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Regulatory Landscape For Guns to Change in National Parks on February 22

Marble Hall in Sequoia National Park's Crystal Cave. NPS photo.

Is Marble Hall in Sequoia National Park's Crystal Cave a federal facility where you won't be able to carry a concealed weapon under the new gun regulations? NPS photo.

A controversial rule change concerning firearms in national parks takes effect February 22, a change likely to cause confusion and raise concerns over personal safety, but one also that could go largely unnoticed and give some a measure of personal security.

Foisted upon the National Park Service in a most curious way -- attached as an amendment to legislation that had nothing to do with national parks but everything to do with addressing credit cards -- the legislation has kept Park Service staff meeting for months on how to clear the way for park visitors to carry not just concealed weapons if they hold the requisite permits, but to openly carry rifles and shotguns.

Problems the Park Service hopes to have sorted out by February 22 include defensible definitions for what constitutes a federal facility -- Are the labyrinths that define Mammoth Cave? The warming huts in Yellowstone? Open-air facilities such as the Children's Theater-in-the-Woods at the Wolf Trap National Park for Performing Arts? The communal bathhouses at Curry Village in Yosemite? And they hope to have carefully navigated the various state laws that might use "firearms," "gun," "weapons," or some other nomenclature in their particular statutes.

Each park also is expected to have a handy information card for visitors that explains the rule change and outlines the applicable gun regulations for that park. But what looks good on paper might not look so good out in the field. For instance, how might rangers in parks with visible wildlife, such as Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Theodore Roosevelt, react if a visitor grabs his rifle simply to look through its scope to get a closer view of an elk or bison?

While the rule change has been applauded by many 2nd Amendment backers, there are ongoing efforts in New York, California, and Maine to block it in their states. In Maine, a legislative committee is expected late this week to consider a bill (see attached) that would circumvent the rule change for units of the National Park System in the Pine Tree State -- Acadia National Park, St. Croix Island International Historic Site, and the Appalachian Trail -- by making the previous firearms rule, which allowed weapons to be transported through parks as long as they were unloaded, broken down, and out of reach, the law.

"There is concern in a number of state legislatures by the fact that the new law, which will go into effect February 22, is NOT limited to concealed firearms being carried by permitted individuals with training. The new law allows for any kind of firearm to be carried in a national park unit unless the state forbids it," the National Parks Conservation Association said. "Some state legislators are troubled that that their state laws may not sufficiently keep firearms, such as holstered pistols, rifles, and semi-automatic weapons, from being openly carried in national park units in their states. They also worry that there could be adverse impacts on tourism.

"NPCA supports any effort at the state level to retain the firearm rules developed during the Reagan administration that simply require firearms to be unloaded and put away while visiting a national park unit. This is a reasonable requirement that has proven successful at maintaining America's parks as safe family friendly destinations. It has also served as an invaluable tool in combating poaching and harm to historical resources."

In Maine, Friends of Acadia, a non-profit that fosters and supports stewardship of Acadia, worked to see "LD 1737" introduced to the Legislature.

“The previous rules were working perfectly fine here in Acadia, and I think that for, especially for the rangers, the new firearms laws present a challenge," said Stephanie Clement, conservation director for the friends group. The old rule, she went on, made it easier for rangers to spot possible poachers; anyone carrying a firearm could be stopped. Under the rule change, it would no longer be that simple, she said.

“Really, it was a very effective anti-poaching tool. It was an opportunity for a point of contact, so that point of contact will be gone," said Ms. Clement.

Additionally, there are many park visitors who worry the rule change could actually endanger their personal safety, not enhance it, she said. While those who endorse the rule change say it will give them a greater sense of safety from wild animals and human predators, Ms. Clement said there are many others who dread the thought of pitching a tent next to another where there might be firearms, or hiking up trails with others carrying guns.

“It’s going to be a scary thing for a lot of visitors who don’t live in the Alaska wilderness or in places where people are used to seeing folks with open firearms," she said.

