How will families with youngsters feel about attending interpretive programs in national parks when the person next to them might be armed? Will the National Park Service have to install metal detectors in parks to ensure gun owners don't enter buildings with their sidearms?
Those are just two of the questions being asked today by active and retired National Park Service rangers lamenting adoption by the Bush administration of a rule that will allow park visitors to carry concealed weapons.
While many 2nd Amendment rights backers and the National Rifle Association view the rule change as long overdue, not everyone shares their belief. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, and the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police jointly voiced concern Friday that the rule change will not make parks safer and could in fact make them more dangerous.
“This new rule is fraught with a variety of threats and hazards to the solitude and atmosphere visitors have come to appreciate and to seek in national parks,” said Bill Wade, chair of the coalition's executive council.
The coalition has nearly 700 members, all former NPS employees, with more than 20,500 accumulated years of experience in managing national parks and NPS programs, including law enforcement and visitor services.
Mr. Wade, whose Park Service career included a stint as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, said the rule change stands to create risks to "natural and historic resources in parks." Additionally, he said the coalition is "troubled by the likelihood that the way park visitors relate to each other will be affected."
"Until now, parks have been conducive to visitors having casual chats with each other on hikes. Not uncommonly, visitors camped next to each other share a morning cup of coffee. This open social interaction is liable to change as suspicion and apprehension about the possession of concealed firearms makes people more distrustful,” he said.
At the 1,200-member Association of National Park Rangers, President Scot McElveen, a retired chief park ranger, expressed apprehension about the ability of the Park Service to provide the best available protection to park resources under the new rule.
“Park wildlife, including some rare or endangered species, will face increased threats by visitors with firearms who engage in impulse or opportunistic shooting,” said Mr. McElveen. “We also worry about increased vandalistic shooting at historic monuments, archeological petroglyphs and park signs and markers.”
The ANPR president also described situations in parks that will be confusing or troubling:
* How will a family with small children who are on a ranger-guided tour feel about the fact that other visitors on the tour very well could have concealed guns in their pockets or backpacks?
* How will visitors attending an evening program at an amphitheater in a park campground feel about the possibility that others attending the program could have firearms in their purses or jackets?
* Firearms will still be prohibited in most federal buildings, but will parks now have to provide places for visitors to check their firearms before entering visitor centers or ranger stations? Or will they have to install and staff metal detectors to ensure that firearms don’t get brought inside?
* Some parks lie in more than one state. Natchez Trace Parkway, for instance spans three states, each with a different gun law. What do visitors do when they pass from Tennessee to
Alabama and then to Mississippi?
* Some park visitors have a predisposition to kill on sight animals that they believe to be “varmints.” Such animals include coyotes, wolves, prairie dogs, snakes, and some raptors. Even though harming such animals has been illegal and will continue to be illegal under the new rule, having a loaded, readily-accessible firearm increases the chances that these visitors will act on their misplaced beliefs and fears.
John Waterman is a law enforcement ranger at Valley Forge National Historical Park and president of the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the majority of commissioned Park Service law enforcement rangers. He worries about employee and visitor safety and visitor confusion.
“This new regulation has replaced a clear and consistent regulation prohibiting guns in all national parks unless they are rendered inoperable and inaccessible, with one that opens a Pandora’s Box of confusing exceptions," he said. "Now, if you are in a national park in a state that allows concealed firearms and if you have a concealed-carry permit; or if the state you're from has reciprocal laws with the state you are in, then maybe you can carry a gun, but not in public buildings or if the state says you can't have one in a public park.... This is a regulatory nightmare both for the public and for rangers.
“More guns means more risk," Ranger Waterman stated. "For example, rangers sometimes have to intervene in disputes in campgrounds. With the possibilities of guns being present, the risk increases, not only to the disputants, but to the rangers who have to resolve the problem. Moreover, traffic stops now become more hazardous for rangers in parks.”
Mr. Wade of the retirees group scoffed at the Interior Department's intent in ramming this regulation through without appropriate analysis of the impacts it will have on national park resources and visitors.
“They said it would increase consistency for the public. Clearly it doesn’t. They said there won’t be any impacts to park resources or visitors. But thousands of current and former rangers and other employees – who actually work or worked in parks – say otherwise," he said. "They said this is what the American people wanted, but over 70 percent of the 140,000 who commented during the public comment period opposed the proposed rule.
"They said, ‘if you can carry a gun on Main Street you can now carry a gun in a national park.’ We don’t think Americans want their national parks to be like their main streets; they go to parks because they are special and different, and knowing they can get away from the pressures and stresses they face where they live and work.
“January 9, 2009 is not a good day for national parks or for their visitors,” Mr. Wade added. “We hope the new Interior Secretary will reconsider this ill-advised regulation and keep national parks special and safe.”