MIAMI -- Right there, in the suburban shopping mall, between the dentist's office and the Radio Shack, a specialty store is packed on a recent Sunday afternoon.

"Steve, what do you think?" asks John Buzzella, like a man trying on suits. His brother Steve shakes his head. "Try the other one." John puts on a nifty little brown number. "Now, that I like," approves Steve. John, a landscaper, pats the double shoulder holster strapped over his T-shirt.

Where are you going to wear it? John is asked.


John's brother, a contractor, explains that you can't afford to be outgunned here in Miami. "John's been robbed a bunch of times," including the time his car was stolen with his Beretta 9-mm in the glove compartment.

Steve, who keeps a gun in his glove compartment, was also registering for a concealed-weapons permit. Such has become commonplace since Oct. 1, when it became legal for practically anyone over 21 to carry a concealed pistol here -- the exceptions being felons and those with a record of mental illness or alcoholism.

Eleana Hernandez looks at rows of shining Smith & Wessons and Colts in the display case under the huge "HAND GUN" sign. She says she's had a gun for five years, has "never even shot it," and "I hate" the idea of owning one. "I'm going to take the {concealed-weapons} course." Why? "Because everybody's getting paranoid." She looks horrified. "But I don't think I could ever use it."

Ineabelle Arroya's month-old baby is sleeping in a carrying sling as her mother fingers a ladies'-size Smith & Wesson. "We are opening a collection agency and we're going to carry too much money," she says by way of explaining her purchase.

Still, no one interviewed in the Tamiami Range and Gun Shop says he feels comfortable with the new Florida law.

Steve Buzzella says, "There'll be maniacs all over the place with guns. People with bad tempers, who aren't responsible, can all carry them around. The law should include real heavy screening, psychological background checks. You don't even have to qualify on the gun range for this permit. It's a joke." Hernandez says, "Everything should be stricter -- harder to get guns, permits, licenses and all that."

Two men, coming off the shop's rifle range, carry handguns in cases resembling oversized tobacco pouches. Tyrone, who runs a small business, is applying for the concealed-weapons permit. His friend Chuck says, "I'm going back to Montana. It's too dangerous here. Cowboys don't shoot each other on the highway. In Wild West days, people lived miles apart. It's a cramped pressure cooker here. With guns out there everywhere, it's like trying to put out fire with gasoline."

"Have you met Marion Hammer yet?" asks John Katon, owner of the Tamiami Gun Shop. "She's a real American." Hammer, the Florida lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, is the unyielding force behind the new weapons law. In Tallahassee, legislative friends and foes alike refer to it as "her" bill.

Gun dealers like Katon have obvious reasons to like Marion Hammer and the NRA, who have conducted a nationwide battle against gun control legislation. (For a few days, a loophole in the new Florida law did away with an 1893 law that made it illegal to carry a gun in plain view. As pictures of "High Noon" Floridians packing guns on their hips were flashed around the world, and the state's attorney general warned that the change would hamper prosecution, legislators hastily reinstated that clause.)

Still, Florida's law remains one of the most permissive in the nation, and antigun groups are alarmed. While 11 other states, many of them rural, have handgun-carrying laws, even pistol-packing Texas recently defeated a similar bill.

Jerry Vaughn, director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, says the new law is a "a tremendous loss for the citizens of Florida who don't yet realize the impact."

In south Florida, there is growing uneasiness. Outraged citizens fill letters-to-the-editor columns. Tourism, a Miami mainstay, is a prime concern. Who knows whether the bulge in that guy's jacket is a gun or a wallet? "Beverly Hills Cop" Eddie Murphy was so concerned about the new law that he insisted his audiences go through metal detectors at recent appearances in Miami, Orlando, West Palm Beach and Gainesville.

But the law -- and another that did away with locally imposed tough cooling-off periods in Dade and Broward counties -- means nothing but lucre for gun emporiums. Many applying for permits already own guns (it is legal to keep one in your home or locked up in your car), but first-time buyers, Katon says with a smile, have boosted gun sales an "overwhelming 50 percent" at South Florida's oldest and largest gun shop, 12 miles from downtown Miami.

About 4,000 have already taken the store's concealed-weapons safety course (for $75) and at least 4,000 more are expected to by January. Before the new law, and under stricter requirements (proof of special need, stiffer local checks), 16,000 Floridians had gun-carrying licenses. By next year the state predicts 130,000 to 150,000 will submit to a fingerprint check and pay $146 for a three-year license to carry handguns.

