EVER HEAR of the Pittman-Robertson Act? It was passed in 1937 to impose an excise tax on shotguns, rifles and ammunition, with the funds earmarked for certain programs of interest to hunters. More than a billion dollars raised by these excise taxes has been spent for such programs as wildlife management, land acquisition and programs to provide safety for hunters. In 1970 the law was amended to add a 10 percent tax on handguns, which was also earmarked for the hunter programs. A similar arrangement created by the Dingell-Johnson Act taxes fishing equipment and uses the money for fishery and water conservation projects.

All in all, it seems reasonable to have sportsmen themselves pay the costs of managing the resources they use. But the kicker is the handgun tax. People do not buy handguns to go hunting. It is a fairly safe guess that the average packer of a Saturday night special cares not a whit about deer conservation or wildlife refuges. Why should the considerable sums the government collects from the sale of handguns be used for the special programs of interest to hunters?

The President's Task Force on Victims of Crime asked the same question and came up with a much better proposal in a report issued in January. Firearms taxes collected and allocated to the Pittman- Robertson program amount to more than $100 million a year. Most of it, said the task force, should continue to be used for traditional Pittman-Robinson programs, but the $30 million in excise taxes on handguns should be set aside in a special fund to be used to compensate victims of violent crimes.

This is not a new idea. Rep. Marty Russo introduced a bill last year with the same objective, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino incorporated it into his omnibus crime bill. But last year Congress adjourned without acting on either bill.

Naturally there will be opposition, for the Pittman- Robertson Act provides the main source of funding for wildlife management programs at the state level, and the powerful hunters' lobby may weigh in against sharing any of these funds. But isn't it more sensible to allocate the long-gun taxes to hunting programs and the handgun taxes to victims' compensation?

The need is there, and public support for victims' rights programs is growing. Perhaps the endorsement of the president's task force will provide the push that's needed to get this bill passed.