Saying gun control is a high-priority moral issue, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced yesterday that hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics will be recruited to pressure the General Assembly to clamp down on the sale of firearms in Maryland. Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard said a new poll shows that most of the state's Catholics strongly favor stricter gun controls. He said the archdiocese believes that restricting the availability of weapons is a moral and practical necessity. "Our pastors find increasingly that they can't hold church JTC meetings at night, can't let children play outside, that it's not safe to have festivals," the bishop said at a news conference in a Southwest Baltimore church hall. "This is a moral issue, tied to our belief that life is sacred, tied to love of neighbor." The Baltimore Archdiocese will attempt to enlist "460,000 registered parishioners to voice support for comprehensive gun control" and conduct a petition drive in its 162 parishes, said Bishop Ricard as he stood before the red and gold banner of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, surrounded by children in a Head Start program. "Petitions will be submitted to the Maryland General Assembly at a gun control rally in Annapolis on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 17," the bishop said. Every Catholic voter in Maryland, including those on the Eastern Shore who are part of the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., and those in Southern Maryland and the Washington-area counties who are part of the Archdiocese of Washington, will be recruited for the all-out effort for stronger gun laws, said Richard Dowling, the lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Church in Annapolis. But several legislators said they doubt the church will be able to "speak in one voice" on the issue. Even if it could, they said, hopes for a comprehensive change in the state's gun control laws in the coming session are unrealistic. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said modest changes to the state's gun control laws might be possible, but no major ones are likely. "I think their aims are high, and rightfully so," he said of the Catholics' effort, "but if they could obtain a piece or a key element of the package this session, they would be pleased." Bishop Ricard was joined at yesterday's news conference at St. Jerome's Church on West Hamburg Street by Mr. Dowling and by Vinny DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. As children played nearby, the bishop said, "What's at stake is the future for the children who are with us today. They are part of the Head Start program that operates in this building. They want a head start in life, and we can help them by making our world a safer, less violent, more loving world." Mr. DeMarco said that the new campaign by the Baltimore Archdiocese will be part of a coordinated effort with many other religious groups that back stronger gun controls, including United Methodists, Quakers, Episcopalians, Jews, Muslims, Presbyterians and Baptists. Among the religious partners in the effort, he said, will be the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Muslim Community Center, the Presbytery of Baltimore and the Diocesan Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The poll results announced yesterday suggest that most Maryland voters want stricter gun controls but that substantially more Catholics want them than the state's population as a whole. The results are based on a survey taken Sept. 7 and 8 of "a representative sample of 601 registered voters likely to vote in the 1994 statewide election," Bishop Ricard said. He said the survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. found that while 59 percent of Maryland voters would choose a candidate based on his or her support of gun control, 63 percent of Catholics would consider that a basis for choice. The survey also noted that while 80 percent of all Marylanders would support a comprehensive gun-control bill, 88 percent of Catholics would support the measure. "Strongly supporting it" were 67 percent of Marylanders generally and 76 percent of the Catholics. Bishop Ricard, Mr. Dowling and Mr. DeMarco said that proposed statewide legislation for submission in the next session will be hammered out by a coalition of religious and civic groups and announced in November. But the bishop said the Catholic Church believes the bill should include these features: * Purchasers of handguns must be licensed by the state and pass a gun safety examination. * Gun ownership or possession should be denied to any one under the age of 21 and people convicted of certain violent crimes. * An absolute ban on the manufacture and sale of semiautomatic assault weapons and guns with high-capacity magazines. * Limits on how many handguns a person can own. * Heavy penalties for gun-law violators and seizure of all weapons obtained illegally. "Without gun laws that reflect common sense, we will never be able to effectively combat violence in our streets," Bishop Ricard said. Asked if citing gun controls as a moral necessity meant that opponents of gun controls such as the National Rifle Association are immoral, Bishop Ricard replied, "I'm not passing judgment on any group, but certainly the indiscriminate use of handguns is immoral." James Milner, a legislative liaison spokesman for the NRA in Washington, said of Bishop Ricard's announcement, "As a Catholic, I find it's a sad state of affairs." "Gun control laws are already in place in Maryland," he said, "and the fact that they do not stop crime shows that more laws will not stop crime." Anti-gun laws are "not something the church has historically taken a stand on, and it should not start doing it now," Mr. Milner said.