Opponents call it madness. Supported by opinion polls, they argue that guns legally in circulation will do little to stop crime and can only mean more deaths.

In just the days in which the legislature debated closing the open-carrying loophole, a Miami jitney driver was killed by a passenger who argued over a 75-cent fare, a 17-year-old Miamian was severely wounded walking to school by a shot meant for another man, a purse snatcher opened fire at 11 a.m. on a crowded street before police shot him, and a man walked into a suburban restaurant with a gun in his waistband, fought with another customer and shot him to death. In rural Marion County, an 8-year-old was shot in the head by a 10-year-old friend showing off his parents' pistol. And a 5-year-old was shot dead as his father tried to grab the gun his child had taken from the car.

The NRA, meanwhile, is running huge newspaper ads in Florida, focusing on the "I'm mad as hell and going to do something about it" response to urban living. One ad portrays a terrified shopkeeper with a gun in his face, asking if he doesn't have the right to defend himself. Another shows a blurred face menacingly encased in a stocking cap and, in bold black type, the question: "SHOULD YOU SHOOT A RAPIST BEFORE HE CUTS YOUR THROAT?"

The new law is a break for the "little guy," says Katon. Everyone, he says, needs a gun as protection against the rising criminal tide. And business is, as they say, booming. A cashier wearing a "no guts, no glory" T-shirt rings up sales as customers stand in line with guns, ammunition, holsters.

The notice taped to the front door says, "Register here for the concealed weapon special course!" Katon says the course tells you about the gun law and the weapons available -- "your Mace, your tear gas, your stun guns, knife, pens, belt knives, in addition to your handguns." And the type of holsters (shoulder, ankle, belt). "We get into the thing about loading and unloading, responsibility of proper ownership, encourage them to buy security boxes," says Katon.

People are told to shoot only as a last resort. While most places offering permit courses require range time, it is not mandatory under the Florida law. State Rep. Mike Friedman, a Dade County Democrat and an opponent of the law, protests, "It's more difficult to get a license for a car; at least you have to drive it around the block and park it!"

A videocassette plays endlessly in the store: a large-breasted, bikini-clad blond alternates between shooting a machine gun and caressing it. "See how much fun she's having?" says Katon. "Guys like to watch." A poster reveals two voluptuaries dressed in nothing but oversized suit jackets and their high-powered rifles, with the slogan "Miami Nice." Gathering dust on the cassette rack is "How to call and hunt gobblers."

Decals and bumper stickers await purchase: "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out"; "Warning, trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again"; "Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out"; "Special Forces: Mess with the best, die like the rest."

Katon hastily says, "And we have something for the ladies," pointing to calendar art of deer and kittens. He is proud of his trademark mannequin, a squat sheriff named "Shorty Sure Shot." The motorized head bobs and the handgun moves up and down in a shooting motion.

"Kids just love Shorty Sure Shot."

Lawrence Brant, a Miami dentist, is talking in his soft voice. "It was Friday the 13th, and I was listening to classical music on the way to work when the announcer made some comment about being careful. I didn't think a thing about it."

That afternoon, his wife Shirley was talking with a client on the phone in her real estate office -- "a supposedly safe, middle-class area. Two young punks came in. One stuck a gun in her face and reached for the phone." The client heard Shirley Brant shout "Don't shoot!" The gun went off. Police theorized it was a cheap, easily purchased Saturday night special. "In less than a minute," says Brant, "she was dead."

That was a year and a half ago and Brant's eyes still reflect pain. Shirley Brant, 49, was a former model and professional singer, the mother of four, a civic leader and career woman. Six hundred came to her funeral.

Brant swallows hard as he recalls their life together; he is surrounded by pictures of his wife with their children. Dana, their 23-year-old daughter and a student teacher, walks in. "She was the best. The rock of our family." Dana is appalled at the new gun law. "These people talk about how you can now protect yourself from rapes or muggings. Does anyone really think my mother had any time for that? Does anyone think you'll have the time to say, 'Excuse me, let me open up my purse for a minute so I can get out my gun'?"

Brant started a handgun control memorial fund in his wife's name and tried to spark a referendum to force tougher laws on the sale and possession of handguns. The new law can only make things worse, he reasons.

