Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The Department of the Interior on Friday announced a final rule that will allow visitors to carry loaded and concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges.

The previous rules, put in place in the early ’80s under President Reagan, allowed firearms in parks as long as they were unloaded and stored somewhere that wasn’t easily accessible.

“America was founded on the idea that the federal and state governments work together to serve the public and preserve our natural resources,” said DOI Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Lyle Laverty in a statement announcing the change. “The Department’s final regulation respects this tradition by allowing individuals to carry concealed firearms in federal park units and refuges to the extent that they could lawfully do so under state law. This is the same basic approach adopted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS), both of which allow visitors to carry weapons consistent with applicable federal and state laws.”

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The restrictions on loaded weapons in wildlife refuges was put in place in 1981, and in 1983 guns were banned in national parks. State laws regarding lawful concealed weapons will still be applicable in the parks, and 48 states currently permit them. Of course, individuals will be expected to have a permit allowing them to carry a concealed weapon. The new rule goes into effect Jan. 1.

As you might expect, gun control advocates and park enthusiasts are none too please with the 11th-hour change. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Parks Conservation Association issued a joint statement condemning the change. They noted that national parks currently enjoy very low rates of violent crime, and argued that the the new regulation “could increase the risk for impulse shootings of wildlife, and risk the safety of visitors and rangers.”

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“Once again, political leaders in the Bush Administration have ignored the preferences of the American public by succumbing to political pressure, in this case generated by the National Rifle Association,” said Bill Wade, president of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “This regulation will put visitors, employees and precious resources of the National Park System at risk. We will do everything possible to overturn it and return to a common-sense approach to guns in national parks that has been working for decades.”

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for tougher gun control laws, issued this statement from president Paul Helmke: “The Bush Administration’s parting gift for the gun lobby to allow hidden weapons in our parks threatens the safety of these national treasures and those who visit them. We should not be making it easier for dangerous people to carry firearms in our parks. We urge the proper authorities to use common sense, and stop this senseless rule.”

Current and former park rangers are also miffed that their views weren’t taken into account. A report from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees released last month found that “more than three out of four of 1,400 current and former employees of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service predict that this controversial regulation will have an adverse affect on the ability of agency employees to accomplish their mission,” the group said. Seventy-five percent of those who responded to the survey said they think there will be an “increase in opportunistic or impulse wildlife killings in parks and refuges.”

“American citizens have traditionally valued the professional opinions of park rangers when it comes to managing national parks,” said Association of National Park Rangers President Scot McElveen. “In the professional opinion of ANPR, this regulation change will have negative impacts on park wildlife. Our experience in operating parks creates disbelief that wildlife poaching rates will not increase under the new regulation. We oppose this rash regulatory change.”

The National Rifle Association is, predictably, pleased. “Today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of the Interior brings clarity and uniformity for law-abiding gun owners visiting our national parks,” said Chris W. Cox, the NRA-Institute for Legislative Action executive director. “We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America’s National Parks and wildlife refuges.”

It could take many months (or possibly years) for the next administration to overturn the rule, should it choose to do so, since it would require a whole new rule-making process. Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for Obama’s transition team, told the Associated Press that the president-elect hasn’t made any decisions about the rule: “President-elect Obama will review all eleventh-hour regulations and will address them once he is president.”