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."