You are here

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."

Featured Article


I am amazed by all the comments from people saying they don't want to be around guns in NPS. Wake up people, if you live in a state where concealed carry is allowed, you are around people carrying concealed handguns everywhere there legal to be carried by the permitted persons as well by the thugs who are not permitted to carry handguns. Walmart, Wendy's, Shoney's and many other places. So don't try to make a big deal out of the NPS rule. Just live with it like you do every day of your life. I'll bet you spend more time in Walmart than you do in the NPS. Next time your in Walmart look around and ask yourself, how many people in here are carrying. I'll bet no one has ever botherd you and you probably can't tell who is carrying anyway. Look real hard, most people do a real good job of concealling so the public can't detect it. No one has ever detected mine. That goes for law enforcement as well. I would rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. Never leave home without it.
Retired military and NRA Life Member.

Coyote, I'm sorry that you mourn the loss of the National Parks as places you don't have to worry about guns. Just don't worry about them, problem solved. Your need to worry is really your personal phobia, unless you spend every single minute of your life outside the National Parks worrying about guns.

Secondly, for those of you still stuck on the militia part of the 2nd amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States already handled that one. And if you still feel that your interpretation is correct, maybe we should also go back to Brown vs. Board of Education for other folks?

To Bernard Schwartz:

First of all, I would behave properly while hiking in bear country - make enough noise so that the bears know I'm there. For a black bear, 9 times out of 10 all I would have to do is back down because the black bear charge is usually a bluff charge. In grizzly country I would carry a BIG can of pepper spray, which is recommended. As for moose, I'm not one of those morons who need to get close for a perfect photo. I can see them just fine at a distance. And do remember to drive more slowly during rut season - some moose weigh more than your pickup - and your pickup would lose.

In short, a firearm is a poor substitute for good sense. Using one's brain in a dicey situation is a far better option. Hauling out the pistol only gives the illusion of feeling powerful and safe. Big animals are perfectly predictable if you know a little about their behavior. And knowing a little about human behavior, I guess I will do the sensible thing and wear my orange cap the next time I go to a national park.

If you are going to start throwing around the 2nd amendment lets do the whole thing not just the selected part that fits your needs
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Where does all this come from...English common law as there was not police to protect the people. And scholars have debated and will continue to debate what the true meaning of the full amendment is. Am I afraid of a law abiding citizen with a concealed carry permit...not especially...Am I afraid of the weekend warrior who wants to carry his gun because he is afraid of every two or four legged creature out there...YOU BETCHA! My brains are going to avoid more conflicts than your gun. With that said yes I am a gun owner, yes I have a carry permit...will I carry in a National Park, probably not and if I do you will never know. Its about responsibility and common sense and unfortunately that can't even be given away these days or so it seems to me.

"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"

Do people NOT realize that some people (those carrying illegally) are carrying in the parks now. They are on the trails and in the tents nearby, yet you don't realize this.

Do you really think this isn't happening?

Criminals carry guns wherever they want. This new law will level the playing field and allow law-abiding citizens to carry.

It's the criminals who are carrying now that you should worry about.

Bernard Schwartz:

Um....exaxtly what do YOU prefer to use to stop a charging moose or bear???

2% OC pepper spray in an extra large size works well; I'm not describing 2.5 oz personal pepper spray. These are allowed in NPS units where the superintendent has approved an exception to NPS weapons restrictions. Studies have suggested that they're considerably more effective (and easier to use) than even large bore firearms on a charging bear.

A handgun isn't likely to stop a bear. And good luck trying to hit one. They're fast and hard to hit when coming at you. Even a couple of shots hitting a grizzly bear in the body aren't likely to make it stop. A mama grizzly defending its young isn't going to be deterred by a little bit of pain. We're talking animals that don't back down from considerably more powerful polar bears.

In any case, where they are black bears, they almost always bluff charge. Where there are grizzly bears, bear pepper spray is almost always approved. I mean, how would you feel if some panicked person with a handgun is trying to shoot a bear in an occupied campground? The reality is that the fear of animals tends to be irrational and I'm far more worried about someone with a firearm overreacting. In any case, you can buy bear pepper spray in almost every NPS unit that had grizzly/brown bears.

I've heard of gun owners who stated that they would prefer pepper spray because it's easier and less dangerous than a firearm.

In response to - " try substituting one of your other rights for "carry a gun" and see how it feels. Would you put up with not being allowed to talk in a federal park, or not being allowed to read or carry a newspaper, or not being allowed to walk through the park with your family?"

I understand what you are attempting to say but comparing a person with a gun to a person with a newspaper is silly. Someone reading a newspaper doesn't pose the same threat to me or my family as someone toting a gun around.

And I am just curious... everyone says it is our constitutional right to carry a gun. Why aren't these same people fighting for rights to carry firearms in airports and on planes? And why shouldn't our kids take guns to school? Rights are rights, afterall...

Anyone who carries a gun anywhere is simply expressing a right guaranteed by the highest law of the land, the U.S. bill of rights. Only a poor gov't would attempt to violate the rights of the American people.

Gov't has grown too big for its breeches already. My carry permit is the second amendment.

Any gov't employee should support and uphold the constitution of the U.S. and if they fail to do so, should be terminated immediately.

Therefore, the lesser law prohibiting or allowing those entering parks or any other U.S. facility is a moot issue.

Have a nice day.

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