Gun rights advocates say a drive by the National Rifle Association to change rules against the carrying of loaded weapons in national parks would help simplify gun laws across the country and make park visits safer.
Critics of that position strongly disagree and believe such a regulatory change would open a "Pandora's box" of problems.
Over the coming months gun owners and national park lovers -- groups that are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- will hear those two countering arguments quite a bit as lobbying intensifies over Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's decision to consider a change in the existing ban against loaded weapons in the parks.
There are plenty of subplots to this controversy:
* The National Parks Conservation Association sees the battle as entirely political, with nothing to do with Second Amendment rights, and believes Secretary Kempthorne's decision was directed by the White House, although it offered no concrete evidence of that.
* Gun rights advocates contend that national parks can be dangerous places, both because of the resident wildlife and unsavory sorts of humans.
* Gun rights advocates also see this as a sound Second Amendment fight.
* The Association of National Park Rangers and the U.S. Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police worry that more guns in the parks will lead to more accidental and emotionally charged shootings as well as wildlife killings.
* The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees sees no need for park visitors to arm themselves and believes most Americans view national parks as sanctuaries.
During a conference call Monday with reporters that ran more than an hour, representatives from the NPCA, ANPR, Park Police, and retirees' coalition raised issue after issue with the NRA's proposal. They pointed to the relative safety of the national parks, to illegal shootings in the parks that killed wildlife and injured other park visitors, and to conflicts that could arise under the NRA's proposal in parks that span multiple states and, potentially, multiple sets of gun laws.
Is there crime in the parks? Yes.
According to the National Park Service, during 2006 -- when an estimated 273 million visitors headed to the parks on vacation -- there were 11 killings, 35 rapes or attempted rapes, 61 robberies, 16 kidnappings and 261 aggravated assaults investigated.
There also were 320 assaults without weapons -- a scenario that had Scot McElveen, president of the rangers association, wondering what the outcome of some of those crimes might have been were the combatants carrying guns -- 1,950 weapons offenses, 843 public intoxication cases, and 5,752 liquor law violations.
What the report does not reflect is where those crimes were committed. Were they concentrated in urban parks, such as the National Mall in Washington, D.C., were they committed in the iconic western parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain or Grand Canyon, or were they concentrated in national seashores? The report also could not, obviously, forecast what the numbers would be like if park visitors were allowed to arm themselves.
Wherever the crimes occurred, the four groups on Monday's call don't believe the park system is so dangerous that a change in existing guns laws is warranted. Under those laws, guns can be transported through parks, but they must be stored out of reach and unloaded.
"This is not about guns, or parks, this is about politics," said the NPCA's Bryan Faehner. "We're very concerned and feel it's very unfortunate that the NRA has chosen the national parks ... to flex their political muscle during an election year."
Doug Morris, a representative of the retirees' coalition, called the NRA's effort "a terrible idea for many reasons."
"First of all, it represents an attempt by the NRA to advance their agenda by inventing a problem that doesn't exist," said Mr. Morris, who spent 40 years with the Park Service. "Loaded guns have been prohibited in the national parks since the 1930s. These rules work, and have long contributed to the indisputable fact that our national parks are among the safest places in America. They also have been an essential part of our efforts to protect wildlife and prevent poaching."
Park visitors, including hunters and gun owners, he added, "seem to understand that parks are special places and that loaded guns are not needed and are not appropriate."
"... We know that more and more of our visitors are urban-based and often are out of their comfort-zone while enjoying their national parks. Unfortunately, we have seen incidents where an impulsive and inexperienced visitor has used lethal force when perceiving even the slightest threat from a bison, a bear, an alligator or even a much smaller animal," continued Mr. Morris. "Under the regulations advocated by the NRA, park wildlife would be in far greater danger as more people would arm themselves with a gun and a false sense of security.
"Routine disagreements in campgrounds, parking lots, restaurants and lodges are more likely to turn lethal, just as they often do in the cities and rural areas around parks where state laws provide for easy access to loaded firearms," he added.
Beyond that, Mr. Morris said it's "ludicrous" for the NRA to contend that existing gun laws in the national parks are hard to understand.
"What can be easier to understand than regulations which apply a long-standing single set of rules throughout our national system of parks?" Mr. Morris asked. "Apart from these practical considerations, however, is the greater concern presented by this proposal, for it demonstrates total disregard for how our society values its national parks. The propaganda of the NRA suggests that we should regulate firearms so that parks are no different than other federal and state lands. Their proposal seems based on the notion that national parks are no more than an extension of the state they occupy. I trust that the outcome of this debate will be that they are wrong.
"... Our national parks should not become simply another notch in the NRA gun belt."
Mr. Morris also recounted how a black bear in Sequoia National Park was killed by a young man who became scared and shot and killed the animal when it stood up on its hind legs. "That bear was causing no problems. The person with the gun caused grave problems and killed the bear," he said.
As for using handguns for protection against wildlife, George Durkee of the Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police said a shot from a pistol would only "piss off a grizzly."
"We don't need any scared kids with loaded guns running around the woods," said Mr. Durkee. "I've heard that some are trying to justify this change by saying that people need protection against grizzly bears in places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. The rangers there are just adamant that thinking a gun will protect you is much more dangerous to both the visitors and bears. Getting shot at is just going to piss off a 500-pound grizzly, and it will attack. The rangers there themselves carry and recommend pepper spray against aggressive bears, not guns, which they don't consider at all effective in a sudden encounter."
Mr. McElveen of the rangers association recounted a story of two men who went into the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, got into an argument while drinking, and one shot the other in the arm.
A bit later in the call he pointed to the problem that could arise if the regulatory change took place and a ranger arrived on the scene of a shooting. "Think of it from a law-enforcement ranger's perspective. If I get called to an incident, and there's someone with a gun in their hand, I have to first determine who the person is that's the bad guy," said Mr. McElveen. "That's a bad situation to put the law professional in."
Yet to be seen is how NPCA and the other groups build their campaign against the NRA. Will they use a media campaign by taking out ads on television and in newspapers and magazines, or will they rely primarily on email alerts? Will they seek non-traditional allies, such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and its network of "Million Mom March" chapters?
On Monday that wasn't entirely clear.
"We're developing that as we move along here," said Mr. Faehner. "Some of our allies are very natural. For instance, of course, working with the ranger lodge and ANPR and the Coalition of Park Service Retirees. We're going to continue to be working with them and others moving forward."
ANPR officials also hope to gain permission from the NPS to inform park visitors about the comment period that will arise once Interior officials propose a rule change. "We want them to know about it, we want them to be able to send their comments in on a timely fashion," said Mr. McElveen. "