Boston — The outcome of the battle over handgun control remains uncertain, but those calling the shots on both sides are claiming significant gains in recent months. Leaders of groups dedicated to curbing or eliminating possession of handguns were pleased about a federal appeals court decision Feb. 9 that upheld a ban on handguns in Morton Grove, Ill.
Gun-control activists also were happy with the results of an April 12 election in Morton Grove. The community rejected four candidates for the village board who were committed to wiping the handgun-prohibition ordinance off the books.
Similarly, those in the anti-handgun ranks were pleased that San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein survived an April 26 recall ballot - spearheaded by those who criticized her support of an ordinance outlawing private ownership of concealable firearms.
Though hardly elated over these developments - especially the failure to overturn the Morton Grove measure - gun-ownership activists are not about to quit.
Warren Cassidy of the National Rifle Association (NRA) said the day of the February court decision is ''a day that will live in infamy.'' He hints that the 2-to-1 verdict by the federal panel in Chicago will be appealed to the US Supreme Court.
On the plus side for the gun-ownership forces, the NRA and other organizations in the last few months have successfully pushed through laws in at least four states to take the gun-control issue out of the hands of local governments.
These statutes - enacted in Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington state - specifically prohibit individual cities or towns from imposing local gun controls. These laws reserve that authority for the state exclusively.
The Washington measure, signed May 17 by Republican Gov. John Spellman, stems in part from efforts by a Seattle citizen group to get stricter handgun controls in their city. Foes maintained that such a move was an invasion of state authority.
The measure is more restrictive than some members of the gun lobby would like. It sets up a longer waiting period - to allow time to investigate the applicant - before a permit to carry a concealed weapon is issued. In addition, it prohibits anyone who has been convicted of a firearms-related felony or a drug abuse charge, or who has a record of mental disorder, from possessing a handgun.
But these provisions were not adamantly opposed by pro-gun forces, since the restrictions in no way interfere with what they consider the ''law-abiding citizen's inalienable right'' to buy or carry firearms.
And the new Washington statute does include specific language which prevents individual communities from enacting stricter gun-control measures or an outright handgun ban.
In addition to the three states that recently adopted such measures, Alabama and West Virginia last year similarly acted to give state lawmakers the exclusive authority to regulate the purchase, possession, and use of all firearms. Eight other states - California, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania - had earlier enacted such ''preemption laws.''
Groups that oppose handgun control say they prefer to wage their battles on the state and national fronts rather than from community to community.
On the other hand, groups that are trying to restrict or eliminate the private possession of pistols and other small firearms generally have been more successful at the local level.
The NRA drive to thwart gun restrictions through state preemption laws is of particular concern to leaders of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, says Paul Lavrakas, field director of the Washington-based coalition.
He notes that some gun-control activists, like those in Colorado, had successfully combatted NRA-backed legislation to outlaw local ordinances that would restrict weapons. Mr. Lavrakas says ''time is needed'' to build support at the state level for stricter handgun laws.
Efforts to enact gun-control statutes, especially those that would ban the purchase or ownership of such weapons, have been frustrated by provisions in state constitutions which guarantee a citizen's right to possess and bear arms. Thirty-nine states have such provisions in their constitutions, according to the NRA. The 11 exceptions, most of which have preemption laws, are California, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Several Massachusetts communities have been constitutionally blocked from passing gun-control ordinances. Proposals from the towns of Brookline and Lincoln, seeking permission to impose tougher handgun restrictions, were shot down recently by state lawmakers.
Meanwhile, at the nation's capital, the NRA is pushing for new legislation to ease regulations on gun sales and licensing. But the outcome of these efforts to roll back provisions of the current law governing firearms (the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968) is uncertain - despite promised backing from President Reagan, who reiterated his support May 6 at an NRA convention.
Those favoring tougher gun laws are alarmed by the increased number of small handguns in private possession across the nation. In New York City alone, nearly 9,300 applications for handgun licenses were filed last year, according to police records. Records show the 1982 figure was almost 1,000 more than the previous year.