FORGET CONTROLS on handguns -- it's everyone for himself. Anybody who has been hoping for new protections against America's incredible handgun traffic might as well run for cover at this point, because President Reagan -- of all people -- doesn't care even for the few effective controls now on the books. That's the grim message from Robert M. Garrick, a deputy counselor at the White House, who says President Reagan supports an effort to repeal key provisions of the 1968 act as well to curb the activities of the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

If successful, the congressional effort should do great things for the gun industry -- freeing all sorts of additional hotheads, mentally disturbed people and other impulse buyers from cumbersome restrictions when they feel the need for a loaded pistol. The bill that Mr. Garrick says enjoys Mr. Reagan's backing would permit out-of-state residents to buy handguns in any state where such sales are legal and would eliminate registration requirements for ammunition. The only potentially helpful provision is an after-the-sad-fact procedure that would impose stiffer penalties for the use of handguns in the commission of federal crimes.

All of this is aimed at promoting the simplistic and dead-wrong idea that anybody who is for handgun controls is soft on crime and hard on freedom, that the way to fight crime is with guns -- and the more everybody has, the better. As stated so badly the other day by Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Idaho), "There are 55 million handguns out there, and it's too bad that we don't have more. If they had guns in East Germany, the East Germans would throw the Russians out of East Germany."

Who said this debate was leading nowhere? It's degenerating at a good clip. It used to be about hunting and other legitimate uses of rifles. But as soon as more Americans began making a useful distinction between long guns and that favorite weapon for shooting people -- the handgun -- the tune of the any-firearm-is-a-good-firearm lobby changed to a song of self-protection that embraces pistols at the ready everywhere.

So while a few more genuinely worried legilators on Capitol Hill continue to seek support for a few modest controls on the sales of handguns -- as called for in a bill sponsored by Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- others with the support of the White House will be seeking to tear up what few protections did get on the books in that notorious year '68.

Hunker down.