Attorney General Edwin Meese III, under pressure from law enforcement groups to oppose legislation that would weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act, broke his silence yesterday and said that the bill "could be improved."

Meese's comments at the National Press Club followed his refusal to testify about the McClure-Volkmer bill at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing last week. Justice Department officials say that Meese will again decline to appear at a subcommittee hearing Thursday on the ground that the Treasury Department speaks for the administration on the issue.

Asked about the legislation, which is being pushed by the National Rifle Association, Meese told the press club, "The bill is not as dangerous as some opponents have indicated . . . . At the same time, there are things in the bill that could be improved."

Voicing his reservations in public for the first time, Meese took issue with a provision that would narrow the use of mandatory penalties for violent crimes committed with a gun. He said this provision, which would exempt those who acted in "self-defense," would "confuse" existing law and "needs to be changed."

An analysis by the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) said this section "may be interpreted to allow a fleeing felon to avoid the penalties where he used a firearm to make his escape."

Meese said another provision that needs to be "cleaned up" would bar federal agents from using evidence gathered in inspections of gun dealers unless it involved willful record-keeping violations or illegal sales. BATF says this would bar prosecution for narcotics offenses or illegal possession of machine guns and silencers.

Meese did not suggest how these changes should be made, but said the administration supports a "discharge petition" to move the bill to the House floor. This petition would enable the House to adopt the Senate-passed version without amendments, which Justice Department officials have said is the only realistic way that McClure-Volkmer can become law this year.

The discharge petition has 180 signatures, 38 short of a majority.

Barbara Lautman, spokesman for Handgun Control Inc., said she hopes Meese's comments mean "that the Justice Department will work with House leaders to craft consensus legislation which will protect law-abiding gun owners without hindering law enforcement's ability to fight violent crime."

Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), who is seeking Meese's testimony, wrote Meese that, except for the political pressures involved, the attorney general would be denouncing the bill "as a 'Federal Felons Special Relief Act.' "