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Arizona Fired Up Over Year-Old Weapons Law

INSIDE Shooter's World, a cavernous store for gun buffs, Tiffany Williams attends a daylong firearm-safety class. Ms. Williams, who twice was accosted by an assailant, wants to learn how to protect herself.

''You can't trust anybody anymore,'' she says.

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Ms. Williams is one of some 31,000 Arizonans who have decided in the last year that their safety hinges on toting guns, and thus have completed a 16-hour firearm-safety course required to carry a concealed gun.

Though Arizona is a land steeped in Wild West heritage, the sudden rush to buy firearms is surprising even many in this pistol-familiar state.

Critics worry that more guns showing up in more hands will just lead to greater incidents of violence. But supporters of concealed weapons laws argue that allowing people to carry firearms - openly or not - is a basic right, and gives people a greater sense of security.

What happens in Arizona may offer lessons for other states as concealed weapons laws spread across the country.

In August, Texas became the 28th state - the ninth in the last two years - to make carrying a concealed weapon a basic right. Virginia put such a law on the books earlier this summer.

One thing seems clear in the year since Arizona's statute went into effect: the culture of firearms is thriving.

The law has triggered brisk sales of specially designed fanny packs, belly bands, and ankle holsters. Customers pay from $25 to $125 to conceal creatively - important in a state where the summer heat nearly prohibits sticking a gun in a jacket pocket.

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As for whether concealed weapons laws deter or spur crime, the debate is just beginning. Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R) weighed in with his views when the measure was signed into law last July. He said it might make criminals think twice before assuming a person isn't armed.

Phoenix Police spokesman Mike Torres says anecdotes he has heard bear that out. He cites a business owner who was robbed at gunpoint while depositing money at a bank. The businessman pulled a gun on the robber in self-defense, and while being shot, the businessman probably saved his life by having the weapon, Mr. Torres says.

''Has the law impacted crime? I don't know. Has it saved lives? I would say yes,'' says Torres, who adds that the department so far has found no abuses of the law.

Others, however, such as state Rep. David Armstead (D), who opposed the law, question its value. Mr. Armstead says he has seen no evidence to support proponents' claims that the law would deter crime. ''You can carry a gun in the open. Why did we need a concealed-weapons law?''

Armstead also worries that the law sends the wrong message to armed youth gangs, which trouble his as well as other districts in predominantly black and Hispanic portions of south Phoenix.

Each side has studies to bolster its argument. Supporters cite one by the Colorado-based Independence Institute, which says concealed-carry laws may deter crime.

Those findings are disputed by a University of Maryland study of firearm-homicide rates in four Southern cities and Portland, Ore. It found in all but Portland more people were killed with guns after laws were relaxed to permit concealed firearms.

To qualify for a concealed gun in Arizona, a person must be at least 21 years old, pass criminal and mental background checks, and pay $50. Only about 100 applicants (fewer than 1 percent) have been rejected.

SO far, according to the Department of Public Safety, the new law has gone more smoothly than anticipated. Still, DPS revoked two permits after the holders were convicted of felonies, including one involving the death of his wife.

''There were predictions that we were going to have gunfights at all the intersections and a lot of problems with people carrying concealed weapons,'' DPS Lt. Tom Clinkenbeard says. ''We haven't seen that.''

The number of homicides in Phoenix in 1994, the first partial year the law was in effect, grew to a record 244. So far, the city has registered 190 homicides this year.

Numbers like those are what drove Tim of suburban Mesa, Ariz., to apply for a concealed-weapons permit.

Though the decision to obtain a concealed gun troubles him, the art director for a health-care marketing firm says he was stirred by concern over the safety of his wife and year-old son.

''Is the world that bad?'' he asks.

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