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.
For a modest operation like the Spurwink Club, such help from the NRA could make a big difference if the club were to need it someday.
So far the club has paid for improvements itself, relying on volunteer labor and donated materials. Annual dues recently were raised to $65 from $45. Shortly after the Connecticut shootings the club raffled off an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle - one of the models that could be taken off the market under Obama's proposed ban on assault weapons.
'WE CAN'T BLOW IT'
The club hopes NRA money will help pay for further upgrades, such as an elaborate safety system that would ensure stray bullets do not leave the property, Spurwink's Mayon said. Last year's application was rejected by the NRA because of a paperwork snafu, but Mayon plans to apply again this year.
"Since there are fewer places to shoot, you've really got to take them seriously," he said. "We've really got something special down here, and we can't blow it."
Up the hill from the shooting range, the Spurwink clubhouse looks little changed from when it was built in 1956. Mangy deer heads and stuffed partridges line the walls, and an antique cast-iron stove squats in the kitchen.
But the neighborhood has changed. Half-million-dollar houses now dot the woods and fields around the club, and some neighbors have complained about noise, perceived safety risks, and the types of guns that members use.
"Semiautomatic weapons are not what one would expect from a hunting/fishing club," several neighbors wrote to the town council last month.
Club members say they are well aware of the experience of the nearby Falmouth Rod and Gun Club, which had to shut down temporarily in 2011 and undergo an extensive permitting process after neighbors complained about safety violations.
The Spurwink Club adopted its 100 percent NRA membership requirement in the fall of 2011, before the latest dispute with neighbors flared up. Club officers said they had discussed the NRA membership requirement for several years as a way to help protect gun rights at the national level, and that the benefits from the NRA were an added sweetener.
The new requirement took effect in January 2012, prompting about 50 people to join the national organization, said membership secretary Richard Aspinall.
A dozen or so members decided to quit the club rather than join the NRA, he said. Some who left said they disagreed with the group's uncompromising stance on gun control. Others said they just didn't want to be told what to do, or objected to paying $25 to the NRA on top of their annual club dues.
Spurwink Club member Chris Bond said he initially resisted the idea of joining the NRA but eventually opted for a bare-bones membership that costs him $5 per year after concluding that the benefits of being in the gun club outweighed whatever reservations he had about the NRA's uncompromising political stance.
"The club doesn't have any money, and we could be wiped out behind one good lawsuit," Bond said.
Another member, Greg Walsh, said he quit last year because he didn't like the idea of being required to join any organization. Since Newtown, he has grown more concerned that gun rights are under threat from the government. He has since re-applied to the club and put in for an NRA membership as well.
"It seems like there's so much momentum to put guns behind the closet doors," he said. "Spurwink needs all the help it can get now."
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech)