NOW SAN FRANCISCO joins the growing list of cities and towns across the country where people are demanding--and winning--their right to ban arms in their midst. Add Berkeley, too, to the roster of places responding to popular demands for freedom from handguns. In both areas, local officials have approved ordinances aimed at banning mass ownership of pistols while ensuring protection by law enforcement authorities and exempting legitimate gun collectors.

Chalk these up to the Spirit of Morton Grove, named for the Chicago suburb where people spoke up, passed a ban and saw it through a challenge in the federal court. There, as out on the West Coast, more and more people are realizing the insanity of unchecked handgun violence and the dangers of believing that an armed citizenry will ward off crime rather than set off chains of accidental deaths and fatal arguments.

People also are cutting their way through the smokescreen of scare-talk from gun merchants and the lobbyists of the National Never-Mind-Rifles Association, which used to concentrate on legitimate pursuits of rifle-owning sportsmen and target shooters. The Morton Grove model doesn't strip Americans of these pleasures, nor does it even include rifles or shotguns; and these handgun bans generally exempt police, military and security personnel, gun collectors, private investigators and private store owners who obtain permission from police.

San Francisco has its own reasons for acting, too, as Mayor Dianne Feinstein recalls only too vividly: she assumed office after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by a gun-wielding former supervisor in 1978, in the city hall. And she realizes that the primary effect of this ordinance may be symbolic, that there will be no door-to-door raids on homes in search of weapons.

But the organized handgun industry and self-appointed law enforcers are sniping at these ordinances, and not without some nonsense, as in the latest warning from NRA spokesman Paul Stone. He says the San Francisco ordinance "will make criminals out of thousands of law-abiding citizens." How's that? What if it makes a mere dent in the handgun death toll?

The threat to public safety is from coast to coast, of course, and the most effective response against the national arsenal of concealable weapons stored, carried or fired in this country should be just as widespread. Until then, though, it will up to the localities to protect themselves.