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ARE POLITICS BEHIND FIRING OF 3 TOP NRA OFFICIALS?

Three top officials at the National Rifle Association have been fired in what insiders say is a sign of mounting political tensions and financial pressures within the organization.

Donald Rakestraw, hand-picked by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to run the group's day-to-day operations, was dismissed on Tuesday, according to NRA officials.Also fired were Rakestraw's top aide, Denny McGuirk, and J.O. McFalls, the group's chief of staff.

"To some extent, these guys were the victims of political infighting," said one official familiar with the personnel moves. "But the financial picture is part of it, too."

The gun lobby has suffered mounting losses in recent years, with a membership drive and the purchase of a new headquarters building combining to drain the NRA's cash reserves.

The NRA, however, dismissed any suggestion that political infighting or the group's finances had anything to do with the trio's ouster.

"This is just part of ongoing efforts to shape the NRA to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future," NRA spokesman Bill Powers said.

He declined further comment, and none of the three former workers could be reached Thursday.

NRA employees were briefed Wednesday on the firings, and a letter was mailed to the group's board of directors, said the NRA officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rakestraw, a retired Air Force general, was brought on board by LaPierre soon after LaPierre assumed the NRA's top staff position in 1991. Rakestraw's responsibilities were far-ranging and included managing the operations of nearly every aspect of the NRA except its separate political lobbying wing.

Rakestraw, as well as his top two aids, McGuirk and McFalls, who are retired Air Force colonels, made more than $130,000 per year, according to the NRA officials.

The firings come after a year in which the NRA has struggled with its public image, fought to cut financial losses and labored to reverse a drop in membership.

In recent months, the group's membership has dropped to about 2.8 million, down more than 700,000 members since early last year, the NRA officials said.