FORT WORTH, Texas — Curtis Van Liew always knew something bad could happen.
Then, one cool fall evening in 1985, on his way home from work, he let a vehicle slide in front of him.
Before he knew it, the car behind him had whipped past, cut him off and trapped his vehicle in a construction zone.
"Four guys got out, came back to my vehicle, started cussing and throwing punches," said Van Liew, 49, of Watauga, Texas. "I had no chance to react.
"They broke every tooth out of my head that night ... and they left me for dead. Because I let a car get in front of me."
He vowed that he would never again be helpless in the face of an attack.
Van Liew is among a growing number of Texans who hold licenses to carry concealed handguns.
Eighteen years after the legislature made it legal to carry a concealed handgun in public, Texas now has 585,860 active licenses statewide, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram review of Department of Public Safety data.
Harris County, the state's largest, is home to the most licenses, with nearly 90,000.
But Tarrant County, with the third-highest population, now has the second-most active licenses, at 42,114 — or one for every 49 people.
Rounding out the top five are Dallas, Bexar and Collin counties.
"The number of people seeking concealed handgun licenses is going to keep growing," said Van Liew, who began teaching concealed handgun classes in 2010. "Most people say they feel the need to protect themselves now."
But the growth is not just a Texas phenomenon, said Georgen Guerrero, an assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. "Gun sales are up nationwide."
Last year alone, the FBI received more than 19.5 million inquiries from people running criminal background checks on potential gun buyers — compared with 16.4 million in 2011, 14.4 million in 2010, 14 million in 2009 and 12.7 million in 2008, according to the most recent federal records.
For many, it's about personal protection — and preserving a constitutional right.
"They do not want to lose what they already have," Guerrero said. "They do not want the government to have any more control over them than it already does."
The number of Texas licenses spiked in 2009, the year President Barack Obama took office, and again in 2011 after a wave of mass shootings. One of them, in Arizona, killed six and wounded more than a dozen, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"I think we have a very fearful society," said Marsha McCartney, a spokeswoman for the Texas chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We all know crime is on a downward spiral and this (concealed handgun license ownership) is on the rise."
State lawmakers made it legal to carry concealed handguns in 1995.
That year, one person in Comal County, northeast of San Antonio, received a license.
By the end of 1996, 114,017 Texas permits had been issued. Each permit is good for four years initially and then for five years after each renewal, according to the DPS data.
The number of Texans receiving first-time or renewed licenses fluctuated between 48,000 and 88,000 for the next 12 years.
Then, in 2009, the number of licenses issued jumped to 138,768, DPS figures show.
"Obama is driving sales AND permits," said Alan Korwin, author of nine gun law books, including "Gun Laws of America," and operator of gunlaws.com. "As elites try to confiscate civil rights, the public rushes to secure what they can while they can.
"It's happening everywhere," he said. "Manufacturers are running three shifts seven days a week and can't get close to keeping up. People seek licenses but what they really want is their rights intact."
Soon after the 2008 election, people began stocking up on firearms and ammunition, fearful that Obama would add gun restrictions or reinstate a ban on assault weapons that President Bill Clinton had initiated in 1994.
The ban expired a decade later, and Congress declined to reauthorize it.
The postelection shopping spree eventually created a shortage, and it took nearly a year for supplies to become more plentiful and for prices to come down.
Local gun and ammo sales have been on the rise again since last year's election, although they haven't matched the mad rush of 2008.
The number of concealed handgun licenses issued in Texas jumped again, to 143,725 in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, DPS records show.
Since 1995, more than 90,000 licenses — including renewals — have been issued to residents of Tarrant County, the review of DPS data shows.
For the first dozen years after the law took effect, Dallas County was in second place behind Harris for the most licenses issued. But in the past four years, Tarrant has edged ahead of Dallas, the review shows.
Guerrero chalks up the local increase to population growth "combined with conservative ideologies."
"Dallas County has a greater population than Tarrant County ... but is generally less conservative," he said. "Harris County is also less conservative than Tarrant County; however, it has a much greater population."
Not just anyone can get a concealed handgun license.
Applicants must take a class, pay a fee and have a clean criminal record.
A license costs $140, but the fee is waived for active military members and halved for veterans and Texans who are 60 and older.
Renewals cost $70.
Texans must be 21, must have lived in the state for at least six months, must pass a background check for mental and criminal histories, and must have no felony convictions. They must have sound judgment, cannot be chemically dependent, and cannot be delinquent on taxes or child support payments.
Texans with documented psychiatric problems, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anger disorders, are not eligible.
Any violation of the requirements can lead to suspension or revocation.
Concealed handguns are not allowed, even for license holders, in some areas, such as schools, colleges, racetracks, polling places while voting is taking place and within 1,000 feet of where an execution is taking place on a designated execution day.
Van Liew, who runs Texas EZ Concealed Handgun License, teaches about three classes a week, trying to help others obtain a license.
He has seen demand rise from three or four in a class in 2010 to perhaps 10 or 12.
In the past 45 days or so, he said, the number of students has increased to 15 to 20 per class.
"I always knew there was a need to protect yourself, but a lot of other people didn't think so until the last few years," said Van Liew, who hasn't had to use his gun to fend off attacks but is ready to protect himself if necessary.
"Anywhere you go, you are at risk of something happening."