He ticks off Handgun Control Inc. statistics from four years ago when fewer handguns were in circulation: Every year 200,000 handguns are stolen from manufacturers, dealers, owners; 57 percent of 1983 murders were the result of arguments among relatives or people acquainted with the victims; one child a day under age 15 dies in a handgun accident; $500 million in medical costs is spent annually treating shooting victims; a new handgun is produced every 13 seconds; every 2 1/2 minutes, a handgun injures someone. Easy access to handguns has increased the number of suicides by several thousand annually. Handgun advocates argue that someone bent on suicide will succeed anyway, but studies show that 90 percent of suicide survivors do not kill themselves within 10 years.

"With sleeping pills, you can be revived," says Brant. "With a gun it's final."

Brant, holding a picture of his smiling wife, sighs. "Handguns kill an average of 20,000 a year -- and it is considered just a part of life, like automobile deaths."

The bill sponsored by Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho) liberalizing federal restraints on the sale and possession of firearms passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. Senate last year despite a Gallup poll showing that 70 percent of citizens wanted stronger laws, with only 8 percent favoring less gun regulation.

"But 79 senators voted for it," says Brant. "The NRA diehards, the manufacturers, stop at nothing. In 1981 alone more than 2.5 million new handguns were produced in the United States. It's as if we were talking about polio and the people manufacturing iron lung machines were against Salk and finding a cure."

For Marion Hammer, victims of handguns have hopelessly misplaced their grief and arguments. For example, Sarah Brady, whose husband Jim was seriously injured in 1981 when John Hinckley attempted to kill President Reagan with a gun bought in a pawnshop.

"It distresses me that she {Brady} would attack handgun ownership as though it were the gun," Hammer says. "It's not the gun -- it's the individual." However, gun control advocates note the correlation between the number of guns in circulation and handgun murders. Handguns are used 2 1/2 times as often as any other murder weapon, according to Handgun Control Inc.

For Marion Hammer, all such statistics are to be rebutted with a barrage of NRA statistics -- which are rebutted in turn as distortions by opposing groups. It is her job, of course, and she is well paid for it, but one gets the impression that she would do it for nothing.

Choosing a woman as director was inspired, says Harry Johnston, who as the Florida State Senate president tangled with Hammer in 1986. "Generally, the NRA brings out the redneck good ol' boys with the gun racks, but when you scratch Marion, she's no different. She's a good ol' boy in a skirt."

Hammer's trademark, however, is not skirts, but slacks, loafers and a blazer, softened by a frilly blouse. When a gun bill is up, she corrals her forces in the capitol rotunda between the House and Senate chambers, her blue eyes steely when asked negative questions, the inevitable cigarette burning to the nub between her fingers as she talks.

Although only 4 feet 11, the 49-year-old Hammer is a woman no one would mess with, even not knowing she packs a Colt .38 special in her purse. ("Smaller guns are necessary for women who have small hands.") Hammer says she is "certainly not" a feminist and has no truck with women's issues, such as unequal pay. "That's their fault. No one ever gave me special favors."

One of the few times a smile softens Hammer's face is when she speaks of her 2-year-old grandson, "the apple of my eye." She bought him a membership in the NRA at birth and can't wait to teach him to shoot. "When he sees Grandma on TV, he cries out, 'Pow! Pow!' "

Hammer's father was killed on Okinawa during World War II, and she was raised in South Carolina by her grandfather, who taught her how to shoot a rifle while others played with kindergarten blocks. At age 6 she shot a squirrel clean through, and the family ate it for dinner that night.

Hammer and her ex-husband (they were divorced seven years ago) competed in gun contests and taught their three daughters to shoot. Hammer holds state and national championship trophies. She became a volunteer lobbyist for the NRA in 1975 when a bill -- "an explosives act designed to stop the pipe bombings in Miami" -- would have "virtually wiped out muzzle-loading and black-powder shooting in the state. The sponsor was unwilling to accept any amendment," says Hammer, through clenched teeth, "so we killed the bill."

The next year, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the legislative arm of the NRA, opened up shop a block from the capitol and Hammer's been slugging it out ever since. She emphasizes the "sportsmen" in the title, but even Miami outdoor writers have written columns decrying Florida's handgun permissiveness.

