Early in September, a lawmaker here celebrated his 41st birthday with a packed poolside party of dancing, drunken, gun-wielding guests at a highway resort called Fantasy motel. As the party moved into full swing around midnight, people began firing into the air in delirious joy.

Suddenly, the politician fell, fatally wounded by a bullet from his own bodyguard's weapon.

For residents of Unnao, a high-crime town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the widely publicized death was a reminder of their state's expanding gun culture. But it had no apparent effect on people's desire for firearms.

Uttar Pradesh officials say they receive thousands of applications daily for gun licenses, and at last count 500,000 cases were pending.

"Times are bad, we have to protect ourselves," said Virendra Singh, a corn farmer in Dostinagar village, not far from the motel. Singh has a handgun and a rifle, which cost him the equivalent of about $1,400, and has applied for licenses for three more guns.

"If you have weapons, the crime rate will go down," he said, as he sat next to a heap of freshly harvested corn in his front yard. He said he needs guns to protect his crop from robbers and to chase away thieves trying to steal his tractor.

"A gun brings respect," Singh said. "In the cities, when you come into a little money you buy a car. Here in the village you buy a gun."

Half a century after this country gained independence from Britain through the doctrine of nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi, guns are proliferating in many regions.

"The gun is the ultimate status symbol in the villages these days," said Kamal Saksena, a senior police officer in Lucknow. "And they display it openly as it gives them a feeling of raw power." It is not uncommon to see a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder or a revolver at his waist on the state's highways.

"If your neighbor has it, then you feel pressured to have it, too," said Saksena.

Getting a gun license is a complicated process. Applicants have to demonstrate that they face a perceived threat and prove that they have no criminal record. But Saksena said the police records in the state are not computerized and that applicants with criminal pasts can often get licenses.

In 2002, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 24 percent of murders nationwide were committed with guns, compared with 20 percent in 2000. In Uttar Pradesh state, the share of gun murders stood at 54 percent in 2002.

More than a third of the people of Unnao district live in desperate poverty. But in Uttar Pradesh, the district has the highest number of applicants for weapons, which can cost dearly. "The queue is very long. Nine out of ten applications I get every day in my office are for gun licenses," said Anil Kumar Sagar, Unnao's chief bureaucrat.

In Dostinagar village, Gangaram Trivedi, a potbellied potato farmer, bought a single-barrel shotgun four years ago, although he acknowledges he had never been attacked or threatened.

"People think I am somebody important. They just . . . step aside if I walk in with a gun hanging on my shoulders," Trivedi said, as he lounged in his veranda with his gun hanging on a wooden nail behind him.

He said he never formally learned how to shoot. "I know how to fire, whether I can aim or not," Trivedi laughed.

Aradhna Shukla, a senior bureaucrat in Lucknow who has earmarked a day each week to deal with requests for gun licenses, said guns can turn minor spats into fatal violence. "Even a small situation like two women fighting over water at a street hand pump can flare up if one of their husbands brings out a gun," he said.

To slow down the race, two districts in Uttar Pradesh recently announced they would give preference to license applicants who have small families and agree to sterilization. Sterilization is an important part of India's birth control program and over the years authorities have offered elaborate incentives to people willing to undergo the procedure.

In the two districts, a single-barrel shotgun would require agreement for two people to be sterilized; for a handgun license, the price would be four people.

The government is investigating a case in which a rich farmer seeking a gun license is said to have had five of his laborers forcibly sterilized at a nearby government clinic.

For people who cannot afford a license or a factory-made gun, cheap country-made guns are an easy option -- and it is these guns that account for the bulk of gun crimes. "The licensed guns are mostly for display and intimidation. Crimes are not committed by these, as we can easily trace it back to them," said Sagar, Unnao's chief bureaucrat.

In Muras village, 13 miles from the nearest police station, a locksmith who gave his name as Gappu supports his family of five by making guns in his thatch-roofed mud hut. Gappu said he could make a gun from a metal bicycle rod or a car steering wheel rod in just a week. He said it cost him the equivalent of about $10 to make a gun; he can sell it for about $60.

"I know it is illegal, but it is not easy to make ends meet as a locksmith," he said.

Locally made guns have also found their way into rural India's periodic wars between members of different social castes. In August, a poor family of lower-caste masons in Dungarpur village was attacked by gun-wielding upper-caste men from the village as part of a yearlong caste battle.

Ram Naresh Jatav, the only breadwinner in the family, was shot with a licensed firearm and died on his way to the hospital.

"If the powerful upper-caste families in the village keep big weapons, how do we protect ourselves?" asked his widow, Ramvati Jatav, 37. "I will have to get a locally made gun, even if I have to sell my buffalo to pay for it."

Virendra Singh, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh, owns a revolver and a rifle and has applied for three more gun licenses.