee and then on the floor to put this proposal on the books.