IF PRESIDENT Bush were half as attentive to those who seek protection from assault weapons as he is to those who manufacture semiautomatic sporting rifles, Americans might breathe a little more easily. His latest approval for import of certain redesigned semiautomatic rifles is a case in point. Only a year ago, the president and William Bennett announced with fanfare a ban on the importation of military-style assault rifles deemed to have no legitimate civilian uses. The White House was eloquent in insisting how dangerous these weapons were in the hands of drug traffickers and other criminals. Law enforcement authorities across the country hailed the move. But did the administration do anything about American-made versions of these same weapons?

No, President Bush wouldn't do that, even as ugly reports of killings hit the headlines. The result has been a kind of Buy American/Kill American marketing policy on military-style assault weapons. Congress is working on legislation that would get these models off the legal market. But now comes word that the Bush administration has approved new designs of six foreign-made semiautomatic rifles that have been reconfigured to eliminate the military-style features that resulted in their being banned before.

The new versions have been altered to remove flash suppressors, grenade launchers, bayonet attachments, pistol grips and large-capacity detachable magazines. As such, they would qualify for importation for sporting purposes for buyers who insist on rapid fire to hit their game or targets. As such, they also could easily be adapted to the uses favored by criminals by fitting on large-capacity magazines and pistol grips for one-handed shooting from the hip. At least the administration supports the idea of a limit (15) on the number of rounds a magazine may carry; the congressional proposal calls for seven.

Ever solicitous of the firearms suppliers of the world, maybe President Bush will try listening more carefully to the leaders of every major law enforcement organization in the country, to the survivors of shooting victims and to the people who live in the cross-fire of deadly drug markets. They've had it with semiautomatic bloodshed and quickie, over-the-counter sales of firearms. Perhaps the president will finally see fit to join those who support a ban on the military-style assault weapons made in this country. He could join them, too, in supporting a waiting period on handgun sales -- the Brady bill, which the House Judiciary Committee approved by a 27-to-9 vote yesterday. Is that too much to ask?