Don’t Waste Energy on Concealed Guns in National Parks

By Beacon Staff

A lot of people are hot and bothered about the Bush administration’s proposed rule to allow concealed weapons in national parks, but practically, is this really worth our time and effort?

Yes, it’s maddening to tolerate such low-end, election-year politics spurred by the National Rifle Association (NRA), but I say give the gun lobby this victory, so we can spend our time and energy on issues that could really help our national parks instead of worrying about something that’s already happening and hasn’t caused any problems.

Last year, after efforts to attach the loosening of the 25-year-old regulation that restricts, but does not ban, taking firearms into national parks as a rider on a must-pass bill failed, the new strategy became the administrative rule-making process, which is currently underway. The comment period ended Aug. 8, and the Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, received more than 100,000 comments. Obviously, these comments, even if 99 percent opposed the new rule, won’t matter, which is the case with most “public involvement” exercises. The Bush administration is obligated to make “this important step in the right direction” for the NRA. Even with widespread opposition, you can bet your last bullet that our lame duck will approve the rule before he leaves office with his tail between its legs.

As I wrote in a past column on the subject, people who believe so strongly that they always need a gun to protect themselves from bears and perverts are unlikely to leave it home when they go to a national park. Instead, they illegally take concealed weapons into national parks. Rangers know this happens, but do nothing to stop it. What could they do? Search every car? Have rangers ever searched a car for firearms at any national park entrance station?

For many years, this has gone on, and has it been a problem? No. The national parks have traditionally had very low crime rates, and that’s unlikely to change when the new rule goes into effect.

Will backpackers start taking big handguns and stub-nosed shotguns with them? Not likely. Backpackers are the type of people who count out their vitamin pills and cut down their toothbrushes to save weight. You think they’ll throw a three-pound revolver in the pack when they know the chances of needing it are as close to zero as you can get.

(Interestingly, 10 years ago, I went on a nine-day backpacking adventure in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, and the NPS actually recommended we take a shotgun with us, which we declined to do, primarily because nobody wanted to carry it. And, alas, we returned safely.)

The proposed rule has been totted as “lifting the handgun ban” in national parks, but this exaggerates what the rule does. Park visitors can already take handguns and all other legal firearms into national parks, but they must be dissembled, unloaded and inaccessible (such as cased in the truck of the car). This regulation was put in place in 1983 by none other than a NRA darling, Republican Ronald Reagan, and under the reign of terror of Secretary of the Interior James Watt.

As currently proposed, the rule would be extremely confusing, so let’s fix that problem before it becomes NPS policy. Right now, the rule only applies to national parks in states that allow concealed guns in state parks. Among western states, that includes Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, not California, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas or Utah. (But you gotta think laws in those states will be changing fast after this new rule hits the books.)

Gun-toting tourists will have to be on their toes as they travel from park to park – or, get this, parts of parks! National parks like Yellowstone and Death Valley cross state lines. In Yellowstone, for example, you could only carry your gun in the Montana and Wyoming parts, not a small slice of Idaho. Ditto for Death Valley, which crosses the California/Nevada border.

So, let’s forget the state park requirement, and just let people have their guns in all national parks. I can’t think of any good reason to fight this rule, and a lot of reasons to ignore it.

The greens and the NPS have much bigger fish to fry. They should concentrate on more important issues like securing adequate funding, making parks more affordable and accessible, trail and road maintenance, and improved interpretation. These and other issues related to the long-term health of our national parks need all our time, money and energy.