George Bush's modest half-step forward on semi-automatic battlefield weapons shows a remarkable cynicism about public opinion that could backfire.

Contrary to some news reports, Bush did not reverse himself on his long opposition to gun control; nor did he ban semi-automatics.He merely asked his drug czar, William Bennett, to do something to take the heat off him and his continuing belief that Americans should have the right to buy a semi-automatic gun. Yes, even one that can shoot 60 rounds of ammunition a minute, a gun designed for killing people, not for sport.

Bennett, a smart, wily man who wants to do well in his new job, came up with a shrewd move. He and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady devised a suspension on imports of several thousand semi-automatic weapons such as AK-47s and Uzi Carbines pending an assessment of whether they're being used for sport. If not, the suspension might become an outright ban on imports.

Bingo. Bush was in the headlines as banning imports of a dangerous weapon. Bennett looked good, an activist drug czar on his first full day in office.

The gun control lobby was thrilled, getting far more than it expected from Bush. At the same time, the gun lobby was not worried.

Because the suspension affects small percentage of weapons, the gun lobby - the National Rifle Association - wasn't really upset. Since Bush is a member and the NRA endorsed him for president, Bush doesn't want to offend the gun lobby.

The White House could deny that Bush flip-flopped - he still supports sale and domestic manufacture of such weapons.

White House officials are telling reporters the whole thing worked out very well "because we haven't done a whole lot." They say it served as "an issue" or diversion when everyone was writing that the president still hasn't shown an agenda for where he wants to take the country.

Such cynicism is disheartening in an administration so young.

The administration is betting that the public's concern about the proliferation of machine guns is fleeting. It is assuming that anger and fear will dissipate over the Jan. 17 tragedy at Stockton, Calif., when a crazy person killed five children and wounded 29 people in a schoolyard with an AK-47 he bought over the counter.

Bush keeps insisting such weapons are used legitimately by thousands of law-abiding Americans. For what?

Inspired by the Bush administration's hesitant step, Colt Industries, the respected U.S. weapons manufacturer, has taken a far bolder, more commendable action. It has suspended sales to the public of its highly profitable AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Colt recognizes that the public mood is shifting. It sees that the inexplicable political power of the mighty NRA may be waning as it begins to seem to many like an extremist organization. Perhaps Colt smells backfire in the wind.

The emotionalism and urgency of the gun control argument is why Bush cannot afford to be seen as anyone's pawn in the current debate. Without giving up his views that the right to bear arms must be protected, he must climb out of the NRA's pocket. He must not let it appear that he's being manipulated by Bennett or anyone else in his administration.

At a time when he is forced to keep denying he's "adrift," he must not let it seem as if he is cynically willing to go along, if only haltingly and halfway, on anything just because it's "the issue" of the moment.

He has to lead.