Fight Rages Over Guns in Parks

By Beacon Staff

At the end of April, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne will suggest new rules for carrying loaded guns in national parks that will likely relax the restrictions to bring them more in-line with state laws. In Montana, where gun restrictions are relatively few, carrying loaded weapons could be permitted in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.

Both opponents and supporters of relaxing the ban agree on one thing: Permitting loaded weapons in national parks where they are currently restricted will alter the role these lands play in our national identity. Whether the proposed change is for safety reasons or a political move in an election year, depends on where you stand and whom you ask.

The Argument
At its heart, the question of loaded weapons in national parks comes down to differing conceptions of safety. For gun-rights advocates, relaxing the ban would increase the safety of national parks, allowing visitors to better defend themselves from aggressive people or animals. Guns are currently allowed in Glacier as long as they are unloaded and stored.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, believes gun-free zones are inherently dangerous, and cites recent school shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University as examples of places where law-abiding citizens could have defended themselves were they allowed to do so.

“Gun-free zones are broken social institutions,” Marbut said, “and they need to be fixed anywhere they occur, including in national parks.”

Opponents of relaxing the ban disagree that national parks, with respect to gun restrictions, are broken social institutions. And if it isn’t broken, they say, don’t fix it. Last week the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees protested any plans to reconsider gun regulations.

Pete Hart has worked as a ranger and superintendent in 17 national parks over 38 years, including stints at Glacier, and is now a member of the National Parks Conservation Association. He also carried a weapon in parks for 23 of those years, and echoes many retired park service employees who say national parks are safe, and introducing more weapons into the mix would create problems where none exist.

“The fact that people don’t carry firearms in the backcountry is a good thing,” Hart said. “I believe in the Second Amendment, but I believe the current regulations are working.”

Supporters of changing regulations point out that loaded firearms are restricted on federal parkland, but not U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management property, representing selective enforcement of gun regulations. Opponents counter that people don’t travel from across the country and around the world to visit BLM land like they do for Glacier Park, so the rules should be different considering the diversity of urban and international visitors. Part of national parks’ appeal, Hart said, derives from “a certain feeling of tranquility and really firearms don’t need to be a part of it.”

Poaching could increase if visitors can carry loaded weapons. Whereas park rangers currently have probable cause to investigate a possible poacher if that person is carrying a loaded weapon in the park, that reason no longer holds up if the guns are allowed.

“There’s nothing in this ruling that makes poaching legal,” counters Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. “That’s another baseless argument.”

Crime in National Parks: By the Numbers
Gun-rights advocates point to the recent murder of a 24-year-old hiker in the mountains of north Georgia as an example of a victim in the backcountry who might have defended herself with a firearm. But despite such a high-profile example, the National Park Service says the crime statistics across its 390 park units are very low.

Out of 272 million visits, there were 116,588 reported offenses in national parks in 2006. Only 384 of those were violent crimes – and that includes statistics reported by park police at urban parks like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Statue of Liberty in New York. That makes the probability of becoming a victim of a violent crime on national parkland one in 708,333. Out of roughly 1.3 billion visitors to national parks since 2002, two have been killed by animals.

In 2006 the national park system had 11 killings, 35 rapes or attempted rapes, 16 kidnappings, 261 aggravated assaults and 61 robberies. Out of the 11 killings: five were categorized as murders; two people were pushed off cliffs; one was a murder-suicide; one was a drunk driver crash; and two were bodies or remains found where the victim was killed elsewhere.

In Glacier Park, however, crime is virtually nonexistent. There have been 20 cases of poaching since 1997, and none in 2007. In that 10-year span there were 91 general weapons violations, 15 of which occurred last year. Glacier Park had two reports of rape last year, and no kidnappings, robberies or homicides. Glacier also had three reported assaults last year – one with a firearm and two bodily assault cases.

Parks, Guns and Politics
Kempthorne took up the issue of guns in national parks after receiving complaints, organized by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, about current regulations from 50 U.S. senators: 41 Republicans and nine Democrats. Montana’s Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester were among those nine. A prerequisite for holding elected office in most of the Rocky Mountain West, particularly if you’re a Democrat, is an immaculate record of pro-gun rights positions, and it is an election year.

All of which has opponents of relaxing gun regulations charging that this is simply a wedge issue, designed by the NRA to get lawmakers on their side in the run-up to a momentous election.

“The NRA inserted a very contentious issue into this election year,” said Bryan Faehner, legislative representative for the NPCA. “It’s unfortunate that the NRA chose the national parks to flex their muscle.”

“It didn’t just happen because some senators spoke out,” Faehner added. “It was a full-fledged campaign where the NRA covered all the pressure points in Washington, D.C., to make this happen.”

But Marbut and Arulanandam say their groups have been pushing for a re-examination of gun regulations in parks for five years now, through two previous elections, and that the issue has finally risen to the top of the stack. The idea that the NRA is creating hoops for lawmakers to jump through, added Arulanandam, wildly overestimates the power of the gun lobby.

“Contrary to popular belief, the NRA does not control congressional schedules, nor do we make the rules of the land as they pertain to firearms,” Arulanandam said. “That is just empty rhetoric from those who oppose this measure.”

But both Faehner and Arulanandam think that when the Department of Interior releases its new draft regulations for public comment, they are likely to apply state gun laws to national parks.

“It’s too premature to speculate,” Arulanandam said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”