THE DEFENSE DEPARTMENT is finally trying to scrap one of its least defensible spending programs-an annual handout to the National Rifle Association through which free rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition are passed out to civilians. But the gun lobby isn't worried, because once again it claims to have sewn up the necessary support in Congress to keep the arms-and-ammo dole going. The latest official to join the ranks is Virginia's own Republican Sen. John W. Warner, who believes that spending a half-million dollars a year on this program is a dandy way to interest teenagers in military service.

It is also a nifty subsidy to the NRA-for participants must by NRA members. Each gets a rifle, 300 rounds of ammunition and opportunities to shoot for medals and trophies, leading up to a month-long match every summer at Camp Perry, Ohio. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who has opposed this program for years, points out that federal support of civilian rifle practice is an anachronism: "If there is anything that our enormous military training system has mastered-it has mastered the technique for teaching raw recruits how to shoot." The Pentagon-NRA arrangement amounts to a taxpayer-supported recreation program for people who like to use firearms.

So forget proposed budget cuts in spendiing for the education or welfare of the country's youth. Evidently, they need guns more than these things, and the NRA's congressional cadre is ready to keep on spending to sign them up for the Great National Target Practice.