Bush Administration Takes Aim at National Parks Gun Ban

WASHINGTON, DC, May 1, 2008 (ENS) – The Bush administration on Wednesday announced its intent to shoot down federal rules that prohibit individuals from carrying loaded firearms in U.S. national parks and wildlife refuges. The proposal would permit individuals to carry loaded and concealed weapons if permitted by state laws in the state where the park or refuge is located, a change many current and retired park rangers contend is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

U.S. Interior Department officials said the proposed change would clarify conflicting state and federal restrictions. The 61 units of the National Park Service where hunting is permitted, as well as the public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, follow state laws on firearms.

Concealed handguns would be allowed in national parks
under the proposed regulation, if allowed in
the state where the park is located.
(Photo credit unknown)

“The safety and protection of park and refuge visitors remains a top priority,” said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “The proposed regulations will incorporate current state laws authorizing the possession of concealed firearms, while continuing to maintain important provisions to ensure visitor safety and resource protection.”

Firearms were first banned in national parks in the 1930s in a bid to curb poaching. The current rules, implemented under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, allow visitors to national parks and refuges to possess firearms so long as they are “rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.”

“Much has changed in how states administer their firearm laws in that time,” U.S. Interior Department Assistant Secretary Lyle Laverty.

Forty-eight U.S. states now have laws allowing for legal possession of concealed weapons.

The administration believes that management of national parks and wildlife refuges “should defer to those state laws,” Laverty said.

But an array of park advocacy and law enforcement groups view the change as foolish and argue the administration is catering to the wishes of the U.S. gun lobby.

“This is purely and simply a politically-driven effort to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “There are no existing data that suggest any public interest to be gained by allowing visitors to parks to possess concealed handguns.”

Seven former National Park Service directors sent Kempthorne a letter last month echoing that sentiment. Other parks groups, including the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Parks Conservation Association have also urged the Interior Department not to change the current restrictions.

“Do visitors want other visitors with concealed handguns sitting next to them in park concession restaurants, or in park visitor center auditoriums during interpretive programs, or walking with them during ranger-guided walks?” asked Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park . “Will parks and concessionaires now have to install metal detectors at the entrances to lodges and visitor centers and other administrative facilities?”

Critics of the proposal contend these concerns would cause major headaches for the Park Service, adding that it is unclear what would be done in parks that have boundary lines in multiple states.

“The question we are asking is do the American people perceive a need to change a long-standing regulation or are they happy with the results of managing parks with regard to loaded guns,” said Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers.

Parks are among the safest places in the country, according to advocacy groups, who contend the likelihood of becoming a victim of a violent crime in a park or wildlife refuge is one in 708,000.

Many state parks permit loaded and accessible
guns. Here a hunting instructor reviews
gun safety procedures with a young hunter
before shooting practice in a Texas state
park. (Photo courtesy Texas
Parks and Wildlife)

But the proposal is viewed a victory by the National Rifle Association and at least 51 U.S. senators, who began pressing Kempthorne to issue the new plan late last year.

One proponent of the change – Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican – threatened in January to try and force the new regulation by amending a public lands bill, but abandoned the effort once Kempthorne indicated his support for relaxing the gun ban.

Today, Senator Coburn’s press secretary Don Tatro told ENS that even if a regulation allowing guns in parks is passed, the senator intends to reintroduce legislation this year because he wants to make the measure “permanent.”

Supporters of the proposal contend the existing rule violates the constitutional gun rights of U.S. citizens and argue that law-abiding individuals should be allowed to carry weapons for self-protection.

“It is important that we provide consistency in firearm regulations and recognize states’ rights in this matter,” said Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican and leading advocate of the change.

Other lawmakers, however, remain unconvinced.

The proposal is “appalling” and would create “an incoherent, ineffective and inconsistent patchwork of policies,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Demcorat.

“The American public consistently rates our national parks at the top of federal government programs that work well,” Feinstein added. “There is no need to ‘fix’ a system that our citizens tell us is not broken.”

The public has until June 30 to comment on the proposed rule change.

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