CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The National Rifle Association opens its 129th annual convention in the crossfire of a superheated national debate about guns, constitutional rights and public safety.
The NRA says the issues have helped boost membership to a record 3.6 million, with a gain of 200,000 new members and $10 million in donations within the last six weeks.
And with the White House and both houses of Congress up for grabs, leaders say the stakes have never been higher.
''I think this is the most important election in the history of firearms ownership in the country,'' NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said.
''We're either going to go down the road of registering every firearm owner with the federal government, licensing every firearm owner, federal tests,'' he said in today's Charlotte Observer. ''Or we're going to be much better off with someone who will respect the freedom, but also be much tougher on people who abuse the freedom'' to have a gun.
The meeting opens today, on the heels of last weekend's Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., where tens of thousands of protesters called for stricter gun controls and targeted the NRA as a leading barrier to their objectives.
NRA members will discuss gun politics, attend educational seminars and view displays by more than 300 exhibitors, including gun-makers, hunter associations and collectors. Workshop topics include the arms of George Washington's army and tips on carrying concealed weapons.
As many as 40,000 people are expected at the four-day convention. NRA leaders are far more upbeat than a year ago, when the group met in Denver less than a month after the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, Colo. The meeting was scaled back to just a day, and gun exhibitions were canceled.
One big question this year is how attendees will receive Smith & Wesson. The nation's largest gun maker announced in March that it would install locks on all the firearms it sells to safeguard them from children, introduce ''smart gun'' technology within three years and prohibit the sale of its weapons at gun shows without a background check.
While NRA leaders called Smith & Wesson's move an affront to the Second Amendment, they said the company was still welcome, and the Springfield, Mass., gun maker said it planned to attend.
''It's good for manufacturers like Smith & Wesson to hear from their consumer base,'' said NRA spokesman Bill Powers. ''And it's good for them to have the opportunity to respond to their questions.''
Hundreds of protesters were expected to converge on the Charlotte Convention Center, but the NRA considers the Carolinas friendly turf. Both North Carolina and South Carolina allow residents to carry concealed weapons with a permit, and neither state is expected anytime soon to pass gun-control measures such as mandatory trigger locks and curbs on gun show sales.
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