In a sharply worded statement the National Parks Conservation Association accused the Bush administration of caving into the National Rifle Association in deciding to reexamine current regulations that prohibit the carrying of loaded weapons in the national parks.
"Today's action is alarming. Overturning Reagan-era rules that struck the right balance between the rights of gun owners and the safety of families and wildlife is a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year," said NPCA President Tom Kiernan. "It is truly unfortunate the National Rifle Association has chosen this issue to flex its election-year political muscle."
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade also was disappointed by the turn of events.
"There is no indication that the American public is at all supportive of the idea of loaded guns being readily available in the campgrounds, visitor service areas and the backcountry of the nation’s parks," said Mr. Wade. "This clearly is an election-year attempt on the part of the National Rifle Association to push it’s agenda and it’s unfortunate so many elected officials, including some of those in the White House and the Department of the Interior, have caved into the pressure. It’s a terrible idea for the nation’s parks and the visitors to them."
The current regulations, which require that weapons be broken down and out of reach when being transported through national parks, date to the Reagan administration. Late last year the NRA stepped up its campaign to have the regulations rewritten to allow permit holders to carry their weapons in the parks. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne today agreed to have a new regulation proposed.
According to the NPCA, the gun restrictions in the national parks date to the 1930s when they were intended to prevent wildlife poaching. The group says the regulations were "carefully revised during the Reagan Administration to be as narrowly restrictive as possible, while also assisting park personnel to prevent unlawful killing of wildlife."
NPCA "believes the current regulations strike an appropriate balance between the rights of individuals to possess firearms under state and federal laws and hunt in areas of the national park system where it is permitted, and the safety of national park visitors and wildlife."
Here are some of the NPCA's points:
* Park safety and enjoyment: We believe that enabling individuals to carry loaded guns in national parks will alarm families visiting the parks, and heighten the possibility for deadly visitor conflicts.
* New responsibilities for overtaxed park rangers: In a post-9/11 environment, where the safety and security of our national parks and visitors is pre-eminent, park rangers will now have to be alert to the fact that individuals are carrying loaded guns in the parks. The potential for conflicts to become deadly could increase, and park rangers would likely view visitors with loaded weapons suspiciously. Moreover, burdensome new enforcement responsibilities will be added to an already strained ranger corps and budget.
* Increased opportunities for wildlife poaching: A genesis for the Park Service's original firearms regulations, wildlife poaching is still a serious concern in our national parks, causing the decline of nearly 30 species. Poachers could operate with impunity because rangers would lack the authority to question individuals about their loaded weapons.
* Deferring to state laws creates confusion: The Federal Government has a unique responsibility to set the rules for and manage our national parks. This is to ensure the safety, protection, and enjoyable experiences of nearly 300 million visitors annually. Deferring to divergent state laws, some of which permit loaded weapons and others that do not, will result in confusion for rangers, and visitors who travel to the parks from every state in the nation, and from countries around the world.
"The existing regulations were adopted after a thorough review, and we will be diligent in insisting that any proposed change undergoes the same thorough, legal procedural review and allows for public input," said
Mr. Kiernan. "We are convinced when the review process is complete, it will show the existing regulations are not unduly burdensome but are limited, reasonable, and necessary to enable park rangers to carry out their duties of protecting the millions of families who visit our parks every year, and the wildlife that inhabits them."