The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department over its plans to allow national park visitors to arm themselves. While the rule change is set to take effect January 9, the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also seeks an injunction to prevent that from occurring.
The lawsuit (attached below) was not unexpected. Indeed, what was more of a question was which group would file it. In announcing the lawsuit, Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke says the rule change would endanger national park visitors.
"The Bush Administration's last-minute gift to the gun lobby, allowing concealed semiautomatic weapons in national parks, jeopardizes the safety of park visitors in violation of federal law," said Mr. Helmke. "We should not be making it easier for dangerous people to carry concealed firearms in our parks."
The lawsuit, which names as defendants Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, National Park Service Director Mary Bomar, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall, claims Interior officials violated several federal laws to implement the rule before President Bush leaves office. Specifically, it charges that Interior failed to conduct any environmental review of the harm that the rule will cause, as is required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Brady Campaign also believes the rule violates the National Park Service Organic Act and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, which created the parks and wildlife refuges as protected lands for safe enjoyment of all visitors.
Rules in place since the Reagan Administration have allowed visitors to transport guns in national parks and wildlife refuges if they are unloaded and stored or dismantled.
While proponents of the rule change have maintained park visitors' safety is at stake, statistics would seem to indicate otherwise, as crime data show the park system to be one of the safest places in the nation. In arguing to block the rule change, the Brady Campaign claims its members will be irreparably harmed because they "will no longer visit national park areas and refuges out of fear for their personal safety from those who will now be permitted to carry loaded and concealed weapons in such areas. Moreover, those who do visit such areas will have their enjoyment of those areas profoundly diminished by the increased risk to safety created by this rule change."
Additionally, the lawsuit maintains -- citing Interior Department records -- that more than 125,000 comments were received on the proposed rule change, "and that many of these comments expressed opposition to a change in the existing rules."
"In support of their final rule, defendants summarily dismissed various comments that were raised in opposition to the rule change. Among other things, those comments stated that defendants should not rely on state law to manage firearms because Congress has given the federal government complete authority over federal lands," states the lawsuit. "They also pointed out that there is no reason to allow visitors to carry a loaded and concealed firearm for personal safety since national park areas and national wildlife refuges are among the safest areas in the United States.
"These comments also emphasized that parks and refuges are designed to be havens of peace and safety, and visitors who do not like guns will not be able to fully enjoy such areas if they know that another visitor in close proximity may be carrying a loaded and concealed firearm. Finally, these comments pointed out that the rule change will inhibit the ability of park and refuge managers to halt poaching of wildlife in such areas."
Since at least 1936 it has been clear that visitors are not allowed to carry weapons in national parks, unless that park allows hunting, of which there are relatively few. But under the rule change pushed through by the Bush administration, concealed carry in the parks would depend on myriad state laws, some of which carry quite a few nuances.
Jim Burnett, a commissioned law enforcement officer during much of his 30-year Park Service career, discovered the significant challenge that exists for sorting out all of those conflicting regulations. Here's a sampling of his findings:
The State of Wyoming Attorney General's website sums up this problem: "It is extremely important for all concealed firearm permit holders to be aware of the requirements and laws of all reciprocating states. The permit issued by your state does not supersede any other state’s laws or regulations. Legal conduct in your state may not be legal in the state you are visiting."
The State of Florida website on concealed weapons permits notes, "The Division of Licensing constantly monitors changing gun laws in other states and attempts to negotiate agreements as the laws in those states allow." Even if someone took time to sort out the concealed weapons laws of all the states he'd be visiting, some of those laws may have changed recently, so the process has to be repeated before every trip.
Here's only one example of the problem: Florida has reciprocal agreements to honor concealed weapons permits with only 32 of the 50 states. Visit the other 18 and you're out of luck, so don't forget to lock up your gun when you cross the state line. To make matters worse, Florida's official website notes seven different exceptions to those agreements, so even among the 32 states with agreements, guidelines vary. Are you a resident or non-resident? Are you over the age of 18 but under 21? Are you from Vermont, which doesn't even require a concealed weapons permit? (Sorry, you can't "carry" in Florida under the reciprocal agreement guidelines, since Florida can't "reciprocate" if a permit doesn't exist in the first place.) The list of exceptions goes on.
Making all this a bit more complicated are parks -- Yellowstone, Great Smoky, Death Valley, and the Blue Ridge Parkway just for example, as there are more -- that span more than one state. As a result, rangers will not only have to be schooled on those states' gun laws but also, presumably, carry a GPS unit so they know in which state they're in when they're in the backcountry so they'll know which set of laws to apply to armed backcountry travelers.
According to the Brady Campaign, numerous studies have confirmed that concealed carrying of firearms does not reduce crime and, if anything, leads to increased violent crime.
"Experience in states that have allowed concealed carrying of firearms has shown that thousands of dangerous people are able to get licenses. In Florida, for example, more than 4,200 licenses were revoked because many of these licensees committed a crime," says the group. "Since becoming the first state to allow the concealed carrying of firearms in 1987, Florida consistently has had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation. Florida has been ranked as the state with the highest annual violent crime rate more often than any other state in the last two decades."