By VANESSA O'CONNELL
Some gun owners, saying that the National Rifle Association isn't battling hard enough for their rights, are taking the fight into their own hands.
The 4.3 million-member NRA, one of the most powerful and well-funded lobbying groups in Washington, has for 35 years dominated the push to expand gun rights.
But its strategies aren't aggressive or imaginative enough for some gun owners who want to openly carry holstered pistols in public places, or to exploit loopholes in state gun laws to purchase semi-automatic rifles.
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Associated Press A man carrying a rifle attends a gun-rights rally in Frankfort, Ky. last month.
They are coming together in smaller, loosely organized groups that recruit on the Internet and find inspiration from the tea party movement.
On Monday, several thousand gun owners plan to mount two protests—a march in Washington and an "open-carry" rally in Mount Vernon, Va.
"More and more the gun-rights movement is moving toward a stand-up-and-shout approach," said Jeff Knox, director of the Firearms Coalition, a for-profit, loose-knit coalition of activists. "There's a lot of general frustration with NRA not taking a hard enough line."
Data on how many owners are joining the splinter groups are scant, because many are newly organized, and tend to seek contributions over formal memberships. In addition, some gun owners join more than one group. Mr. Knox estimated that the splinter groups had one million to 1.5 million members or regular contributors.
The NRA is "no longer absolutely the 800-pound gorilla" in the pro-gun movement, said Gary Marbut, a life member of the NRA and president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, an NRA affiliate. "The NRA is running the risk of becoming insignificant, of fading into the background."
"You're really seeing a fragmentation of the gun-rights movement," said Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy group. "There are many different types of gun owners, and the NRA tries to be the home for all. But it's difficult."
To be sure, the rise of the new groups hasn't hurt the NRA in terms of membership or revenue. Fueled by an increase in gun ownership, its membership is 25% to 30% above typical levels during the tenure of President George W. Bush. Altogether, an estimated 80 million people in the U.S. own guns.
The NRA's political action committee has taken in $10.25 million for the 2010 elections, and ranks sixth in terms of receipts among all federally registered PACs, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks Federal Election Commission disclosures. The NRA's total revenue, including member dues, investment income and contributions, rose to $307 million in 2009, from $268 million a year earlier.
"The NRA approval ratings are the highest they have ever been," said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Gun ownership "is a freedom the overwhelming majority of Americans support," he said. "There's different voices under that umbrella of freedom. And that's a good thing."
The NRA has pushed its agenda mainly by building strong relationships with Republican candidates and a system, dating back to 1975, for grading lawmakers and candidates based on how often they side with the NRA's legislative priorities.
These strategies helped lead to gun-rights victories such as the passage of laws last year to allow people to carry guns in national parks, and the so-called Amtrak bill, which will make it legal to travel with guns on trains, as checked baggage, by December.
"The NRA is a highly professional lobbying organization that's much less interested in spontaneous social expression than it is in lobbying in legislatures, and in endorsing certain litigation in the courts," said Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg, an expert on gun law.
But Ben Cannon, 29, of Healdsburg, Calif., a founding member of the board of Calguns Inc., an Internet-based organization founded in 2002, said some younger gun owners felt that because the NRA must cater to all gun owners, it didn't embrace their own interests enough.
Calguns aims to fashion itself as a hipper pro-gun group. It has two entities—a free Web forum with 40,000 registered members that makes revenue from advertising, and a two-year-old nonprofit arm that raises money through donations. Most supporters are in their 20s and 30s, college-educated and urban dwelling.
Mr. Cannon claimed his group was responsible for advancing gun rights in California by discovering an obscure legal path to circumvent the state assault-weapons ban without breaking the law. The group noticed that AK-47, AR-15 and other styles of semi-automatic rifles would be legal to buy, build and own as long as they weren't models specifically listed as banned and didn't have a detachable ammunition magazine. He has posted online a letter from the state's firearms division confirming that certain purchases are legal.
After using the Internet to share advice for purchasing altered rifles that comply with the law, Calguns is seeking to identify plaintiffs and lawyers willing to file lawsuits it believes will further gun rights in the state.
Another alternative group gaining momentum with young gun owners is Opencarry.org, a six-year-old Internet-based organization with an estimated 22,000 registered users dedicated to openly carrying handguns in public in the 43 states where doing so is legal.
The open-carry movement has succeeded in small yet visible ways. Businesses, including Starbucks Corp. coffee shops, have resisted pressure from gun-control advocates to ban the practice in their stores.
The NRA hasn't endorsed the campaign, which it fears may divert attention from its goal of expanding rights to carry concealed weapons for self-defense, or trigger a backlash against guns.
The NRA isn't sponsoring, funding or providing NRA speakers for Monday's rallies. An NRA spokesman said the group had helped to spread word about the march in Washington.
But Dudley Brown, executive director of the National Association for Gun Rights, an NRA competitor that has filed paperwork to form its own political action committee, said that wasn't enough, adding that the NRA had been too quick to compromise with gun-control advocates.
He pointed to the association's endorsement of a law to check mental-health records in background checks for gun purchases following the killing of 32 people in 2007 by a suicidal gunman at Virginia Tech.
"Philosophically, we all agree with the same idea of gun freedom," said Mr. Brown, 44. "The question is strategy."