In sidestepping a highly controversial case - whether a local community can ban the sale and ownership of handguns - the US Supreme Court in effect has turned the dispute over handgun control back to the states.
The court gave no reason for refusing to review an appellate court decision upholding the right of Morton Grove, Ill., a Chicago suburb, to outlaw the local sale and ownership of pistols and revolvers.
While some advocates of gun control hail the court's action as their ''greatest victory,'' opponents argue that the decision is technical and inconclusive, and that the way merely has been opened for future legal arguments.
''The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the Morton Grove case,'' a National Rifle Association spokesman says, ''reemphasizes the NRA's contention that the issue is a state constitutional issue and therefore should be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court.''
Even some advocates were cautious to herald this as a significant victory.
Burt Neuborne, a Supreme Court expert with the American Civil Liberties Union , says the court ''did nothing to clarify the issue.'' Mr. Neuborne explains there is no reason to conclude that the high court agrees philosophically with those who would ban handguns.
Most other nations ban private gun ownership. Gun control advocates in the United States say yesterday's ruling could reduce America's murder rate. In 1980 Japan reported 77 people killed by handguns; Britain, 8; Switzerland, 24; Canada , 8; Israel, 23; Sweden, 18; and Australia, 4 - but in the United States the figure was 11,522.
The Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to ''keep and bear arms.'' Special-interest groups like the NRA argue that this right applies to private citizens. Others argue the words merely legalize a local militia. The court did not address the issue of whether the amendment applies to states or only the national goverment.
The new ruling may encourage those who seek pistol bans to press their cause. Recently San Francisco's local prohibition was overturned by state courts.
The Supreme Court's action came without fanfare. Without comment, it simply let stand a lower federal appeals court decision upholding the local Morton Grove ordinance.
Many communities sought gun control after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and the attempt on President Reagan in March 1981. They said their concern was over the impact of handguns on the rising crime and murder rate in the US.
On the other hand, the well-financed lobby of huntsmen and sportsmen - the National Rifle Association - fought control and showed its ability to mobilize signatures against local bans.
The Morton Grove ordinance, passed in June 1981, required residents to turn in private handguns or face fines of up to $500 and six months in jail. The law exempted police, military personnel, gun collectors, and target shooters. Few guns have actually been turned in. The community was the first to ban both the sale and possession of such guns.
Advocating control is the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. Charles J. Orasin, executive of another group, Handgun Control Inc., says that failure to control handguns is ''madness.'' Repeated polls indicate that the public favors stricter supervision. A Gallup survey in June reported that 59 percent favor stricter control. This drops to 44 percent for an outright ban.
Mr. Orasin calls the Supreme Court's ruling ''a stunning victory . . . that will fuel efforts at all levels of government to strengthen America's pitifully weak handgun laws . . . Sane handgun controls are not un-American.''