The National Rifle Association kicks off its annual meetings on Friday in Houston, fresh off a victory in the Senate, where expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban and a limit on the size of ammunition magazines were each defeated last month.

Now comes the hard part for the nation's largest gun rights group.

For months, the NRA played offense against the proposals it helped defeat. Now, it's about defense.

When it comes to the senators who cast tough votes against gun control, most notably a bipartisan background check amendment, the NRA will need to prove itself a capable counterweight to the growing chorus of gun control groups, lest it lose its ability to pressure lawmakers to vote the way it wants.

One of those senators is Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Ayotte has faced a coordinated effort back home this week from gun control groups and activitsts hoping to shame her vote against the bipartisan plan to expand background checks on gun sales. The NRA was there for Ayotte's defense, running an ad calling her “not just a senator, she’s also a mom, who cares about protecting our kids."

Then there is Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). According to one Democratic automated poll, Flake is now one of the least popular senators in the country. Other senators will also need help.

The landscape of the battle over gun laws is changing, in a way that makes the NRA's task more difficult than it used to be. The gun control movement now includes new players who have vowed to press ahead in the face of defeat and return to the debate enlightened by its failure last month to pass new restrictions.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly started one such group. The declared goal of the enterprise is to “balance the influence of the gun lobby. Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and his deep pockets are not going anywhere.

But time maybe on the side of the NRA. Ayotte and Flake don't face reelection until 2016 and 2018, respectively. The anger against them on the issue of guns may have faded by then.

The NRA is a very powerful group. That's one of the things that became clear the past few months to anyone for whom it wasn't before. It has money, organization, and has counted both Democrats and Republican officials as allies.

But moving forward, things are not going to be as easy for the NRA . Not as long as gun control activists are expected to keep up their fight. To maintain its position as a group that that makes lawmakers think twice about crossing, the NRA faces new challenges. How ready and able it is for those challenges will say a lot about the future of the organization's heft in politics.


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