Both sides in the war over handguns are readying for a new round of battles on several fronts - from Washington, D.C., to Washington State.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), elated over the Nov. 2 California voter rejection of a proposed law to limit the number of concealable firearms in America's most populous state, is fixing its persuasive sights on Congress and legislation to ease restrictions on sales of such weapons.
Gun-control activists view the measure as an attempted gutting of the 1968 federal statute regulating firearms purchases.
While they hope such decontrol efforts can be blocked, opponents like Charles Orasin, executive vice-president of the District of Columbia-based Handguns Control Inc., are apprehensive of the NRA's potential political firepower among federal lawmakers.
Disappointment over failure of the California handgun proposal will not deter future efforts in that direction, Mr. Orasin says.
Whether gun-control strategies change, and to what extent, could hinge on the results of a California poll now under way. ''We hope it will tell us what went wrong in California - why the dramatic shift over the final few weeks when we had been holding our own in September,'' Orasin explains.
Although declining to speculate where the big push might come, he notes that moves are under way in several states, including Washington, where some Seattle-area citizens are bent on a strict handgun licensing law.
Washingtonians for Rational Handgun Control hoped to achieve their goal through a municipal ordinance in Seattle. The state constitution, however, preempts jurisdiction in such matters and only a handgun-control measure with statewide application is permitted.
The current state law is termed ''weak and ineffective'' by attorney John W. Riley, one of the movement's leaders. It involves the issuance of permits to those wishing to purchase firearms. Mr. Riley says what is needed is required investigation into the applicant's background to determine his or her fitness to carry or even own a weapon.
While favoring an outright handgun ban, Riley says that ''it would be politically impractical'' to seek such strict legislation.
Washington, it might be noted, is the home state of the Second Amendment Foundation, whose activities have included challenging, on US constitutional grounds, the outlawing of handgun possession in Morton Grove, Ill. A federal appeals court upheld the ordinance Dec. 6, ruling that the suburb had acted within its authority.
Leaders of the unsuccessful California ballot proposal attribute their 73-to- 37 percent defeat to ''a heavy media advertising blitz'' in which the opposition outspent proponents ''at least 7 to 1.''
''This was necessary to get across to the public that what was before them was not in their best interest,'' asserts Warren Cassidy, executive director of the NRA's institute for legislative action.
The former mayor of Lynn, Mass., who became involved in the gun lobby in 1976 when successfully fighting a similar measure there, anticipates that henceforth handgun foes ''will increasingly have a difficult time raising funds'' for their activities.
He foresees a new push by handgun foes, such as the National Coalition Against Handguns, scattering their energies in several directions on the state and local fronts ''to spread us thin.''
Despite its unyielding determination to continue pressing for increased restrictions, if not an outright ban, on small, concealable guns, gun-control leaders generally concede prospects for coming close to the NRA in money-raising are less than slim.
Michael Beard, director of the National Coalition Against Handguns, says that though defeat of the California proposal was not unexpected, the margin was greater than anticipated. He notes that in San Francisco, where a gun-control ordinance was passed last spring but struck down by a state appeals courts, the proposal for a statewide measure was favored by a majority of voters.
But despite strong support for stiffer gun controls in San Francisco and Berkeley, where a similar measure was put on the books but never implemented, a 1970 law giving the state jurisdiction over registration and licensing of firearms prevents local governments from striking out on their own.
In several if not most other states, such authority is not as restricted and a major thrust of the 1983 gun-control effort is expected at the local level, especially in areas where there is strong citizen support.
Of particular concern to Mr. Beard and Mr. Orasin and their colleagues are efforts by the gun lobby to enact an Illinois law removing municipal authority to regulate handguns.
Besides Morton Grove, at least three other communities in that state - Chicago, Evanston, and East St. Louis - have adopted measures restricting, and in some instances banning, the sale or possession of handguns.
Lawmakers in more than a dozen states are expected to have pro-gun control measures on their 1983 agendas.