Federal government to lift restrictions on guns in national parks

The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe talks about the lifting of long-standing restrictions on guns in national parks and the concerns of some in the National Park Service that the move will damage the spirit of the park system.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

The federal government will lift long-standing restrictions on guns in national parks Monday, meaning that visitors with proper permits could pack heat along with camping and picnic gear to most of the 392 parks. The move concerns current and former employees of the National Park Service who are convinced that the move will damage the spirit of the nation's park system.

Depending on state gun laws, visitors will be able to carry concealed and loaded guns into parks, the Park Service said.

The District bans people from carrying firearms; Maryland law allows gun owners with permits to carry handguns and rifles. Virginia allows for open and concealed carrying with proper permits and has reciprocity agreements with 30 states.

West Virginia, home to Harpers Ferry National Historical Site, allows for open carrying but requires a state permit for concealed firearms.

The Park Service has spent months preparing for the new law, holding conference calls in recent days with park supervisors to review the changes and ensure they prepare signage and talking points for visitors, spokesman David Barna said.

Differing state restrictions make understanding the new law complicated, especially for parks situated in more than one state, Barna said. Supervisors will have to ensure that tourists keep guns out of visitor centers and rangers' office buildings, because federal law bans firearms in federal facilities. But guns could be carried into private lodges or concession stands, depending on state laws.

"The burden for the public rests with knowing what the law is in the state that you're in, in a similar way that you have to know the automotive or marriage license laws of the state you're in," Barna said. Park Web sites will provide links to states' gun laws, he said.

In the Washington area, gun owners will be able to carry a firearm into the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, but not beyond the ticketed entrances to the Filene Center, the park's amphitheater.

"Whether you sit on the lawn or under the canopy, firearms are prohibited," said Park Service regional spokesman Bill Line. Private restaurants on the grounds will also ban weapons, Line said.

Congress lifted the gun ban last spring, after years of efforts by a bipartisan coalition that said differences in state and federal firearms laws made it difficult for gun owners to travel between state and federal lands.

The Bush administration had lifted the ban on concealed weapons in its final months, after pressure from gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association. But a federal judge blocked the move last year. The Obama administration declined to appeal the ruling, and Congress passed the law. President Obama signed the measure without comment as part of a credit card reform package.

National parks hosted about 275 million visitors in 2008, the agency said. There were 3,760 reported major crimes, including five homicides and 37 rapes. The agency does not note which crimes involve firearms. Crime is down across the system's parks, according to the statistics.

Bill Wade, president of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said that could change Monday.

"Visitors are going to go to national parks with an increased amount of suspicions and weariness and concern," Wade said. Worse, he said, the new law will erase the park system's reputation as a place of solitude and safety.

"People go to national parks to get away from things that they face in their everyday living, where they live and work. Now I think that social dynamic is really going to change," Wade said.

Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, said that the new law violates the Park Service's original mission to serve as a preserve for the United States' natural resources and wildlife.

"Our tens of thousands of years of collective experience in operating and managing parks leads us to believe that allowing loaded, readily accessible firearms in parks is one that will lead to lessened preservation of park resources," McElveen said.

Critics are also concerned about the possibility of an increase in illegal hunting and poaching.

"There are a group of folks that will never break the law, no matter what, because they believe the law and want to keep their weapons," McElveen said. "But there's also a group in the middle that can be tempted by opportunity when they think that no one's around and no one will find out."

John Velleco, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, said he thinks such concerns are misguided. "If poaching is a problem, go after the poachers. Don't go after the millions and millions of people who have concealed permits and who could otherwise carry on Park Service land," he said. The new law will only make the parks safer, Velleco said.

"If anything, it's going to lead to fewer criminal attacks, because people will be able to defend themselves," Velleco said.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who led congressional efforts to change the law, said that concerns about the law's potential negative impact on parks are overblown.

"I don't expect anything major to come from this other than to restore the Second Amendment rights taken away by bureaucrats," Coburn said. If states want to change their gun laws, he said, "it'll be left up to the people and not the bureaucrats in Washington."

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