For the National Park Service, sorting through the regulatory changeover has been somewhat daunting. Under the change, firearm regulations in a specific park would resemble those of the state in which the park is located, except, however, when it comes to federal facilities. They would still be off-limits to visitors with guns. But what is a federal facility? Certainly, park headquarters and visitor centers would be considered federal facilities. But what about restrooms, warming huts, amphitheaters, or concession facilities?

“The federal facility law, the way I understand it, defines a federal facility as a building where federal employees work on a regular basis," explained David Barna, the Park Service's chief of communications. "Now, trying to find out what ‘regular’ means can also be difficult. We’re assuming that means if they work there weekly, that that’s probably a federal facility. But that would not include our concessions facilities.”

Campgrounds, shower facilities, and restrooms likely would not be federal facilities, since they're not regularly assigned duty stations, he added, "even though we may go in and clean them."

And yet, what about the campfire ring where there are regular ranger talks? Probably not a federal "facility," as there's no roof overhead, said Mr. Barna.

"So at a campfire talk, you would be able to carry your firearm," he said, only to pause before adding, "and again, all these things have so many caveats. In Virginia the state law says if it’s a gathering of children, it’s prohibited. So if you were at an amphitheater conducting a children’s program in the summer, in the state of Virginia, they will say that during that program you can’t have a firearm."

That's where the subtle nuances can change from state to state, and why the Park Service hopes to have those handy information cards ready for your visit beginning on February 22.

“We’ve asked all the parks, and we are going to have an all-superintendents phone call, and we’ve asked people to submit those instances where they do need to make a decision, and we’re going to make those decisions and just see how it plays out," Mr. Barna said.

As for Mammoth Cave and other parks with ranger-led cave tours?

“A cave is not a building, it’s not man-made," said the spokesman. "It is a place, however, where federal employees work on a regular basis, and we give tours, and almost all the instances, when you enter these big touring caves you’re entering through a federal facility to get into them anyway, there’s some gatehouse or entrance. Now, a cave out here in the woods, like out here behind my house, probably would not apply. In other words firearms would probably be OK. But in those places like Mammoth and Carlsbad where you actually enter through a federal facility to get into it, you probably could ban the firearms in those places.”

But when it comes to these caves, what constitutes a "federal facility"? At Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park a ticket is purchased at the Foothills or Lodgepole visitor centers. At the cave, you hand your ticket to a ranger and pass through a gate into the cave. So where's the "facility"? A similar setup can be encountered at Mammoth Cave.

“We’re wrestling with those decisions. At some point somebody’s going to have to make a decision and let it be tested, I think," said Mr. Barna.

And then there are the concession facilities. In some parks these lodges and hotels are owned by concessionaires, in others they are park facilities leased to concessionaires.

"Concessionaires also have to operate under their state law. We’re not directing the concessions people for what they should or shouldn’t do," said Mr. Barna. "That’s kind of broken into two pieces. There is, the concessionaire dealing with the public, and there is the concessionaire dealing with their own employees. Someone in a staff meeting said they had heard -- I can’t verify this -- that Xanterra (Parks & Resorts) has as a condition of employment that their employees don’t carry firearms. They don’t want those firearms in the dorms where all of these young kids are, so they as an employer can probably do that for their employees.

"What their restrictions are on doing things for the public are something that those concessionaires are going to have to find out. How do restaurants out in the community operate?" he continued. "What can the owner/operator of a facility in that state do, and that should dictate what these concession operators can do. So it may very well be that you won’t have consistency across the country at restaurants in parks because the state laws aren’t consistent with restaurants.”

Requests made to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Delaware North Parks, ARAMARK, and Forever Resorts for how they were dealing with the impending rule change were not immediately answered.

While Mr. Barna said there are expectations that some gun owners will show up in national parks on or after February 22 simply to showcase their 2nd Amendment rights, in the long run he hopes the rule change will quickly meld into the background.

“Even in the staff meetings you get that entire breadth of opinion ... people who are really concerned this will be a big issue, but I’m kind of the moderator who comes back and says, ‘You know, in Virginia you can carry these things now. I’ve lived in Virginia for 35 years and it’s not like you walk around the see people carrying openly," he said. "So it shouldn't be any different in the parks than it is in the states you’re in.

"...Certainly there will be those people whose view is, maybe they don’t feel safe because they know someone has weapons there. But remember, there are also those people who now feel safer because they do have their weapons," said Mr. Barna. "And so you’re going to have that whole gamut of opinion. We have had instances and emails from people on both sides of this issue, and certainly we’ve had people who say, back when the rule was proposed, 'The judge killed this, I’m never coming back to a national park until I can bring my weapons and protect my family and myself.'

"We’ve got to stay middle-of-the-road. We’re implementing a law like we implement all laws."

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I absolutely applaud this new law for carrying firearms and let me explain myself. The bad guys will have guns regardless. This new law will allow law abiding citizens a means to defend themselves. More importantly, even nobody legally carries firearms in the park, the new law has a great deterrence effect. The bad guys will now know anybody could have a weapon just as lethal as theirs other than just camping utentils. Yes, the bad guys will think twice if they wanted to rape your daughter, girl friend, or sister. Have you been in a situation where you felt so helpless to defend? If not, you wouldn't understand. Folks (including my wife) who are not comfortable with handling firearms will never touch them to begin with. The prospect of someone randomly shooting is unlikely. Those who carry firearms are normally very well trained to handle weapons, if not more qualified than the park rangers. Will there ever be an idiot firing a weapon other than legitimate defense? Perhaps so, but there are laws to deal with those offenses. When it comes to wild animals, there ought to be some training information on the park brochures and printouts or handouts on when/or when not to shoot them. If you are one of those sleeping in the log cabin, it's easy to say leave them alone. If you are in a tent, your young kids and the wild animal are separated by a thin nylon. If you are attacked, run away if you can but should have a means to defend. So, in the most unlikely event you have unwanted visitor(s), you now can really leave them alone and have a good night sleep just knowing that you now have a means to defend rather than panicking or worse become a victim of crime or animal attack statistics.

Kurt, I agree that the process of passing legislation by attaching it as a rider to non-germane bills is a sorry state of affairs but it is accepted, current, Congressional practice. And even attaching non-germane riders to bills is a more forthright process than enacting bans on the exercise of Constitutionally protected rights via backroom bureaucratic decrees. Bureaucrats enacted the ban. Congress repealed it.

As for the claimed "dangers" of repealing that ban, well, such claims are silly at best and insulting to the multitude of gun-owning citizens at worst. The Coburn amendment simply says that the same state and local laws applying outside the parks now applies within them as well. The same people who are now legally and peacefully carrying outside park boundaries will simply be allowed to continue that practice on the other side of the invisible park boundaries. There is no rational reason for believing that crossing an arbitrary, imaginary geographic line will suddenly turn peaceable, law-abiding people into criminals.

There is, however, plenty of reason to believe that the criminals who until now found the parks a safe hunting ground will now find crime to be more dangerous. I live between two ONCR national parks. I've been told by campground operators and vendor as well as seeing for myself the risks of encountering sociopaths in those parks. I've also read the newspaper stories and talked with Park Rangers telling of the meth labs and marijuana patches being grown there. The criminals engaging in those activities are armed and always have been. They are not deterred by mere paper regulations. Now, finally, the innocent hikers and canoeists who stumble upon such illegal activities will have a chance of being armed to defend themselves.

Hankster, if I recall correctly, the Bush administration tried to change the regs administratively after being pressured by the NRA, NPCA and others opposed it in court on the grounds that the Interior Department did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act in terms of looking at the environmental consequences, a federal judge agreed, the NRA appealed, and then Sen. Coburn attached the amendment to the credit card bill.

As for pointing to the NRA for the move to change the regs, they even took credit on their own website detailing their efforts to change the reg. Here's more background from earlier stories:

The NRA was behind U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn's proposed legislation that would prevent the government from banning concealed carry in the national parks, and also helped craft the letter that 50-some members of the Senate sent to Secretary Kempthorne asking for a change in gun policies in the national parks and national wildlife refuges.

I think it's safe to say that had the NRA not lobbied so much and not threatened politicians with opposing their re-election, this would not be an issue today.

