* National Rifle Association targets Obama over gun curbs
* Activists fired up for 2010 congressional elections
* Political risk to Democrats wanes as Americans moderate
By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX, May 15 Thousands of U.S. gun owners gathering in Phoenix for the National Rifle Association's convention have one target firmly in their sights: any attempt to curb gun rights by the new guys in Washington.
"We as an association, but more importantly America's 80 million gun owners, are very concerned about what may be coming down the pike through the Obama administration," Glen Caroline, grassroots director for the NRA's lobbying arm.
The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, with a long record of campaigning hard for gun rights sheltered by the U.S. Constitution. It has nearly 4 million members, 60,000 of whom were expected to attend the three-day event that began on Friday.
NRA activists and rank-and-file members say they are worried that President Barack Obama will fulfill promises to seek a permanent ban on assault weapons -- military style semi-automatic rifles -- and take other steps to tighten ownership of certain weapons.
"The question right now is not if there's a gathering storm, but when in fact that legislation is pushed more aggressively," Caroline said as activists, some in NRA caps and stars-and-stripes shirts, gathered for a buffet breakfast and workshop in a Phoenix hotel.
The NRA says Democratic control of both houses of the U.S. Congress make curbs more likely. It is organizing members to campaign for gun-friendly candidates -- usually Republicans -- in the mid-term congressional elections next year.
Many gun owners see curbs looming and are stocking up.
In the first four months of this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ran just over 5 million instant background checks on individuals applying to buy firearms from licensed dealers or at gun shows, its data shows.
This was an increase of more than 25 percent from the 3.9 million checks made over the same period last year.
Activism is also buoyant, with hundreds of members taking part in a grassroots workshop and breakfast in Phoenix. The NRA also launched a phone campaign firing up activists to object to legislation they say infringes on the right to bear arms.
"Right now is a pivotal time in our history with a president and a total administration that is anti-gun," said Leonard Junker, 56, a truck driver and Republican Party organizer from Tucson attending the workshop.
"I truly believe that they want to disarm us," he added.
LOSING THEIR FIREPOWER?
Guns and gun control are high on the public radar screen, with a drug war raging in Mexico, where nine out of 10 arms retrieved from crime scenes are traced back to U.S. sources. Mexico wants greater efforts to clamp down on the illicit trade.
During a visit to Mexico in April, Obama said he would push the U.S. Senate to ratify a long-stalled arms trafficking treaty meant to curb the flow of guns and ammunition to drug cartels in Latin America, but has so far taken no other action.
The NRA has been an intimidating foe for Democrats in the past. But despite a call to action by the NRA, the political risk to Obama from this vocal and committed lobby is lower than in recent years, analysts say.
Gun activists are "a particular segment of American society, they feel very, very strongly ... but the country is much more moderate than that," said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
Merrill, who conducts polls to sound out changing attitudes, said said support for gun controls in recent years has grown.
"I think that is going to be reinforced with what's happened with the economy, I think that will carry over to things like being less fearful of controlling things like weapons," he said.
Gun owners have long provided a pool of conservative support for the Republican Party. But continuing to court them may not help it broaden its appeal to a wider electorate.
"The NRA provides a lot of foot soldiers for Republican campaigns and so they are still critical to the conservative movement," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"But if you think about a rejuvenated Republican Party it will not come from this reduced base, but from a broadened party capable of speaking to new constituencies," he said. "There are not a lot of suburban women who have assault rifles." (With additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas; Editing by Doina Chiacu)