The first woman to lead the National Rifle Association carries Florida's first concealed weapons permit and every day packs either a Colt Detective .38-caliber or a Beretta 9 mm.

"It all depends on which purse and what I'm wearing," Marion Hammer says.Despite such attention to appearances, Hammer pays little heed to the impressions left by her years as the NRA's Florida lobbyist. Whether tagged patriot or zealot, she focuses clearly on one target: protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves with guns when faced with potential violence.

She's been doing that for 17 years - and was doing it in 1989 when then-state lawmaker David Flagg met her "head on" after filing a bill to ban some assault weapons.

"It was like walking up on a rattlesnake," Flagg, now a hospital lobbyist, said in a telephone interview from his Gainesville office. "You knew that she was there and . . . that if you disturbed her it was going to strike you."

Hammer was disturbed by Flagg's legislation. She struck. And she and the NRA members she mobilized killed the bill.

Flagg, however, got to know the person behind the rattle. He found her to be genuine, committed, honorable. She's concerned, he said, about the people most vulnerable to violent crime - the woman alone in a parking lot, elderly people seen as easy targets.

Hammer, 56, has twice drawn a gun when threatened. Once was in an empty parking garage late at night. The other was on an open street in daylight.

Both times, Hammer, just 4 feet 11 inches tall, scared off her assailants without firing.

Gun control advocates are not relishing future dealings. "She's going to be a lot tougher on people than any of her predecessors in recent years," Mike Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, predicted from his Washington office.

Beard and Hammer have debated together and dined together. He speaks of her with respect and affection. Hammer doesn't show how tough she is by ranting or raving - just the opposite, he said.

"I don't think she'd ever lose her cool," Beard said. "She will sit there and look you right in the eye and say, `This is the way it's going to be and are you with me or against me?' "

Beard said he's glad he's not a lawmaker in Hammer's line of fire. Flagg can describe what that's like.

"Those blue eyes become steely, and while she is small in stature you begin to think she is about five times bigger than you are because she is so focused and resolute," he said.

Flagg, a gun-owner who does not belong to the NRA, said he hoped Hammer's controlled style would tone down the provocative and inflammatory rhetoric heard from the NRA in the past.

"I think they need someone of Marion's even temperament," Flagg said.

Hammer automatically assumed the presidency of the NRA two weeks ago when her predecessor, Thomas Washington, died of heart failure. As the NRA's second vice president, she had expected to be elevated to president next spring.

Hammer takes over the NRA several months after former President George Bush resigned his life membership over an NRA fund-raising letter that referred to federal law enforcement agents as "jack-booted government thugs."

Her assessment of the furor is even-handed and unemotional - but also without hint of contrition. "That statement got blown all out of proportion by people who were looking for something to attack the NRA on," Hammer said.

She says the NRA's public apology was aimed at those few who misinterpreted the letter's language. She stressed that the only fault she found with the matter was how critics exaggerated the statement.

As NRA president, Hammer said she wanted "to make people understand that gun bans and restrictive gun legislation that restricts only the rights of law-abiding people is not the answer to crime and societal problems."

David Bennett, an NRA board member from Albuquerque, said Hammer's "first focus has been firearm civil rights" so people can defend themselves against attack.

Don L. Henry, a board member from Salem, Ore., said Hammer is "scrupulously, intellectually honest" and never resorts to personal attack.

"Marion's counsel would always be well-considered and affectionately offered," he said. "And the people whom Marion counsels she leaves free. She leaves them free to make a good choice."

Hammer's political education began seriously in 1978 when she became executive director of Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the NRA's state affiliate. That was her first job outside the home after bringing up three daughters.

Hammer learned about guns as a girl. After her father was killed in World War II, she lived with her grandparents on their South Carolina farm.

Her grandfather taught the 5-year-old how to handle her father's .22-caliber rifle, and they hunted squirrels and rabbits together. Hammer still has the bolt-action, single-shot Remington Target Master and says it will go to one of her three grandchildren.

Hammer has been too busy to hunt in recent years. But she said she loves "to go out to the range and just shoot for relaxation."

Hammer cites as her major accomplishments the passage of Florida's concealed weapons law and the NRA's Eddie Eagle gun safety program that has been taught to more than 7 million children across the country and honored by the National Safety Council. As president, she hopes to expand NRA youth programs.