But, bottom-line, this issue is history. Let's revisit it in a year when the NPS releases its 2010 stats on crime in the parks.

Finally, both sides of the aisle use earmarks, riders, amendments, whatever you want to call them, to sneak through legislation they know wouldn't stand the heat of full review. And the taxpayers are the ones who suffer.

Kurt.. you need to revisit the "history" of this legislation....and who stood in it's way, and then how it came to be as it is now... the left has been using this method (it's called a RIDER) for eons now!! By the way, I do not like riders myself. I feel laws should be separate and stand on their own merit. But you know what? What's good for the goose...... And on you comment about NOT blaming the NPCA.. why not? If (they) hadn't been are running all around with their "the sky is falling" attitude.. the law WOULD NOT look as it now does, FACT! They made it become what they now have...Also, don't blame the NRA etc..... or Congress.. it's a little thing many of us believe in called the Constitution. THAT is the rulebook we follow... of course there are those who despise said rulebook...and to those I say... there are planes leaving the US for everywhere every 15 minutes.... I DO however agree with you on your view of Earmarks and riders in general.... you ARE spot on there!!

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous remarks. Ed.

Sorry, Chris, I do feel that the amendment was approached in a "most curious way." Had I been around during the FDR administration, I likely would have claimed the same if an amendment totally and entirely nongermane to the bill it was attached to was pushed through via this sort of congressional sleight-of-hand.

What possible connection with credit cards does the gun amendment have? If the NRA is so adamant about constitutional rights, you'd think it'd feel just as strongly about congressional process and would have demanded that the Senate consider this issue in the open and on its own merits.

And so you fully understand my position, I feel the same about the earmark process. If a project truly is worthy, then let it come before the full Senate or House in an open manner, not through some backroom or backdoor approach.

"I suspect the new law will make little difference, except for an occasional unfortunate incident or two. But what I don't understand is why some people - he-man hunter types I guess - claim to be honestly afraid to walk in the woods without a weapon, while thousands of septugenians and young couples with small children do it all the time with nary a thought about it."

Being blindly ignorant of danger and deliberately ignoring danger are not the same thing as being safe. The truth is that people are assaulted, robbed, and robbed in National parks miles from the nearest ranger. It may not happen on a frequent basis but it does happen. And if you're the one to whom it happens, then that's once too often.

Mr. Repanshek claims that the removal of the 73-year infringement on a Constitutional right was "foisted upon the National Park Service in a most curious way." He has an interesting view of proper procedures. The regulation was enacted arbitrarily by the FDR administration's unelected and unanswerable National Park service bureaucracy. It was repealed by an openly voted act of Congress. Yet Mr. Rapenshek feels the open vote by the body Constitutionally empowered to make laws is the one that's "a most curious way." One must assume that he feels the proper way to govern is by bureaucratic edicts decided in secret. While such things happen all too often I don't believe that's the way our country's Founding Fathers envisioned our government working.

I agree and disagree with this policy. I think people who hold concealed carry licenses should be able to carry only concealed in National Parks for personal protection. Most states require training, back ground checks and other procedures to get a license. In fact I think all home state licenses should be accepted nationwide like a drivers license from your home state. I do not think carrying handguns openly in National Parks serves any purpose except to freighten visitiors who are afraid of guns. You know the old saying "out of sight out of mind"... Long arms should be prohibited in developed areas of parks, but permitted in wilderness areas strictly for survival and defense against large predators. I have a license to carry concealed and my home state allows open carry also, but I don't think open carry serves any purpose except to show off "I have a gun, look at me". Personally I don't think it's anyones business that I carry a gun legally.

Well the day all gun fearing people have arrived. I expect the largest people taking advantage of this are drivers on the GW Pkwy in VA since they had problems with traveling while using their CCW permits. Some will have traveled in NPS but most would have been courteous and kept their guns concealed.

The time has come for people to get used to the idea that all citizens have a a right to bear arms and that can mean concealed or open. People can be dangerous, it is not the tool that is the problem. If a traveler had no intention of doing harm then having a gun does not change that. Many traveled in NPS with guns anyway and did no harm.

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