You are here

Violent Deaths in the National Parks


With the latest debate over whether the National Park Service should allow visitors to carry live weapons in the national park system, much has been made over whether parks are safe. While even one murder is too many, the crime statistics for a park system that last year attracted some 277 million visitors would seem to indicate parks are relatively safe havens from violent crime.

During 2006, when 273 million visitors toured the parks, 11 deaths were investigated across the system. Two involved women who had been pushed off cliffs (one at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and one at Lake Mead National Recreation Area), one was a suicide (at Golden Gate National Recreation Area), and one was the victim of a DUI accident (in Yellowstone National Park).

National Park Service records also show that one of the 11 deaths, reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, involved a stabbing that was spawned by an alcohol-fueled altercation. Great Smoky also was the setting of a fatal shooting of another woman with three others arrested for the crime.

The suicide at Golden Gate involved a man who "began shooting at hang gliders. He did not hit any of the hang gliders, but then he shot a stranger. Then he turned the gun on himself."

At the Blue Ridge Parkway, a woman parked at an overlook and wearing headphones while studying for final exams "was killed by a handgun by a suspect on a killing spree," the Park Service said. In another case involving the parkway, the body of an individual shot and killed outside the parkway was dumped there.

At Amistad National Recreation Area, a woman was found floating in a reservoir in about 5 feet of water. "She appeared to have blunt force trauma to the head and was possibly stabbed," the agency said.

The last two murders were reported in Washington, D.C., area park units. In one case a victim died from a gunshot wound to the head, in the other U.S. Park Police found a partial human skull, with an apparent gunshot wound, on the shoreline of the Anacostia River, a crime that didn't necessarily occur in the park system.

Most folks, I think, would agree that the suicide, two pushing victims, and the DUI victim couldn't have been prevented if guns were allowed to be carried in the parks. And, of course, there was the victim who was murdered outside the Blue Ridge Parkway. That lowers to six the number of violent deaths investigated in the parks, one of which involved a stabbing in a drunken brawl, an outcome that could have turned out just the same -- or worse-- if either individual was carrying a gun.

During 2006 there also were 320 assaults without weapons, 1,950 weapons offenses, 843 public intoxication cases, and 5,752 liquor law violations. How many of those might have turned deadly were concealed carry allowed in the park system?

I think much of the concern over this move by the National Rifle Association to see visitors allowed to carry loaded weapons does not center on the majority of the "law-abiding" gun owners in the country, but rather around the accidents waiting to happen involving folks who either aren't so law-abiding or so careful.


Ranger Lady
You're right. I apologize. The parks need good rangers.
My point, of course, is that your department has a measurable problem with their officer safety. It's important they and you face the problem head on.
I also stand by the observation that when the officers are not safe it is unlikely the public will be.
Best of luck

Anon, very good points. I was looking at it from an acreage standpoint and not as number of officers. But please do not tell me to find another line of work. Luckily my position mostly involves education. In the 8 years I've been a ranger, I have been the recipient of someone's anger a few times, but never any true violence, even from those that had guns on their person. I was assulted many more times working at Wal-mart. I am a ranger and that is what I always will be.

NPS visitation statistics do make it difficult to compare against rates based on population. 
A 'visit' can be 30 minutes at the Lincoln Memorial, or x hours for every car that goes thru an entrance station. Each park establishes the value of x by conducting visitor surveys once in a while.
I imagine that it is possible for the NPS to determine how all of that adds up against the 365 x 24 population of a city. I don't know that they have. 

Ranger Lady
The Los Angeles Police Department lost 6 officers to hostile gunfire during the same time the NPS lost 5.  LAPD has 10,000 officers.
Seattle PD, with  roughly the same staff as the NPS, lost 1 to hostile gunfire in those 15 years.
It appears that NPS rangers have something like 5 times the chance of being murdered as do officers in major cities, with all their drug, gang and organized crime.
Forgive me, but I believe that says something about how safe my family will be in a national park.
If you are indeed a ranger, it might be well to consider another line of work.

Anon @4:33pm, even if firearms weren't allowed in parks, I seriously doubt it would have stopped this man. It's against the law to kill someone, but he still did it. It's against the law to discharge a fire arm in a National Park, but he still did it. It's against the law to blow through a mandatory check-point, but he still did it. One more law broken wouldn't have mattered to him. 4 other rangers were killed while guns were not allowed in parks. That law didn't stop those criminals.

Anon, While I'm still completely against guns in parks, they are still among the safest areas. 5 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years. While that is 5 too many, considering that the NPS covers about 84,000,000 acres in the US, that is still a pretty good record. I seriously doubt one can find another 84,000,000 acres that can boast the same (besides other public lands)

If parks are not safe for the rangers how can they possibly be safe for me?
If nothing else, the tragic murders of so many rangers over the past 15 years proves that the park service is failing to provide me a safe place to take my family.

Memorium for National Park Ranger--Law Enforcement Division Margaret Anderson. Age 34, NPS Ranger for four years, wife of another park ranger who btw was working in the park that same day at another location, and mother of two young daughters. Murdered as she was about to exit her NPS vehicle, her firearm unfired and at her side in her vehicle. Culprit--Loaded Guns allowed in National Parks two years old and having its terrible effect. Arrrrgh. Our parks are supposed to havens, places for restoration, informal learning opportunities, wildlife viewing, history discovery, and memorable & happy family vacations. No longer! This two years of service military veteran, Benjamin Colton Barnes, 34, was afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide. He had this past July been in a custody dispute with the mother of their toddler daughter. She had sought a temporary restraining order against him, court documents indicate. Pierce County Police already knew of his weapons cache. On January 1st, 2012 at 3 am, he shot four persons at a New Year's party in Skylark, a suburb of Seattle. Mr. Barnes, scared and heavily armed, made his fateful decision to get into the deep backcountry by the most readily accessible roads. He chose Mt. Ranier National Park. He drove north from Seattle, and entered Mt. Ranier National Park, driving past a welcome kiosk. B/c of this newly passed by Congress law, effective Jan. 1st, 2010, NPS Rangers at that kiosk welcome station could not have taken those guns even if they had seen them in Mr. Barnes' truck. The next NPS Ranger observation opportunity for this unhinged and dangerous visitor was at an NPS checkpoint that was to ensure that all vehicles had tire chains for snow on high country roads. He blew through that checkpoint. That is what caused NPS Ranger Anderson to trail him. After the murder of the Park Ranger, Mr. Barnes drove on, abandoned his truck and went further on foot. He was able to elude SWAT searchers in snowshoes and their dogs for twenty-four hours. He was found January 2, having died of natural causes, principally hypothermia and exposure.   

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments