Interior Department officials finally did what was expected Friday when they published a rule change that will allow national park visitors to arm themselves.
In a decision that surely will delight some and surely disgust others, the Bush administration ignored all past living directors of the National Park Service, the Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the National Parks Conservation Association in deciding it would be OK for park visitors to carry weapons if they hold concealed weapons permits and the park they are in is located within a state that allows concealed carry.
“Once again, political leaders in the Bush administration have ignored the preferences of the American public by succumbing to political pressure, in this case generated by the National Rifle Association. This regulation will put visitors, employees and precious resources of the National Park System at risk. We will do everything possible to overturn it and return to a common-sense approach to guns in national parks that has been working for decades,” said Bill Wade, president of the retirees group.
The administration received almost 140,000 comments, the vast majority of which opposed the proposal to allow loaded guns in national parks.
The groups opposed to the rule change say the "final regulation is even more extreme than the administration’s original proposal, and permits concealed and loaded guns to be carried in national parks located in any states with concealed carry laws, not just those that allow guns in their state parks as originally proposed. Only the three national park units in Wisconsin and Illinois, which do not issue concealed carry permits, are excluded."
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there were 1.65 violent crimes per 100,000 national park visitors in 2006—making national parks some of the safest places in the United States. Those opposed to the rule change say the new regulation could increase the risk for impulse shootings of wildlife, and risk the safety of visitors and rangers.
Despite the potential affect on national park wildlife and resources, the administration did not conduct an environmental review as required by law, and some believe that opens the door for a lawsuit to halt the rule change.
“Land management agencies have worked diligently over the years to successfully create the different sets of expectations amongst the visiting public to reflect the differing levels of resource protections for each specific area,” said John Waterman, president of the Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. “National parks are different from other public lands. The visitor population expects, demands, and gets a higher degree of protection, enforcement, and restriction in a national park.
"Furthermore, while national parks are amongst the safest areas to be in, the toll on the U.S. Park Ranger is high: U.S. Park Rangers are the most assaulted federal officers in the country. This vague, wide-open regulation will only increase the danger U.S. Park Rangers face.”
In a letter sent to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne on April 3, 2008, seven former directors of the National Park Service said that there is no need to change the existing regulation. “In all our years with the National Park Service, we experienced very few instances in which this limited regulation created confusion or resistance,” the letter stated. “There is no evidence that any potential problems that one can imagine arising from the existing regulations might overwhelm the good they are known to do.”
At the Association of National Park Rangers, President Scot McElveen said “American citizens have traditionally valued the professional opinions of park rangers when it comes to managing national parks. In the professional opinion of ANPR, this regulation change will have negative impacts on park wildlife. Our experience in operating parks creates disbelief that wildlife poaching rates will not increase under the new regulation. We oppose this rash regulatory change.”
Echoing these concerns, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees last month released a report revealing that more than three out of four of 1,400 current and former employees of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predict that this controversial regulation will have an adverse affect on the ability of agency employees to accomplish their mission. Furthermore, it found that 75 percent of respondents feel that there will be an increase in opportunistic or impulse wildlife killings in parks and refuges.
“With this decision, many state parks across the country will now provide a more protective environment for wildlife and visitors than national parks—once the safest place for families. Furthermore, this decision undermines the ability of national park professionals to manage the parks and runs counter to the overwhelming majority of Americans who wrote in opposition to allowing loaded firearms in our national parks,” said NPCA Associate Director for Park Uses Bryan Faehner.