May 20, 2009

Congress votes to allow loaded firearms in national parks

NRA VICTORY: Legislation allows others across country to do what is already allowed in most of Alaska.

Anchorage Daily News
Staff and Wire Reports

ro-gun forces won a major victory in Washington on Wednesday when Congress voted to allow people to carry loaded weapons in most national parks and refuges.

The action was a major defeat for supporters of gun control, who earlier in the year won a court reversal of a Bush administration policy that first lifted the restrictions on loaded firearms on those public lands.

Some Alaskans -- their minds filled with visions of pistol-packing tourists climbing aboard Denali National Park buses armed to the teeth -- had joined with a variety of national organizations in challenging the Bush decision to allow guns in the parks.

But National Park Service officials in Alaska never expressed much concern about the change.

Legislation creating vast new parks and refuges in Alaska in 1980 specifically left millions of acres open to firearms, and there have been no serious problems, according to Alaska region park service spokesman John Quinley.

Rangers in places such as Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Lake Clark Park and Preserve and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve are accustomed to running into people carrying loaded guns. And the agency has long given a tacit endorsement to people packing firearms into some of these areas for survival and safety reasons.

An Alaska region brochure on dealing with bears in wildland parks notes the dangers firearms pose to people inexperienced in their use, but also advises:

"A .300-Magnum rifle or a 12-gauge shotgun with rifled slugs are appropriate weapons if you have to shoot a bear. Heavy handguns such as a .44-Magnum may be inadequate in emergency situations, especially in untrained hands.

"State law allows a bear to be shot in self-defense if you did not provoke the attack and if there is no alternative, but the hide and skull must be salvaged and turned over to the authorities."

The only Alaska parks closed to the carry of loaded firearms have been Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway, the Sitka National Historic Park and the old sections of Denali, Katmai and Glacier Bay national parks.

That could change if the president signs the legislation passed by the House on Wednesday in a vote of 279-147. The Senate approved similar legislation a day earlier.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was an outspoken supporter in the House. He has been asking for the rule change since 2007.

"Murders, rapes, robberies and assaults happen each year on National Park Service land, and the victims don't have the right to carry a firearm and protect themselves,'' Young said in a prepared statement. "The Second Amendment grants us the fundamental right to protect ourselves. Anyone who knows me knows that I will always defend our right to bear arms and protect ourselves and our loved ones. Current Park Service Regulations require that firearms transported in national parks be unloaded and encased. This makes them useless. Guns are allowed in most park areas in Alaska, and that should be the case across the country."

Both Alaska senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, voted in favor of the legislation which drew broad, bipartisan support in both chambers.

In the House, 105 Democrats joined 174 Republicans in supporting the change, which was attached to a bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies. The gun legislation basically tracks with Young's position that guns should be allowed into national parks and wildlife refuges under the terms of whatever state laws apply.

The Associated Press called the vote "a bitter disappointment for gun-control proponents, who watched as a Democratic-controlled Congress handed a victory to gun-rights advocates that they did not achieve under Republican rule. Many blamed the National Rifle Association, which pushed hard for the gun law."

"The NRA is basically taking over the House and Senate," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a leading gun-control supporter. "If the NRA wins, the American people are going to be the ones who lose."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said liberals might believe that, "but the American people won't buy it."

"The fact is American gun owners are simply citizens who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights without running into confusing red tape," Hastings said.

Hastings and others said the bill aligns regulations for national parks and wildlife refuges with those for the national forests and Bureau of Land Management holdings. The GOP called the existing policy outdated and confusing to those who visit public lands, noting that merely traveling from state-owned parks to national parks meant some visitors were violating the law.

A majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate opposed the gun measure, but enough Democrats voted for the bill that the final tally in both chambers was large in its favor.

Democratic leaders decided against trying to remove the gun provision after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was able to insert it into the popular credit card measure. Lawmakers and aides said there was not enough time to send the bill to a House-Senate conference committee -- where it could be removed without a vote -- and still get it to President Barack Obama by Memorial Day as he has requested.

"There's a lot of momentum to get this done," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz.

Grijalva, chairman of national parks subcommittee, opposed the gun measure, but said the "sense of urgency from the White House" to get the credit card bill approved, combined with the NRA's clout, were impossible to overcome.

Theresa Pierno, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has fought the gun rule in court, criticized Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer for allowing the vote.

"By not taking a stand to prevent this change, they have sacrificed public safety and national park resources in favor of the political agenda of the National Rifle Association," Pierno said, adding that the gun provision had no public hearing or other review.

In a statement after the vote, Pelosi called inclusion of the gun measure unfortunate and said it undermines the nation's gun safety laws.

"There is no compelling argument for replacing the Reagan administration's rules regarding guns in national parks, and certainly not as part of legislation designed to protect Americans during difficult economic times," Pelosi said.

Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said the group pushed for the gun measure but that its power in Congress was being overstated. The NRA does not set the agenda there, he said. Cox also disputed a claim by the Humane Society of the United States that the gun bill would increase wildlife poaching in national parks.

"The NRA is opposed to poaching and always has been," he said. "We've supported enhanced penalties for illegal activities, including poaching. The Humane Society has zero credibility when it comes to Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners."