In a makeshift classroom at a suburban gun store near here, nine men who described themselves as decent, hard-working, law-abiding Texans sat listening to a firearms instructor named Ross Bransford one recent Saturday.

Bransford, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, told the men that decent, hard-working, law-abiding Texans should not have to cower from dangerous criminals. Honest citizens, properly trained, should be free to bear arms publicly, to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The men nodded emphatically. "Damn right," said one. And after 10 hours of instruction in the techniques, risks and legal rules of lethal self-defense, each would get a certificate allowing him to apply for a state permit to carry a concealed firearm in public. Then let violent predators beware.

"I wouldn't pull my gun unless I was in extreme danger," said one of the men in the class, 35-year-old Tim Hutcherson, a manufacturing supervisor. "Or if I saw someone walking around a bus or a school with a gun, and they weren't clearly identified as a peace officer."

In the five years since Gov. George W. Bush took office, the concept of an armed citizenry as a deterrent to crime has gained a firm hold in Texas. In his first campaign for governor, in 1994, Bush promised gun enthusiasts that he would sign a bill ending the state's century-old ban on the carrying of sidearms by civilians--and he did. Now, to the dismay of gun control advocates, more than 200,000 Texans are licensed to carry concealed handguns, and the number continues to go up.

As he emerges as the Republican presidential nominee, Bush can expect his Democratic rival, Vice President Gore, to cast him as a slavish ally of the gun lobby, as he has begun to do with increasing heat in recent days.

Last year, amid a nationwide trend of lawsuits against gun manufacturers by communities seeking to recoup the public health costs of gun violence, Bush was among 14 governors who signed laws barring local jurisdictions from bringing such cases. And he declined to back legislation here that would have expanded background checks on buyers at gun shows in the state.

But this is Texas--Ross Bransford's Texas--an increasingly suburban state, yet one imbued with a spirit of rural self-reliance dating to its frontier days. Nearly 60 percent of households in the state have firearms in them, according to recent surveys, compared with 34 percent of homes nationwide. In turning his pro-gun sentiments into public policy, Bush has reflected not only the NRA's line, but the enduring pro-gun passion of the state that twice elected him.

"There's this whole idea that we're a bunch of gun-toting hicks, a bunch of Bubbas with gun racks going around shooting everything up, and that's wrong," said another of Bransford's students, Michael Kelley, an aide to a state senator. "People have firearms around them their whole lives. We have a healthy respect for them. I feel safer in Texas because I know Texans understand guns."

The NRA's Austin lobbyist, Gib Lewis, said public support for a Texas concealed-carry law began building in the 1980s, a reaction to rising crime. It was a "grass-roots movement" having nothing to do with the gun lobby, said Lewis, a former Texas House speaker. But gun control activists contend that the push for a concealed-carry statute here was part of a national campaign by the NRA.

While 14 states give local police officials the discretion to issue or deny concealed-carry licenses, the bill that Bush signed made Texas a "shall issue" state, meaning every qualified applicant must be given a permit. Similar "shall issue" laws have been enacted--most since 1987--in more than two dozen other states, including Virginia, where 144,000 permits have been issued.

In his successful campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Ann W. Richards, Bush focused on an array of issues, including public safety, accusing her of being soft on crime. The concealed-carry bill he signed after his first legislative session took effect in September 1995.

"Texas says that responsible citizens who are licensed and trained ought to be able to protect themselves," Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman, said recently. "The nurse who works at night, the woman who travels alone in her car across Texas--these people feel safer because of this law."

Women make up a minority of the state's 204,000 concealed-carry permit holders. Men hold 80 percent of the permits. Overall, 92 percent of permit-holders are white, like the nine men in Ross Bransford's class.

No state agency, including the Department of Public Safety (DPS), which issues the permits, has tried to measure the effect of the concealed-carry law. But like other initial foes of the statute, Kenneth Yarbrough, who headed the Texas Association of Police Chiefs in the early 1990s, said there is no evidence of an increase in gun violence since the law took effect. "The things we were worried about have not happened," said Yarbrough, a suburban chief near Dallas.

To obtain a permit after completing a gun class, an applicant must attest that he or she has no felony record or certain types of pending charges, has not been diagnosed with a disqualifying mental illness, is not a drug addict or alcoholic, is not subject to a restraining order, and has not defaulted on back taxes, child support payments or a student loan.

The DPS said it has revoked 1,005 permits since 1996, usually after being notified by local authorities that permit-holders had been convicted of crimes or become disqualified in other ways.

In a 1998 report, the anti-gun Violence Policy Center in Washington decried the statute, noting that 2,000 permit-holders (out of 180,000 at the time) had been charged with crimes in the previous three years, from 442 instances of drunk driving to five cases of murder and attempted murder. But not all of those permit-holders were convicted, and not all were accused of offenses that would disqualify them from carrying a concealed handgun, the DPS said.

As to whether the concealed-carry statute is partly responsible for Texas's overall declining crime rate, co-author and state Rep. Bill G. Carter (R) said: "I strongly believe it is. These predators have to think twice now before picking a victim." Bush, who owns a shotgun and a hunting rifle but has never been an NRA member, credits the drop in crime to the concealed-carry law and to other laws he has signed, toughening penalties for violent offenders, especially those who use guns. But criminal justice experts note that crime rates began falling here and nationally before Bush took office.

At Cook's Sure Shot Gun Range, Bransford, who packs a custom-made, .40-caliber semiautomatic on his hip whenever he leaves home, began his first self-defense lecture of the 10-hour day, focusing on the importance of practice.

Practice drawing your weapons at home, he told the men, who were seated around a conference table. They watched him at the front of the room as he reached for his holster. "You must build yourself a program and train yourself to get that firearm out, bring it on line, safety off, target acquisition and pull that trigger."

Firing their weapons during practice is essential, Bransford told them. He suggested rubber bullets in the back yard. "If you practice just pointing your gun without pulling that trigger, and someday somebody's drawing a gun to kill you, guess what's going to happen?" he said. "You're going to point your gun--and die!"

They sat riveted, Hutcherson, Kelley and the others: an education consultant, a computer salesman, a police dispatcher, a construction engineer, a factory supervisor and two men who said they are "project" managers. The oldest was 53, the youngest 21, the minimum age for a permit.

They listened as Bransford, one of 2,000 state-certified concealed-carry instructors, told them how to shoot, where to shoot, whom to shoot and what to say afterward when the police show up. "You have to be able to articulate why you did what you did, and why you felt absolutely driven to do it," Bransford said. "In this state, if you can do that, it's damn hard to convict you."

In the end, after firing enough accurate target shots to satisfy the state, the men passed a 50-question multiple-choice test.

In interviews, all complained of being unfairly cast as paranoid, testosterone-crazed rednecks by gun control proponents, especially those in Washington. "It's a symptom of the enormous amount of ignorance in the gun debate," said David Yeagy, 27. "The quality of information out there is so poor, I don't think people like ourselves are even willing to enter the debate, because you're so quickly labeled."

Bush, however, will not be able to avoid the issue. After the Columbine High School killings in Colorado last year and a series of other highly publicized shootings--including the recent slaying of a Michigan first-grader by a classmate--gun control is a political hot button that Gore already has pushed repeatedly. Campaigning in California in September, for example, Gore decried Texas's gun laws a few days after a deranged attacker fired on a gathering of teenagers in a Fort Worth church, killing seven victims and himself.

Gore correctly noted that Bush, in 1997, had signed an amendment to the concealed-carry statute removing "established houses of worship" from the list of places where permit-holders are forbidden to bring their weapons. Carter, the state House member, said he proposed the revision because gun-owning clergy members who reside in the buildings where they preach felt their rights had been taken away.

As Bush supporters were quick to point out after the church shooting, the gunman, who used two semiautomatic pistols, did not have a concealed-carry permit and had not applied for one.

The contentious issue of background checks at gun shows also has been politically tricky for Bush, whose state is by far the nation's leader in gun shows.

The Brady gun control bill requires federally licensed firearms dealers at gun shows to check buyers' backgrounds with a national data center before making sales, just as they would in their stores. But a non-licensed dealer at a show--someone selling firearms from a personal collection--is not obligated by federal law to make such checks.

As a result, non-licensed dealers "have no way of knowing whether they are selling to a violent felon or someone who intends to illegally traffic guns on the streets," federal law enforcement officials told Congress last year, calling gun shows "a large market where criminals can shop for firearms anonymously." Because Congress has been unwilling to close that loophole in the Brady bill, some state legislatures have done so, passing laws requiring background checks on all gun show buyers. But an effort to pass such a law in Texas last year failed in a House committee.

"I had a lot of hope for it," said state Rep. Debra Danburg (D), who wrote the legislation. "The committee at one point was a 50-50 split, with two swing votes who would have swung my way if Bush had lifted a finger to help."

She said when she asked Bush why he was opposed to her bill, "he was ducking and dodging." As for the gun lobby, its position on the issue is clear. The NRA disputes contentions that non-licensed dealers regularly sell guns to criminals and strongly opposes requiring those dealers to perform background checks, calling it an unfair, time-consuming burden.

On the day Danburg's bill died in committee, last April 20, a dozen students and a teacher were slain at Columbine. Suddenly the issue of gun violence seized the nation's attention--about a month before Bush was to officially begin his campaign for the White House. The morning after the attack, when a radio reporter asked him about Danburg's bill, Bush replied that he supported expanding background checks at gun shows, which surprised Danburg. She publicly called on him to help revive her bill in the House. But Bush said it was too late in the legislative session.

With many Americans wanting tighter gun restrictions after Columbine, and hard-line gun enthusiasts refusing to give in, Danburg said, "I think [Bush] was trying to play it both ways." But his spokesman, McClellan, said Bush "has consistently supported closing the gun show loophole for a number of years." As for why he did not back Danburg's bill--which would have angered the gun lobby here--McClellan said Bush thinks it is up to Congress to deal with the loophole.

"Federal legislation created it," McClellan said. "Federal legislation should close it."

And there is another caveat: While he supports requiring non-licensed dealers to conduct background checks, Bush has said he opposes allowing the data center up to three days to respond, as is now the case for licensed dealers. Gun groups point out that unlike full-time, licensed dealers, non-licensed sellers do not have stores where they can later complete transactions that were delayed by slow background checks at weekend gun shows.

In Washington, a month after the Columbine shootings, the Senate narrowly passed legislation to close the Brady loophole--including a waiting period of up to three days on background checks by non-licensed dealers. Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the measure. But companion legislation stalled in the House after supporters of the tougher Senate version refused to accept a provision reducing the waiting period to 24 hours, which is the time frame Bush said he favors.

So nothing has changed.

"Texas law enforcement officers have told us, 'We see the abuses, and we can't do a thing about them,' " Danburg said. "They see people they know to be criminals walking around at gun shows. They see non-licensed dealers walking around with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, saying: 'Cash only! No background checks!' "

Licensed to Conceal

Texas banned civilians from carrying concealed guns for more than a century, until George W. Bush was elected governor in 1994. Now Texas is a "shall issue" state. The law took effect in 1995.

Concealed-carry Laws in the U.S.

DEFINITIONS:

"May issue" Local police officials have the discretion to issue or deny concealed-carry permits to civilians.

"Shall issue` Every qualified applicant in the state must be issued a permit.

Without Bush's support, a bill to expand background checks at gun shows died in the state legislature last year.

Number of gun shows in 1998

(Top 10 states)

Texas 472

Pennsylvania 250

Florida 224

Illinois 203

California 188

Indiana 180

North Carolina 170

Oregon 160

Ohio 148

Nevada 129

As of last month 203,925 people held permits to carry concealed firearms in Texas. The vast majority of them were white men.

Texas concealed-carry permit holders

As of January

By race:

White 187,161

Black 8,886

Other 7,878

By sex:

Male 164,145

Female 39,780

SOURCES: Handgun Control Inc.; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Texas Department of Public Safety