By Andy Sullivan
CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine (Reuters) - Things are looking up at the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club.
The junior marksmanship team now has matching jackets and Olympic-style rifles. There's a new video security system. And the shooting range has been rebuilt, with a rubber roof and double-thick plywood walls to dampen the crack of rifle fire - not that that's likely to satisfy the neighbors who keep complaining about the noise.
There's another change as well: One year ago, the private club required all 300 of its members to join the National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun-rights group. Some club members objected, and a dozen or so quit. But most had their NRA cards already, and the rest signed up.
The decision offers a glimpse of how the NRA - best-known in Washington as a bare-knuckled gun advocacy group - plays a prominent role in the nation's gun culture in a way that helps expand its membership, which it says is now 4.5 million.
The NRA's on-the-ground effort brings in members who might not join otherwise - and allows the group's lobbying arm to claim that it represents a broad range of gun-owning Americans as it pushes back against calls for gun restrictions following a shooting massacre at a Connecticut school that killed 26 people.
In return for registering NRA members, shooting ranges like Spurwink - little more than a caboose-red cabin and a shed at the edge of some woods - get a little more assurance that they will be able to keep their doors open.
Now that the Spurwink Rod and Gun Club is a 100 percent NRA Club, its junior shooting team can participate in official tournaments and the club is eligible for thousands of dollars in NRA grants. There's also legal help available, if it's needed.
It hasn't gotten to that point yet, but it might.
This affluent seaside community is more crowded than it used to be, and the gun club had to hire a lawyer last year when some of its new neighbors began complaining to the town council about noise from the gun range.
"We just want to be left alone to do what we're doing," club President Mark Mayon said on a recent weekday, as the crack of rifle fire echoed through the falling snow. "We've been here for 63 years, and we want to be here another 63."
BUILDING UP THE NRA
The NRA's involvement in gun activities ranging from safety instruction and tournaments to financial support for shooting ranges dates to the 141-year-old group's roots as an organization dedicated to promoting marksmanship.
Since the 1970s, the NRA has ramped up its political operations as activists have worried that gun-control efforts threaten Americans' constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
The NRA has rejected President Barack Obama's efforts to ban the sale of military-style assault rifles like the one used in the killing of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14.
Gun-control advocates say that some metrics, such as circulation figures for magazines that the NRA sends to its members, suggest that the group's claim of 4.5 million members might be inflated.
Gun ownership has fallen sharply from 54 percent of U.S. households in 1977 to 32 percent in 2011, according to the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. In that context - and amid calls for new restrictions on guns - it's important for the NRA to show that its membership is rising, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group.
"It's in the NRA's interest to show that although gun ownership is decreasing, their membership is rising. They can't in any way be interpreted as a fading movement in a political context," Sugarmann said.
The NRA did not respond to several requests for comment.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association, estimates there are 10,000 shooting ranges in the United States. Ranges that are open to the public can't exclude customers who do not belong to the NRA, but private clubs may set membership rules as they wish.
Only the NRA knows how many private clubs require NRA membership, but gun owners who object to the organization's ties to conservative politics say it can be difficult to find a place to shoot that doesn't require membership in the gun group.
"It's this sort of self-fulfilling thing where the NRA continually gets money from people who would rather not give it to them, because it's the only game in town," said Mark Roberts, president of the Liberal Gun Club, a left-leaning gun owners group.
The NRA says it has awarded more than $11.3 million for safety improvements and equipment upgrades at nearly 2,200 public and private ranges since 1994.
For a $35 annual fee, more than 14,000 affiliated organizations also get access to attorney referral services and discounts on business services such as credit-card processing. More than 8,000 clubs get their insurance through the NRA, according to the group's promotional materials.
In return, the NRA gets a recruitment channel to reach millions of gun enthusiasts who aren't already members. Clubs can earn up to $10 for each new NRA member they sign up and $5 for each annual renewal, according to an online manual for club officers.
Clubs that require all of their members to join the NRA get another important benefit: the chance to apply for grants of up to $5,000 per year to help improve and develop shooting facilities. Continued...