NASHVILLE, APRIL 25 -- It is important to Roger Small that no one think he approves of cult leader David Koresh.

"I'm not saying David Koresh was a great guy," he said. But Small said he is also deeply troubled by what the government did to Koresh and more than 80 of his Branch Davidian followers who died in a blaze in their compound near Waco, Tex., last week after a 51-day siege by federal agents.

"It seems like they tried, convicted and hanged him all at once, and that bothers me," he said.

Small's firm, Scattergun Technologies Inc., of Nashville, manufactures and sells firearms. Displayed on a table near him were some of his products -- including the 90132 Urban Sniper model, a shotgun with a rifle barrel and scope that has a range of up to 75 yards. The bulk of his customers are law enforcement agencies, Small said, but the weapons are available to anyone except convicted felons.

All around Small, other salesmen displayed their wares, including a Barrett 82A1, a .50-cal. semiautomatic weapon with a range of almost a mile and a price tag of almost $7,000, to hunting vests and other benign outerwear items. They gathered here at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, a festival that celebrates America's deeply ingrained fascination with guns.

The meeting came at a critical moment for the 122-year-old organization that is best known for its ferocious opposition to gun control legislation.

Earlier this year, the NRA lost two highly publicized battles in the legislatures of Virginia and New Jersey, which both placed restrictions on gun purchases. In Congress, NRA officials concede, some form of the so-called Brady bill -- which would impose a national waiting period before a person can purchase a handgun -- is likely to be enacted. President Clinton is committed to signing it.

And in the background, there is the specter of Waco, where Koresh and his followers assembled an astounding array of weaponry, raising anew the issue of the easy availability of guns.

It is not an issue that NRA leaders are eager to discuss. They beat back an attempt here to adopt a resolution calling for the immediate disbanding of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), whose agents made the raid that set off the deadly Waco siege, and for Clinton's resignation. "I don't think we know yet," said Wayne LaPierre Jr., the NRA's executive vice president, when asked whether Koresh and his followers qualified as the type of "law-abiding citizens" the NRA says should be left alone with their guns.

But among the NRA rank and file, Koresh was the talk of Nashville this weekend. "Do you know what Waco stands for?" one gun salesman asked another. "What A Cook-Out."

In the convention press room, Hal Swiggett of San Antonio, a Baptist minister and writer for a gun magazine, pronounced judgment on the Waco disaster. "ATF shot its own agents," he said of the four men killed in the Feb. 28 raid that began the siege. "We know the FBI started that fire."

"Was {Koresh} a convicted felon?" Al Rubega, a New Hampshire lawyer and NRA board member, demanded to know. "Was he adjudicated mentally incompetent?"

To many NRA members, the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound only proved what they have been saying for years -- that the Treasury Department agency is recklessly out of control, smashing into private homes to trample basic civil rights. "I don't think they were after Koresh," Rubega said. "They were after a photo-op."

But while the events in Waco severely damaged the ATF's reputation, much to the delight of many NRA members, they did not necessarily win many converts to the NRA's adamant opposition to virtually all gun control laws. Instead, the incident is likely to inflame emotions on both sides of the gun control issue, renewing a bitter political battle that LaPierre vowed the NRA will not lose.

LaPierre, who took over as chief operating officer in 1991, is widely credited by members with reinvigorating the NRA. In the late 1980s, NRA membership fell by 500,000. But during the last 18 months, according to LaPierre, membership has swelled by 600,000 and now stands at more than 3 million.

The NRA's political muscle extends beyond numbers and is anchored in some of the deepest myths and traditions of American history. The names on some of the displays in the Nashville Convention Center recalled visions of the Wild West: Colt, Remington, Winchester. Gene Howard of College Station, Tex., who bears a striking resemblance to John Wayne, wandered the corridors in full cowboy regalia, posing for pictures and reciting patriotic poetry.

"For me, it's a whole cultural package," said Matthias Matussek, New York bureau chief of the German magazine Der Spiegel and a newcomer to the United States. "We were at the Grand Old Opry. And there's this John Wayne look-alike. It's not just boom-boom."

It is also big business. The NRA estimates there are about 200 million firearms and 65 million gun owners in the country. More than 300 gun dealers and other merchants had displays at the convention. According to Richard J. Feldman, executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, a trade association, there are about 15,000 gun dealers in the country and civilian sales of firearms and ammunition are almost $3 billion a year. When related items such as hunting clothing and equipment are added, the total market that revolves around the world of guns is about $15 billion, he said.

In a fiery speech to the membership, LaPierre vowed to marshal all of the organization's political muscle for what he called the coming "fight for the most precious ground on earth . . . a fight for freedom." He and other NRA leaders complained repeatedly about the organization's treatment by the news media, which stand second only to the country's violent criminals on the NRA's list of demons.

"Good, honest Americans stand divided," LaPierre declared, "driven apart by a force that dwarfs any political power or social tyrant that ever before existed on this planet: the American media."

"I'm not trying to bash the media," LaPierre said in an interview a few hours after his speech. But, he added, when voters in the liberal bastion of Madison, Wis., recently defeated a proposed ban on handguns, it received almost no national news attention, while the NRA's defeats in Virginia and New Jersey were big news everywhere. "The media are trying to will the NRA out of existence and it's not happening."

The organization is misunderstood, LaPierre suggested. While it will never agree to a waiting period for the purchase of firearms, the NRA supports many of the other provisions of the Brady bill, he said. LaPierre cited the NRA's new gun safety program for children and its calls for tough prosecution of anyone convicted of committing a crime with a gun.

"I have a hard time figuring out how we're the bad guys," he said.