March 4, 2010

Visitors can bring their weapons

The Press-Enterprise

A new federal law lifts a ban on firearms in national parks, but officials at Joshua Tree National Park said visitors still will not be allowed to have loaded weapons.

The federal law that took effect last week now allows residents nationwide to carry firearms into the parks -- as long as they also follow state gun laws.

But how the new federal law will be applied in California is unclear, according to the state attorney general's office.

In Joshua Tree National Park, the Inland region's only national park, gun owners may carry the weapons, but they cannot be loaded, said park spokesman Joe Zarki.

The federal law leaves it to states to apply the new law, which has not been brought before the attorney general's office for an opinion, officials said.

Joshua Tree park officials have not had any incidents related to the change in law and do not expect any problems, Zarki said.

The park neighbors the Mojave National Preserve, which does allow hunting, so visitors will need to know what area they are in to follow gun laws.

"It's up to the individual carrying these weapons to know what the rules are," Zarki said. "It's something we have to be aware of."

Park rangers have undergone training to address the new law, and signs have been posted throughout the park, Zarki said.

The law still prohibits guns from entering U.S. facilities where federal employees and rangers work. Whether that would apply to amphitheatres, campgrounds or other outdoor sites is still being determined.

"People don't come here concerned for their safety. It's widely known as one of the safest places in the U.S.," Zarki said of Joshua Tree.

The law has drawn mixed reaction from park officials and gun-rights advocates.

Bryan Faehner, with the National Parks Conservation Association, said guns aren't needed in national parks. He said the new law raises safety concerns for visitors and increases the threat of poaching.

"It's really unfortunate. National parks are extremely safe, and there's no need to change regulations," Faehner said. "We're concerned it's going to change the general experience of many park visitors." National Rifle Association spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said crime in national parks has increased, but unloaded weapons do nothing to protect visitors. She said there needs to be consistent laws in all wildland areas.

"The NRA believes law-abiding citizens are not prohibited from protecting themselves while enjoying park facilities," Parsons said. "Visitors are not immune to attacks from criminals or wildlife."