CONCORD, N.H. – An immigration debate is raging and a budget crisis looms in Congress, but the conservative activists gathered outside the New Hampshire Statehouse had just one thing on their minds: guns.
"The Second Amendment is there to protect us from losing the rest of them," said Adam Brisebois, 34, of Hudson, who cradled his 3-year-old daughter on his right shoulder and a rifle on the left. "If we don't fight, we'll lose our rights."
Thursday's rally, organized by tea party leaders, drew nearly 500 people, many of them waving signs and carrying loaded weapons, to the state capital. Conservative leaders elsewhere report a wave of similar protests as grass-roots activists from Florida to Colorado seize on a new rallying cry for a tea party movement, which is trying to recover from a painful 2012 election season.
Many activists aren't happy with the GOP's sudden embrace of more lenient immigration proposals and they're monitoring the approaching congressional deadline to avoid massive cuts to military programs. But for now at least, the debate over guns and the perceived threat of losing them tops their list.
It's an "organic" movement with little coordination from national conservative organizations, according to Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express. "It's happening by itself," she said.
It doesn't matter that neither President Barack Obama nor congressional Democrats are calling for a wholesale repeal of gun rights. Tea partyers are enraged by the possibility of any erosion of the Second Amendment's "right of the people to keep and bear arms."
The gun control debate in Washington took center stage after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre in December, when a gunman used a semi-automatic assault rifle to kill 26 people, 20 of them children. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats have promised to make gun restrictions a legislative priority. Obama already has proposed requiring background checks for all gun sales and reviving both an assault weapons ban and a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines.
There was little mention of the school shooting at the New Hampshire rally, where the crowd focused squarely on the belief that helped lead to the creation of the tea party movement four years ago: that an overbearing government is trampling on the nation's founding principles.
"There is an assault going on on the Constitution. And that is job one of ours – to protect our flank and protect gun owners," said Tom Gaitens, a Tampa, Fla.-based tea party leader. "To us, this is the fundamental issue on the founding of our nation."
Florida tea party activists already have traveled to Washington to protest new gun restrictions, and conservative leaders in the state are considering a series of gun-related rallies, Gaitens said.
Many protesters are hunters, but say access to hunting is not their prime concern – just as a sign hanging behind the podium at the New Hampshire rally said: "The right to keep arms is not about deer hunting. It is about defending the republic from tyranny."
"I don't have an automatic weapon. I don't want an automatic weapon. But the citizens need to have guns that are equal to the guns that the government has," said Roger Rist, a 69-year-old business owner from Meredith. "I certainly hope I don't have to take up arms against the government. Might we have to? Yeah."
In Colorado, foes of illegal immigration have been quiet as the Democrat-controlled Legislature has moved to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. Similar bills in the past drew dozens of angry witnesses, but only one man from a group opposing illegal immigration testified against it at the Statehouse this month, compared with a parade of supporters of the bill.
In contrast, gun advocates held a spirited rally at the Colorado Statehouse to oppose gun control measures and drew more than 100 people last month. They also held a widely-publicized training recently for teachers and school workers who want to carry guns at the workplace.
In Georgia, tea party conservatives have introduced a range of bills that together would effectively allow Georgians to carry weapons anywhere. They also attempt to exempt certain weapons from federal gun control laws.
"We don't have a single member who thinks we need any new laws on this," said Ken Baxley, a local tea party leader in southeast Georgia's Effingham County, said. "When that tragedy happened, our anger was directed at the shooter, not at the guns."
An Associated Press-GfK poll found last month that 58 percent of Americans felt the gun laws in the United States should be stricter. Among Republicans, 53 percent want the nation's gun laws to stay as they are, while 2 in 3 women favor stricter gun laws, as do 60 percent of independents.
The fate of new gun legislation on Capitol Hill is uncertain at best. And as tea party activists clamor against any changes, the powerful gun lobby is echoing their argument.
"I think without any doubt, if you look at why our Founding Fathers put [the Second Amendment] there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny," Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association said in a congressional hearing last week.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.