TAKOMA PARK - This is a town where tie-dyed clothing and Birkenstocks never go out of fashion, a place where aging hippies and young vegetarians, potters and folk musicians, peaceniks and women's rights lawyers make their home.
Yet even the free-spirited folks in this self-proclaimed "Berkeley of the East" are having a hard time pushing through one of the most popular of liberal causes: a handgun ban.
More than 18 months have passed since anti-gun activists went door to door collecting signatures for a referendum to outlaw the possession and sale of handguns in Takoma Park.
They assumed it would be easy in a city progressive enough to declare itself one of the nation's handful of "nuclear-free zones." Neighboring Washington did so long ago.
Not only did the gun questions get taken off the ballot, however, but some civic leaders fear even the more modest restrictions that have since been proposed would result in a costly legal battle. Moreover, while many residents say they want to make a statement, at least a few think it would be unsafe to enact stricter gun laws in their small city than elsewhere in Maryland.
"I'd love to see it happen," said Susan Schreiber, a Takoma Park resident who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "But I think it's really difficult. There are the legalities, as much as we think we have a consensus as a town. And I know an elderly couple down the street who said, `If we all have to give up our guns, every criminal within 50 miles would come to Takoma Park.'"
Now, a year after a Montgomery County judge ruled that the gun referendum could not take place because it conflicted with state law, a citizens task force has come up with a possible compromise.
The task force, in an Oct. 2 report, has recommended 30 steps to prevent gun violence, from teaching conflict resolution in the schools to sponsoring gun safety courses. Most significant are three proposals - crafted around narrow exemptions in the state's gun laws - that would put new restrictions on gun ownership in Takoma Park.
The first calls for banning handguns within close proximity of any school, church, park or other public place. No distance has been specified; it's up to the City Council to decide. The second is a local gun-lock ordinance, and the third a requirement that children's programs be held in gun-free places.
Even if all three were adopted, which is uncertain because the City Council has just begun its discussions, Takoma Park would be far from having the kind of complete handgun ban it had envisioned.
Hundreds of residents made their sentiments clear last fall in a straw poll set up outside City Hall. But Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a public interest lawyer who chaired the task force, says that although she, too, initially supported the referendum, "I definitely feel in hindsight that it was a knee-jerk reaction.
"A total gun ban might make a lot of people feel good, but I don't think it would do much," she said. "We would definitely face a legal challenge, and all our money and time would be diverted into defending a lawsuit, instead of being used to educate gun owners, get child safety locks, make people aware of gun violence."
Given the intensity of the gun debate, the alternatives haven't satisfied activists on either side.
One of Washington's first suburbs, Takoma Park takes pride in being a hip, multiethnic haven with Indian eateries, an eclectic video store and a natural foods co-op. But it's more middle-aged and affluent than in the days when it boasted a large number of communes - and some longtime residents were surprised to discover there are now more than 900 guns registered in this city of 18,600.
Two gun owners sued last year to stop the referendum, and others say they're more than willing to wage another legal fight if Takoma Park does anything to infringe on their right to bear arms.
"We're not going to call out troops and storm the City Council building. We'll go straight to court," said Bob McMurray, a state gun rights leader who lives in nearby Silver Spring. "The only people this is going to hurt is honest, law-abiding citizens who aren't going to hurt anyone."
One Takoma Park gun owner is 19-year-old Raymond Anthracite, a University of Maryland student who shoots competitively. He says he would not object if the town wanted to give out child-safety locks but thinks they are "ineffective and dangerous because they're difficult to get off in a time of emergency."
Gun owners are especially opposed to the idea of a handgun ban near public places. They point out that it's inherently inequitable: a family living across from the school could be forbidden from owning a gun, while neighbors two blocks down still could keep one.
The City Council plans to seek advice on the three proposals from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Curran, an outspoken champion of gun control, spoke last year at a Takoma Park anti-gun rally.
"Some people have asked whether we should spend our time enacting an ordinance that will affect such a small number of people," said Gurian-Sherman. "I say, `Absolutely.' It sends a message that we promote a community that believes as many of us as possible should be gun-free and those of us who choose to own guns need to be responsible about how they're stored and used."
John Guernsey, an artist and piano teacher who circulated the first petitions, is disappointed. But he says anything is better than giving up.
"I'm a compromiser," he said.