Pro-Gun Grassroots Groups Taking the Lead in Gun Rights Fight

The statistics tell the story: There are about 50 million gun owners in America. Close to half of all American households possess guns -- more than 200 million guns all told, and we buy 4.5 million more guns every year.

Whether you like it or not, for better or worse, it's a fact: America is an armed nation. And to gun owners -- the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens -- that's the way it was meant to be.

Guns: The Open-Carry ControversyPlay
Guns: The Open-Carry Controversy

Now, more than ever, many gun owners are proudly, aggressively asserting their rights to keep and bear arms.

At a barbeque in Portland, Maine, a small grassroots organization meets to promote one goal: the right to carry weapons openly in public.

"We're just out here, exercising our rights," said event participant Scott Walker. "We're just here to have a good time."

Shane Belanger, 20, a pre-med student at the University of Southern Maine, organized the open-carry event. He said the group faces a huge task in convincing their fellow Mainers that the Second Amendment -- the right to bear arms -- should not be confined to the home.

VIDEO: Gun Laws are Riddled With LoopholesPlay

"I think that it's just they're not used to it, and it's lack of knowledge. The more they know, the more comfortable they'll be with it, and that's really why we're here," Belanger said. "We are showing them that law-abiding citizens carrying handguns is completely fine and completely normal."

NRA Bypasses Campaign Reform

In many ways Belanger is the new face of the gun rights movement.

For decades, the National Rifle Association has been fighting gun-control efforts in Congress and across the country on behalf of its 4.3 million members. But the old "guns vs. no guns" debate that was once the face of the American gun movement is being transformed into a "guns vs. more guns" issue, and the NRA is now feeling the heat from its own backyard.

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Small, focused, pro-gun, grassroots groups like Belanger's believe the enormous organization has become too bureaucratic and conservative to focus on their local issues, such as fighting for more open-carry laws.

"It's a massive organization that's kind of an umbrella organization for all gun owners and firearm enthusiasts," Belanger said. "What we are is more of a[n organization for the] right to carry openly as well as concealed, every day."

The long-simmering tensions between the NRA behemoth and local gun groups exploded into a nasty family fight this spring when the NRA muscled Congress into exempting it -- and it alone -- from some key provisions of the campaign-finance reform legislation.

"What they did was very much self-preservation," said Philip van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "The NRA isn't the end all of gun rights ... They are the 800-pound gorilla."

A fierce political player, the NRA spends tens of millions of dollars every election year -- big money that the campaign-finance law is aiming to regulate. But many politicians fear retaliation from the big gun group, so now it won't have to comply with the new campaign finance law.

ABC News asked the NRA several times to comment for this story, but it refused.

Revving Up the Gun Debate

Despite the outrage, actions from both the NRA and smaller grassroots organizations successfully have pushed the battle over guns back onto the debate floor, catching many gun-control advocates off-guard.

Denis Henigan, the vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington, D.C., said there is cause for concern. He said small "extremist" gun groups are sprouting up across the country, creating problems for gun-control efforts and the NRA.

"I think these groups are actually willing to act out the NRA's vision for America," Henigan told "Nightline." "When you have people who are openly carrying their guns into Starbucks, it causes enormous concern among other people who are going into Starbucks. It causes backlash."

Starbucks was the target of a pressure campaign to allow customers to openly carry their weapons in states where it's legal to do so -- that's 43 of the 50 states.

It was not a campaign organized by the NRA.

Pro-gun grassroots groups used social networks, bulletin boards, Internet chat rooms and text messages to get the word out -- a testament to their influence, even without the backing of the umbrella organization. Van Cleave called the grassroots efforts "critical."

"More guns in more public places is what protects people," he said.