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Critics: Changing Gun Laws in National Parks Would Open a "Pandora's Box" of Problems


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. "


While I am an avid supporter of the rights of citizens to carry a firearm for peace of mind in the parks and anywhere else, I also understand the concerns of those who are against it. Most of us gun toters have wives who come from that perspective (the perspective of caution). There are so many idiots out there with guns, blasting away carelessly, never having been taught just how absolutely deadly a lead projectile can be. Even a .22, as small and unintimidating as it might seem, can do horrific damage to a person. We forget that Ronald Reagan came to within a few centimeters of death, all from a .22 LR bullet that had deflected off of the vehicle.

On the other hand, I also take comfort in knowing that there are a growing number of responsible citizens carrying weapons out there. These folks are well trained, repsonsible people who would never even set their finger on the trigger unless they had an extremely good reason. These are folks, like me, who would never just start firing at a bear without first considering where the bullet would go once it has missed its target or fully penetrated the target. These people know how absolutely ineffective ANY handgun is against a Grizz. A handgun would be used only as a last resort against an already angry and charging bear, and probably when the bear is very close and the pepper spray hasn't been effective.

With all of this being said, firearms users and carriers have their work cut out for them in the area of public perception. We have a great responsibility to change the negative perception that folks have toward guns and their owners. We need to put our best foot forward and be willing to comply with rules and regulations and know the difference between laws set forth to protect and laws set forth to be a government power grab. I support legislation to allow open or concealed firearm carry in national parks, but perhaps their should be a simple requirement that the carrier has completed an applicalble hunters (firearm) education course.

How nice that you are able to protect yourself and your family. I wish I was afforded that "right" myself. Too bad our supreme court doesn't understand the phrase "shall not be infringed." Sign me, unprotected and wondering why....

Well said Ray, I am in 100% agreement!

A national forest and a national park are two entirely different critters. I suggest that you read the NPS Organic Act. National parks are generally held to a higher standard of conservation and maintenance of the unimpared character of its units. Each park has its own special enabling legislation that sets forth exceptions to the guidelines of the NPS Organic Act. In general, national parks are not considered multiple use conservation units. What may be appropriate in a national forest or a national wildlife refuge might not be permitted in a national park. There is a dynamic tension between the goals of preserving park resources and values for future generations and providing for visitor enjoyment. An earlier commentor spoke of the tendency for people to have a different attitude when armed. I have found that to be true. A gun can too often give someone a false sense of security and power, and he or she may push their luck when it would be wiser to simply back away. A gun can become an extension of a person's ego and can exacerbate a situation rather than minimize it. As stated earlier, if you feel unsafe without a concealed weapon go where it is permitted to carry.

If one has a concealed weapons permit one is allowed to carry a concealed weapon in the jurisdiction in which it is issued including its national forests. Would someone explain to me why a national park is any different? For that matter why is it any different for a non-concealed weapon? A park is a park is a park!

Ms. Anon,

Thanks for your down-to-earth account of the importance of personal protection.

I not only disagree with Bob Janiskee, that it is somehow disturbing or that something is amiss to hold that "If you don't look out for yourself, nobody else will." - but worse, I hold that he is fundamentally & factually mistaken on the point, both in principle & in practice.

Law enforcement' purpose - as I'm sure you know, M'am - is not to provide personal protection to the populace. Never was, never will be. They are here to enforce the laws of the land, which in no way extends to making sure that no harm comes to any of us individually. The Police' duty is to the law, not to the person. The responsibility for taking care of oneself rests with oneself.

The confusion might arise, because we expect to pick up the phone and call 911 if something bad is happening ... then an Officer comes [s]and protects us[/s] addresses the bad that we have brought to her attention. The Officer comes to enforce the law ... and all too often, merely to make a report of the offense, which already harmed the caller.

The Secret Service guards the person of the President, etc, but they aren't "law enforcement". The rich & the celebrated hire commercial guards to protect them from threats, and to shield their privacy. All the rest of ya'll, indeed M'am, "look out for yourselves".

There is also the matter of restraining orders, etc, which attempt to confer protection by temporarily abridging the Constitutional rights of a 3rd party (to stay away from a spouse, etc). This too, though, is not the Police' business, but the Court's. And all too often, graphically displays that protection cannot be assured, by writ of any kind.

No, firearms opponents have it wrong, in the Parks & outside them. The Liberal ethos is suffering from the effects of both delusion and denial, grasping at straws to justify an essentially erroneous view of both the practical realities and the basic principles of the law, with respect to firearms.

Bob says, "I do admit it disturbs me to hear an ex-police officer like yourself say "If you don't look out for yourself, nobody else will."

You, and those folks who take a trendy, holier-than-thou anti-gun stance, should take these words very seriously. People who are astoundingly naive enough to believe that they are safe just because there are police on duty somewhere may be in for a very rude surprise some day.

When you call 911, the police usually end up investigating a crime that's already happened. If you believe your life and the lives of your loved ones are worth more than some scumbag willing to maim or kill you then you need to take responsibility for your safety. The police are paid to enforce laws, not protect you.

I still laugh when I see all the brouhaha from the anti gun crowd proclaiming concealed carry permit holders will suddenly start poaching when the park regulation are finally changed. Masters of FUD, these folks.[Ed: FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt -- at least, I think that's what Rick means here.]

From what you've said, Anon, I judge that you're a very trustworthy individual who, by virtue of your fine training and long experience, could be expected to act very responsibly if allowed to legally pack in the national parks. I assure you that it's not people like you I'm worried about. I do admit it disturbs me to hear an ex-police officer like yourself say "If you don't look out for yourself, nobody else will." Is the situation really that bleak? Do we all need to pack, even when we're in a national park?

BTW, Anon, I had occasion to fire a variety of weapons myself during basic training and the rest of my stint with the U.S. Army (three years and 13 days, mostly spent overseas) back in the Stone Age. With one notable exception, I qualified expert with every single one of those weapons, too. The .38 caliber, two-inch barrel police revolver that was my TOE weapon when I served with the 513th MI was darn near completely useless. I developed a plan for using that metallic piece of crap if I was ever called upon to do so in an emergency -- if, for example, a horde of Commie tanks burst through the Fulda Gap and descended on Oberursel/Ts. My two-step plan was to do this: (1) Fire one round when my assailant got within 30 feet -- preferably lots closer; then (2) throw the revolver at him and run like hell. Thank goodness that I never got the chance to do that. Anyway, for greater piece of mind I got myself (notice I didn't say "bought") a .45 automatic. It was heavy and ugly, but very competent.

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