Such suggestions get a withering look from Hammer in her Tallahassee office, which is filled with dozens of eagles -- the NRA symbol -- in brass, china, wood, bronze. A gold eagle dangles around her neck, another emblazons the welcome mat, and there is an eagle painting next to her Roy Rogers Man of the Year Award beside her prize, a one-of-a-kind Winchester ("my favorite model hunting rifle"). Nearby is an autographed picture of another NRA member, Ronald Reagan.

Hammer fervently speaks the NRA credo: The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear and keep arms. However, she ignores the amendment's specific reference to a state "well-regulated militia."

Hammer says arguments that citizens-turned-vigilantes risk killing innocent bystanders, or being shot with their own guns, are "hysterical, emotional. If an individual is responsible for protecting himself and his family, he's entitled to have the proper tools."

Most policemen strongly disagree. Miami police spokesman Reginald Roundtree theorizes, "Say a robbery is going down and a businessman gives chase. The police officer arrives and sees two guys pointing guns, so who does he go for? And if he just stands there, he may cost a life."

Hammer seems indifferent to such concerns. "If a policeman sees two people with firearms, he has to disarm both of them. Then he can determine whether one is a law-abiding citizen or both are perpetrators."

Jerry Vaughn, who has been a policeman in Denver, Kansas and Florida, says Hammer and the NRA are the ones using hysterical, emotional arguments -- "distorted and deceptive information and statistics to aid their twisted cause, whipping up such fear that people think they have to carry guns. Take, for example, this business that elderly citizens and women can protect themselves. Police every day see victims whose weapons were taken away and used against them."

Hammer says "bull," that an armed woman has less chance of being raped in an attack. What about more deaths from domestic disputes? "That's hysterical arguments." Handgun suicides? "If people are going to commit suicide, they will do it somehow."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police would like far tougher controls on selling and possessing guns. Hammer, however, says cheap Saturday night specials should be easily available for the buyer who can't afford the Cadillacs of guns. Machine guns should freely be available as well. "Some people collect 'em, some people enjoy 'em. It's a matter of personal preference."

Perhaps the strongest argument for strictly controlling handgun sales comes from statistics comparing the U.S. murder rate with those of countries that have highly restrictive handgun laws. A 1986 study of cities of comparable size showed 67 handgun murders in London, 1,582 in New York. And: Manchester, England, 16, Miami 148; Toronto 61, Chicago 666; Munich 75, Detroit 635.

Hammer sees "no correlation" between fewer murders and tough gun control, and says criminals in such countries are deterred because they know they will be punished. One gun law she favors is mandatory sentencing for commission of firearms crimes.

Hammer leaves no doubt that her own gun is a friend and illustrates it by recounting, as she often has, a five-year-old incident. "There was no doubt in my mind that I was facing a gang rape." While walking to a parking garage at 10:30 at night, Hammer was followed by a car. "These men were saying filthy, sexual stuff, talking about what they were going to do to me. They followed me into that dark garage. I had no choice. I pulled out my gun, the headlights hit it, they saw it." Here, Hammer's arm comes down in an arc, as she makes a quick, expert motion, "and I just aimed it at the driver. He squealed and burned those tires backing out."

Hammer's at-home arsenal includes 14 handguns, six rifles, two shotguns, three muzzle-loading rifles. She likes to relax by going to the firing range or reading Robert Frost or watching any of her many video movies of her idol, John Wayne.

For months, Hammer lobbied on Florida's gun bills, her tenacity reinforced by the $100,000 in NRA contributions to friendly legislative candidates and the 125,000 Florida NRA members she implores to cast their single-issue votes. Rural Florida legislators, good ol' boys from low-crime districts who grew up with guns, have long sided with the NRA. Recently they have been joined by some urban legislators from heavily Cuban districts, where guns represent a certain machismo.

Hammer's eyes narrow and her gravelly voice grows tougher when she says she works with all her might to defeat anyone who doesn't vote her way on guns.

When the dust settled, despite polls showing a large majority wanted stricter gun control, only 11 out of 40 senators opposed the more permissive gun law.

Former governor Bob Graham had vetoed laws diluting gun control, but Gov. Bob Martinez let the legislature work its will.

Marion Hammer seems untroubled that other states are not as enlightened as Florida.

"It takes time to educate legislators," she says icily.