February 12, 2008

Senate to Vote on Allowing Park Visitors to Carry Loaded Guns

Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC, February 12, 2008 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate is likely to consider the "National Forests, Parks, Public Land, and Reclamation Projects Authorization Act," this week. When that happens, Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican is expected to offer an amendment to allow state law, rather than federal law, to govern the carrying and transportation of firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges.

This measure was authored and is supported by the National Rifle Association, which said in a February 1 letter to its members, "We have been working on your behalf for nearly five years to facilitate this policy change and are committed to ensuring that it finally happens this year."

On February 1, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police wrote a joint letter to U.S. senators urging them to reject the Coburn amendment.

"Senator Coburn's amendment could dramatically degrade the experience of park visitors and put their safety at risk if units of the National Park System were compelled to follow state gun laws," warned the rangers and retirees.

"For example, since Wyoming has limited gun restrictions, visitors could see persons with semi-automatic weapons attending campground programs, hiking down park trails or picnicking along park shorelines at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks," they wrote.

An analysis of the Coburn amendment and NRA campaign released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, finds that they are founded upon basic misconceptions.

Coburn's amendment forbids the Interior Secretary from enforcing "any regulation that prohibits an individual from possessing a firearm in any unit of the National Park System or the National Wildlife Refuge System…"

On December 14, 2007, a group of 47 senators wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne urging repeal of these regulations because they are "confusing, burdensome and unnecessary."

The letter was signed by 39 Republican senators along with eight Democrats.

The NRA claims credit for both the senators' letter and the Coburn amendment.

A central assertion of the Coburn measure is that the current regulation offends the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting the possession of a firearm in parks.

But in fact the current regulation states that weapons may be possessed as long as they are not loaded and ready for use.

The regulation, (36 CFR 2.4), says that "…unloaded weapons may be possessed within a temporary lodging or mechanical mode of conveyance when such implements are rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use."

These rules, re-written in 1983 under the Reagan administration, were intended to relax earlier stricter prohibitions. As the National Park Service then explained, "[T]he Service has determined that it is not feasible to prohibit the possession of weapons in all situations, and a total prohibition would be unenforceable."

"The Second Amendment right ‘to keep and bear Arms' does not specify that the weapons must always be loaded and holstered," said PEER Board Member Frank Buono, the former deputy superintendent of Mojave National Preserve. He notes that the fundamental reason for this regulation is to prevent opportunistic poaching, as most park units forbid hunting.

The other rationale for removing firearm regulations is "consistency in firearms policy" on federal lands, according to the senators' letter to Kempthorne.

Senator Coburn's legislation would have federal firearm policy conform to state laws, but because firearms laws vary from state to state, there would then be at least 50 sets of rules for federal lands. In some instances, where a park straddles a state line, there would be two different firearms policies in different sections of the same park.

"This uniformity argument is absurd," Buono added, pointing out that the White House is also part of the national park system. "We don't allow guns on airplanes, in penitentiaries or in the halls of Congress, either."

The rangers and retirees say allowing the possession of loaded and accessible guns in parks would be dangerous to law enforcement officers. "Many rangers can recite stories about incidents where the risk to other visitors - as well as to the ranger - would have been exacerbated if a gun had been readily accessible. This amendment would compromise the safe atmosphere that is valued by Americans and expected by international tourists traveling to the United States," they wrote.

"There is simply no legitimate or substantive reason for a thoughtful sportsman or gun owner to carry a loaded gun in a national park unless that park permits hunting. The requirement that guns in parks are unloaded and put away is a reasonable and limited restriction to facilitate legitimate purposes," wrote the rangers and retirees, "the protection of precious park resources and safety of visitors."