Moving at a politically expedient speed, Interior Department officials are proposing to allow national park visitors to carry concealed weapons with them.
Whereas the National Park Service has been dragging its feet on endorsing Glacier National Park's decision not to allow a railroad to use explosives to control avalanche danger, Interior moved practically at light speed in proposing the gun language. Put up for limited review today, it will formally be published Wednesday in the Federal Register, barely two months after Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne decided to open up the regulations for possible recasting.
"This is truly changing the culture of the National Park Service in literally one stroke of a pen," says Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society.
The proposed regulation calls for a 60-day comment period, but there was no mention of plans for public hearings on the change. Interior Department officials were not immediately available to comment on the proposal.
The highly controversial change has been opposed by seven past Park Service directors, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the National Parks Conservation Association.
The coalition wasted no time in criticizing the proposed regulation.
"We think the proposed rule is manufactured and driven politically to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Data show that parks are among the safest places to be in this country. Moreover, we believe it will create more problems than it can possibly fix," said Bill Wade, who chairs the group's executive council. "It is likely to alter, over time, the friendly atmosphere visitors look forward to in parks, where they go to get away from the day to day pressures and influences of their everyday lives, including worry about guns.
"How many visitors want to be concerned about whether the person next to them during a ranger-guided walk, or that shares a backcountry campsite, has a concealed, loaded gun? Reliance on impulsive use of guns in the face of perceived threats or disputes, such as in campgrounds will increase the risk to visitors and employees," continued Mr. Wade. "Impulsive uses of guns in response to being startled by or by perceived threats from wildlife will increase the risks to wildlife and to visitors, such as from wounded wildlife or shots fired at wildlife, such as in campgrounds, that miss and connect with nearby campers.
"Administrative requirements related to this rule in parks will become complicated. Issues of reciprocity of authorities for guns between states will have to be sorted out. Decisions about how to keep guns out of administrative and concession buildings will involve signing, further cluttering the developed areas; and potentially even security screening. The existing regulation works just fine, and has for decades. This is a proposed rule that deserves to be shot down!
At The Wilderness Society, Ms. Brengel said the "argument for revising the regulation seemed poorly thought out and rather short."
"So, you can carry a gun as long as the state allows concealed weapons and the analogous state lands allow for possession," she said. "And this is supposed to clear up confusion? Or, is it supposed to create confusion?"
Indeed, there are a number of national parks that cross state boundaries. Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Death Valley, and the Blue Ridge Parkway come immediately to mind. The proposed regulation made no allowance for how rangers were to police the various gun laws in those parks.
While the proposed regulation said DOI officials were uncertain whether a review under the National Environmental Policy Act would be required, Ms. Brengel thought a thorough review was necessary.
"Rather than directly addressing potential harm to wildlife, the agencies didn’t even mention poaching, off-season hunting, and other possible problems with this proposal," she said. "The public deserves to know if Park Service professionals, not political appointees, think there will be impacts to cherished wildlife and hunting opportunities due to this change in the rules."
If the decision to make guns more available in national parks stands, it will be interesting to see not only how it impacts domestic visitation to the parks, but also international tourism in light of how many other countries view America's pervasive gun laws.
Somewhat curiously, in light of the building debate over how this change would impact national parks, comments on the proposed regulation are being directed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose lands also would be open to concealed carry under this change.
A copy of the Federal Register notice is attached below. Comments are being directed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: 1024-AD70; Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Arlington, Virginia, 22203.
Secretary Kempthorne's decision to consider concealed carry in national parks came in the wake of lobbying by the National Rifle Association, which got U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, to introduce legislation that would overturn the current regulations, which allow weapons to be transported through parks as long as they're broken down and stored out of easy reach.
Additionally, roughly half of the Senate's 100 members wrote to the Interior secretary asking him to reconsider the regulations.
Somewhat ironically, the current regulations were adopted by the Reagan administration. A much earlier version of the regulation was established in 1936 to prevent the poaching of wildlife, and was included in the Park Service’s first general regulations adopted after the creation of the agency in 1916.
In opposing a change, the seven former Park Service directors told Secretary Kempthorne in a letter that, "Informing visitors as they enter a park that their guns must be unloaded and stowed away puts them on notice that they are entering a special place where wildlife are protected and the environment is respected both for the visitor’s enjoyment and the enjoyment of others."
"While most gun owners are indeed law-abiding citizens, failure to comply with this minimal requirement can be a signal to rangers that something is wrong," the letter continued. "Removing that simple point of reference would seriously impair park rangers’ ability to protect people and resources, and if necessary manage crowds."
Signing the letter were former NPS directors Ronald Walker (1973-75), Gary Everhardt (1975-1977), George Hartzog (1964-1972), James Ridenour (1989-1993), Roger Kennedy (1993-1997), Robert Stanton (1997-2001), and Fran Mainella (2001-2006).