CAROL WALSH has always hated guns. She never thought she could shoot one. "Just looking at a gun spooks me," she says.
But this week Carol Walsh pumped 50 rounds from a .38 caliber revolver into a paper target at the Beverly Hills Gun Club, where she took her first shooting lesson - a decision prompted by the recent rioting here.
"In light of the disturbances, it was frightening to see that we are really on our own," she says.
Ms. Walsh isn't alone. Thousands of Californians - and apparently a fair number of other Americans - have been trooping to their local gun shops the past couple of weeks, driven in part by concerns about self-defense in the aftermath of the violence that flickered on TV screens across the land.
The surge in gun buying and target practice magnifies the complexity of emotions people feel about weapons and crime and points up an enduring dispute: Is society better or worse off with people buying more guns to protect themselves?
Advocates on both sides of the gun-control debate have their own stock answers, and both see lessons in the Los Angeles riots to buttress their case that there should or shouldn't be more controls on weapon purchases.
To the chief defender of the right to bear arms, the National Rifle Association, having a Berreta by the bedside can provide security.
The main gun-lobby organization is distraught because residents here who tried to buy guns as the violence and looting unfolded had to wait 15 days to get their weapons while a background check was done. Waiting periods
California is one of about two dozen states that have waiting periods of some sort before a person can take possession of a firearm.
Proponents of such restrictions - led by Handgun Control Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying group - reply that putting more guns in peoples' hands does not promote peace. They believe that, if California didn't have a waiting period, criminals would have been walking out of gun stores with weapons just like ordinary folk.
While interest groups spar, residents here at the vortex of the unrest are searching their own feelings.
Walsh, for instance, has always been an advocate of gun control. Now she's uncertain. She is not sure she will buy a gun. But she wants to feel more comfortable in handling one.
One of her friends, who was also shooting for the first time and who requested anonymity, said she doesn't expect to buy a weapon either, but she has her reasons for taking lessons.
"I'm not sure I could pull a gun on someone else," she says, as pistols popped in the shooting lanes nearby. "But if they pulled one on me, and I got my hands on it, I'd at least like to know what to do with it." Gun sales popping
In the first two weeks of May, Californians bought 31,100 guns, most of which were revolvers (22,000). That puts the state on track to beat the sales record set in 1981, when 38,000 handguns were sold.
Weapons sales have historically jumped after periods of unrest. There is little sign of ebbing so far, though: On May 18, the state recorded the highest number of sales receipts since the violence erupted - 5,167.
"It's hot and heavy," says a sales person who requested anonymity at Southern California Sharpshooter, a range-and-gun shop in Torrance, Calif.
Business has been booming, he says, both at the sales counter and firing range.
Some of those coming in are first-time buyers. Others are people who have had guns on the shelf for 10 years and are sharpening skills.
At Art's Guns in the San Fernando Valley, one manager estimates sales are double normal. "A good portion of the customers, surprisingly, are middle-class husbands and wives in their 40s and 50s," he says. "They have made a conscious decision that they need to defend themselves."
Still, contrary to popular perception, Los Angeles is not an armed camp. A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that proportionately fewer southern California homes have guns compared to the nation as a whole (29 percent versus 43 percent).
Moreover, it showed that the riots did little to change residents' views on gun control: Before, 73 percent favored more restrictions; afterward, the number was 70 percent. People more afraid
Even so, the survey revealed how pervasive concerns about weapons are: One in eight households in the region reported being victimized within the past two years by crimes involving guns, and two out of five adults said they avoid places they once frequented such as malls and theaters because of the fear of crime.
Owen Smet understands these concerns. A cop for 23 years, he is an instructor at the Beverly Hills Gun Club during off hours. Lately, he hasn't been able to keep up with all the requests.
"It is a sad commentary on society when you think about it," he says.
"Is it out of hand? I think so, he adds. "On the other hand, you've got all those guns on the street. What are people supposed to do?"