Locked and Loaded: Bullets New Addition to National Park Experience?
If the Bush Administration, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and 47 U.S. Senators get their way, you might be able to take a loaded gun into national parks and wildlife refuges. What does the National Park Service (NPS) manage? Historic sites, 388 parks, monuments, battlefields, lake shores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. Interior Secretary James Watt under the Reagan Administration put the firearm restrictions in place in 1985. For reasons of visitor and wildlife protection — especially to prevent poaching, firearms have to be unloaded and stowed in all park service locations and on lands under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., sent a letter to Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne asking him to rescind those rules. Some senators felt the gun ban regulations were mandated without Congress’s approval and go against the right to bear arms. Since there is a shortage of park rangers, the senators also argued that park visitors have a right to be armed for defense.
On Feb. 13, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, introduced H.R. 5434, a resolution to “protect innocent Americans from violent crime in national parks.” It also proposed that national parks and wildlife refuges would adhere to individual state firearm laws. Instead of the current single jurisdiction, the national park service would be controlled under 50 different state firearms regulations.
“Law-abiding citizens should not be prohibited from protecting themselves and their families while enjoying America’s National Parks and wildlife refuges,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist in a recent press release. “Under this proposal, federal parks and wildlife refuges will mirror the state firearm laws for state parks. This is an important step in the right direction.”
As a follow-up to the senators’ letter to Secretary Kempthorne, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) filed an amendment that stated:
While better prioritization of federal funds may be needed to increase law enforcement efforts in our public parks and forests, allowing visitors to national parks to possess guns provides responsible gun owners the ability to defend themselves in the event that law enforcement is not nearby.
Certainly, someone driving around with a loaded rifle in the Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t necessarily going to be tempted to shoot an eight-point elk bull standing 10 feet from the roadway. Instead, the senators contend, a loaded gun is necessary for visitors to protect themselves in all the dangerous places managed by the park service.
Crimes in park lands mirror those in urban areas — vandalism, arson, burglary and even murder. Yet, the Bush Administration has repeatedly cut the department’s budget, leaving the park service with an average of one law enforcement officer for about every 110,000 visitors and 118,000 acres of land. In fact, National Park Service officers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured than FBI agents, news sources report.
A creative interpretation of H.R. 5434 could allow armed national park visitors to become an effective vigilante force fighting crime, protecting park rangers and defending wildlife from poachers. Or, perhaps in a more realistic view, added firepower under H.R. 5434 could encourage more violent incidents in camps, trails and other park locations. Already, park rangers wear bulletproof vests.
“Overturning Reagan-era rules that struck the right balance between the rights of gun owners and the safety of families and wildlife is a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year,” noted National Parks Conservation Association President Tom Kiernan.
Charging that the NRA is flexing its political muscle, Kiernan hopes that after the proposal goes under public review, rules will remain unchanged, that firearm regulations in national parks won’t fall under individual state control.
Thousands of tourists visit the nearly 100 national parks, monuments, recreation trails, historical sites and special wildlife areas in Colorado every year. The state also has a Make My Day Law that allows property owners to shoot first if they feel their homes or belongings are threatened.
If some senators and the NRA get their way, campers may have more than scenic wonders to make their visits a memorable experience in Colorado.
Photo: Isn’t it comforting to know that if a new gun law is enacted, it may be legal for all the visitors camping next to you to have a rifle ready and loaded. Photo by Leslie Robinson.