A drunken tavern patron who turned a gun on a crowd outside a Juniata Park pub early yesterday lost his life after he ignored an off-duty New Jersey prison guard's orders to drop the firearm and instead fired at the officer, witnesses said.

The correctional officer, who police declined to identify, returned fire and hit the gunman twice in the chest and abdomen. The man, 28, whose name police wouldn't release, died at Temple University Hospital a half-hour after the 2:30 a.m. incident outside the Family Tavern on Luzerne Street near J, police said.

Yesterday afternoon, stunned residents gathered to gaze at bloody snow and discuss an incident they agreed was unusual in the neighborhood.

A tavern bartender who declined to give her name said the incident unfolded shortly after the bar closed at 2 a.m., as customers loitered on the slushy sidewalk outside. Something angered the man, who began shouting that he would burn the bar down, the bartender said. He traded punches with another customer and then went to his car, she said.

When he returned, he was armed. He fired several times at the crowd, hitting some car windows, the bartender said.

The correctional officer had stopped by the bar at closing time with his wife, an entertainment promoter, to collect payment for a recent event she'd organized there, the bartender said.

When the gunman began firing, the officer brandished his own gun, identified himself, flashed a badge and demanded that the gunman drop his gun, she said. The officer fired twice when the gunman ignored his command and turned the weapon on him, she added.

"I saw the whole thing; it was self-defense," the bartender said. Police said the incident would be considered a justified shooting and not a homicide.

"I've lived here nine years and this is a rarity," said Jose Pagan, 29, who lives down the block.