December 18, 2007

U.S. senators attempt to soften park gun rules

FEDERAL LAND: Stevens, Murkowski and 45 others want loaded weapons legal in more parks and refuges.

Anchorage Daily News

WASHINGTON -- Both of Alaska's U.S. senators have signed a letter asking the Interior Department to repeal federal gun rules for national parks and wildlife refuges, saying that the existing guidelines are "confusing, burdensome and unnecessary."

If federal officials agree, the result could be people being able to legally carry loaded guns onto federal lands in Alaska where they're now banned, including much of Denali National Park.

The letter was drafted by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to change rules that prohibit visitors to most national parks and wildlife refuges from carrying operable, loaded guns.

Such 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" Crapo said in his letter.

The letter was signed by 47 senators, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens, both Republicans.

Stevens' signature is "consistent with his long-standing support for Second Amendment rights, as well as state's rights," said his spokesman, Aaron Saunders.

"In Alaska, legally possessing a gun is as much a necessity as it is a right," Saunders said. "Senator Stevens strongly supports streamlining federal regulations regarding law-abiding citizens carrying firearms on public lands."

Murkowski had similar reasons for her support, said spokesman Kevin Sweeney.

"She's signing on as someone who's an advocate for Second Amendment rights," he said.

If the changes were adopted, it could mean that people would be allowed to carry loaded guns in most public areas of Alaska's national parks, including the main road into Denali National Park.

However, there currently is no process under way to change the existing gun guidelines on federal lands, said Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino.

"We've received the letter and will review it and take the senators' views into consideration," he said.


Current gun regulations on federal lands vary, depending on the agency and the purpose of the land.

Active, operable guns are allowed on federal land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, for example, as long as the applicable state and local firearms laws are followed.

Nationwide, guns are generally allowed on national wildlife refuges and in national parks -- but only if the owner has broken down the firearm and has it in a carrying case, rendering it inoperable.

However, there are some exceptions, particularly in Alaska. Some national wildlife refuges allow hunting, and guns are acceptable during hunting season. There also are 59 National Park units nationwide where people can hunt and carry weapons, Paolino said, but again, only during hunting season.

If park visitors are uncertain about the regulations, "there's no harm in calling where you're headed and just asking the question, and getting it clarified," Paolino said.

In Alaska, however, there are separate regulations for guns at national parks within the state, said John Quinley, a spokesman for the national parks in Alaska.

Operable firearms aren't allowed at all in Klondike Gold Rush or Sitka national parks. They're also not allowed in the older parts of Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay national parks, where they must be broken down and inoperable if visitors have them. In Denali, that prohibition includes the area of the park seen by most visitors: the park road, between the Parks Highway and Wonder Lake. In Katmai, operable guns are off-limits at the popular Brooks Camp.

However, it's acceptable to have a loaded, operable gun in much of the national parkland added to Alaska after 1980, including vast swaths of Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay.

That's largely for protection against bears in backcountry locations, Quinley said, although the park service points out that visitors are also allowed to use pepper spray if they feel threatened by a bear.


The changes to federal gun rules have long been sought by the National Rifle Association, which has been trying to modify the regulations for about five years, said spokeswoman Ashley Varner.

"When you have law-abiding citizens who are not allowed to carry firearms for personal protection when they are out hiking, when they are out camping deep in the national forests ... that really leaves the law-abiding citizens defenseless," Varner said.

They're merely asking for consistency from federal agencies, said Crapo's spokeswoman, Susan Wheeler. Often, people aren't aware whether they are on federal or state land, and don't know which regulations they should be following, Wheeler said.

Sometimes, people have to stop and break down a gun and stow it in a carrying case when they cross from state lands to federal lands, Wheeler said.

"We've got a couple of agencies that go by state law and some that don't," she said. "If they all went by the same rules, that would be a lot easier."

Crapo decided to press for the changes now, so that they would be considered before the end of the Bush administration, when a new Interior secretary will be in place, Wheeler said.

The Idaho Republican has spoken to Kempthorne about his proposal, Wheeler said. She wouldn't elaborate on whether the Interior secretary, a former senator and Idaho governor, was interested in the changes.

"We would hope that he would be amenable to it, being a fellow Westerner and understanding the lifestyle," she said.