By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Visitors to some national parks would be able to start packing heat along with their tents and picnic baskets under a proposal being considered by the Interior Department that would ease restrictions on loaded firearms in the parks.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said last week that officials would review long-standing regulations that require firearms in most national parks to be unloaded and inoperable -- through the use of trigger locks, for example, or storage in a car trunk or a special case. The department intends to propose new rules by April 30.
The review pits the National Rifle Association and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers against park rangers and advocates who decry the move as election-year posturing that could make the parks more dangerous.
Kempthorne's action comes in response to two recent letters from 51 senators -- 44 Republicans and seven Democrats -- requesting that the National Park Service align its gun rules with state laws. If a state permits citizens to carry concealed weapons, the national parks in that state should, too, they argued.
"These inconsistencies in firearms regulations for public lands are confusing, burdensome and unnecessary," wrote the lawmakers, led by Sens. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.). ". . . Such regulatory changes would respect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners, while providing a consistent application of state weapons laws across all land ownership boundaries."
The most recent revision of the rules came in 1983, but parks advocates say the restrictions date at least to the 1930s and mainly were designed to prevent poaching. The NRA praised Kempthorne's move, noting that 48 states now have processes that allow people to legally carry firearms for self-defense, compared with six states in 1982.
The group also wants national parks to be on an even footing with lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, where the rules on firearm possession match state laws. NRA officials cast the matter as a safety issue as well as a Second Amendment issue.
"Law-abiding citizens should not be prohibited from protecting themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said in a statement.
Parks advocates and rangers' organizations say allowing loaded weapons would increase illegal hunting, add a deadly element to many domestic disputes and generally make the parks less secure and family-friendly.
"There is no need to walk around a national park with a loaded weapon," said Bryan Faehner, a former park ranger now with the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. "It's a political maneuver by the NRA. They are using this as a political tool to build up support heading into the elections."
He added that "it's impossible for park rangers to know the difference between someone walking on a trail with a gun, and someone walking on a trail with a gun who is a poacher. This is a management nightmare for the Park Service."
Bill Wade, a former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, said replacing a single standard with rules that vary by state would create more confusion, not less. "It might simplify things for people who are in one particular state, but it sure makes it more complicated for people who are visiting parks from different places in the country," said Wade, a leader of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who joined other lawmakers in writing Kempthorne, has sponsored an amendment to a public lands bill that would accomplish the changes legislatively. But the bill is bogged down in the Senate, in part because of a dispute with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) over the provision.
Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino said the public will be able to comment on whatever changes the department proposes.