COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — NEXT time somebody tries to break into Dewey Noble's delivery truck, they'll get a .38 caliber surprise.
That's what Mr. Noble said late last month as he arrived at the El Paso County Courthouse here to pick up an application for a concealed-weapons permit.
Under a two-week-old county statute backed by Sheriff John Anderson, more than 2,000 people in this mountain-shadowed community of 400,000 have signed up to pack heat.
They join a rising number of Americans who have taken advantage of the wave of ``right to carry'' legislation currently washing over states, counties, and municipalities across the nation.
Since 1987, nine states have passed laws making it easier for citizens to carry guns, and as many as 20 more, including California, Michigan, and Texas, are considering it. Already 23 states have liberal permit policies.
Supporters say arming average citizens will discourage criminals and allow more citizens to venture out of their homes. Opponents say the laws will turn Colorado Springs, and hundreds of cities like it, into bastions of vigilantism, where traffic disputes escalate into shootouts.
``There are 225 million handguns in this country, one for every man, woman, and child,'' says Susan Whitmore, spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.,-based Handgun Control Inc. ``If arming everybody made us more secure, we would already be the safest nation in the world.''
But this is not the prevailing sentiment in Colorado Springs, a staunchly conservative city shaded by the front range of the Rocky Mountains and home to the United States Air Force Academy.
``The more of us that can fight back, the less criminal activity we'll have,'' says longtime county resident Howard Inks. Most of the guns on the street now are illegal, he says, ``So why shouldn't there be legal ones to counter them?''
Some backers say the popularity of the El Paso County law may prompt Colorado lawmakers to enact a statewide right-to-carry measure.
``I wish everybody in the county would sign up,'' says Walt Lysinger of Colorado Springs. ``I don't plan to carry a gun, I just want to be part of the statistic.''
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has pushed the right-to-carry issue hard in recent months, as part of an effort to bypass Washington and concentrate on changing gun laws at the grass roots level.
Recent successful right-to-carry votes in Arkansas and Oklahoma were partly fueled by a nationwide NRA study showing existing laws to be unfair. In counties with strict gun-control laws, the study found, the majority of people who receive permits are cronies of the county sheriff.
IN Texas, a referendum on concealed weapons, vetoed in 1993 by then-Gov. Ann Richards, is likely to be signed by Gov. George W. Bush by year's end. In California, two state assemblymen last week introduced a right-to-carry bill called the ``Citizens Self-Defense Act.''
The right-to-carry movement began in 1987 when Florida lawmakers passed a liberal concealed-weapons policy. Any state resident or visitor over 21 who can show ``cause'' is eligible for a permit.
Applicants must complete a gun-safety course and pay a $137 fee. Felony convictions, previous drug abuse, and mental illness are grounds for disqualification.
Since 1987, the ``gunshine state'' has doled out about 260,000 permits. Up to November, only 18 had been revoked for unlawful conduct with a gun, according to Florida's Department of Law Enforcement.
Yet the law's effect on crime is unclear. While Florida still has the nation's highest violent-crime rate, its homicide rate fell from 12 per 100,000 in 1986 to 8.8 per 100,000 in 1993.
Supporters credit the right-to-carry law. Gun-control advocates note that the violent crime rate did not begin to fall until after the state passed a three-day waiting period on handgun purchases in 1991.
``Nothing has proven that carrying a loaded gun makes you safe,'' Ms. Whitmore says, citing a recent FBI report that found that 80 percent of police officers killed in action never have a chance to fire their guns. ``Police have extensive training, and guns don't always protect them. I don't see how the average citizen could fare any better.''
Mary Sue Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), says the measure is vital for public safety, because 87 percent of violent crimes occur outside the home.
David Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., says right-to-carry laws haven't led to a jump in gunplay, or a huge drop in crime. The real success of the laws, he says, is in making citizens, particularly women, feel safer.
Lisa, a life insurance saleswoman from Colorado Springs who makes house calls at night, echoes this sentiment.
``I would feel a lot safer with a pistol in my purse,'' she says. ``These days, it's dangerous to be a woman walking around.''
Noble, the truck driver, sees it more as a matter of manners. ``If everybody has a gun,'' he says, ``It makes for a polite society.''