As widely reported, an epic political victory for the gun lobby hit the ground on Monday, Feb. 22. The National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must now, in accordance with applicable state laws, allow visitors to carry guns into most national parks and wildlife refuges, including loaded firearms and concealed weapons with a proper permit.
For the first time in decades, anybody who can legally carry a firearm in a state can also carry it into national parks and wildlife refuges in that state, but not into most “federal facilities,” such as visitor centers and administrative buildings. Federal law still prohibits the use of firearms in most national parks.
I’ve written about this issue several times, and every time I do, I’m reminded of a nine-day backpacking trip I took in the mid-1990s to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. While planning the trip, I called NPS offices in Alaska to ask a few questions, and to my surprise, the NPS recommended our group bring a gun. I was even given detailed advice on what type of gun and how to carry it.
Our group took bear pepper spray instead and had a safe trip, but that conversation stuck with me because, clearly, bringing guns into national parks (at least in Alaska) is culturally acceptable. It can be in the Lower 48, too.
In an earlier commentary, I suggested debate over the national park gun rule was a waste of time and conservation groups and park retirees had bigger fish to fry. My reasoning was – and is – that people have been taking guns into national parks for decades and will continue to do so whether it’s legal. Nobody really disputes this fact and, through the decades, there has been minimal, if any, gun-related incidents in national parks.
I realize western national parks are a lot different than smaller, eastern, historical national parks. But keep in mind that state laws continue to regulate firearms in national parks. Guns laws in urban America are likely to be more restrictive than in southern and western states, and those laws will apply to national parks in highly populated states.
I had to retract my waste-of-time commentary when it turned into a political war that told us who was boss. The clear winner was the gun lobby and the millions of gun owners it represents. It really was no contest, actually.
But my opinion about the real, on-the-ground, non-political significance of the new law governing firearms in national parks hasn’t changed. It’s still a yawner. People will continue to go to national parks, and a few more of them packing a firearm will have little impact on anything.
Interestingly, as the effective date approached, I received several press releases from groups opposed to allowing guns in national parks with the same tired predictions of impending disaster, but nothing from groups favoring this the new law. The firearms lobby could have been out in force flaunting on Feb. 22, but instead, pro-gun groups appropriately chose to let it quietly happen.
Now, the onus is on gun owners to make sure the new law does indeed turn out to a yawner – and keep me from having to eat my words. Be discreet and respectful with open carries and honor the “Firearms Prohibited” signs going up on visitor centers, park offices and other federal facilities in national parks and refuges.
Also, know the applicable state laws, keeping in mind that 30 national parks, such as Yellowstone, are located in more than one state. Gun owners must be aware of the laws of the state they’re in because those are the same laws of the park or refuge they’re in. In Yellowstone, for example, the laws at the north entrance station in Gardiner are different than the laws of Mammoth, five miles up the road.
Many people take guns into national parks to protect themselves from bears, but these gun owners must resist trigger itch. A few untimely and unnecessary dead bears from quick triggers could make the new law a lot more controversial than gun owners want it to be.
So, if you’re concerned about bears, take bear pepper spray instead of a gun for protection. Better yet, don’t fret about bears because the threat is statistically minute.
Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, has one of the highest densities of grizzly bears ever recorded. Over the past five years (2005-2009), almost 10 million people visited Glacier, but only three were injured by grizzly bears, perhaps because none of the three used bear spray.
FWS statistics tell the same story. Since 1992, 50 percent of people involved in grizzly encounters and defending themselves with firearms suffered injury. Those defending themselves with bear pepper spray escaped injury most of the time and those who were injured experienced shorter attacks and less severe injuries.
We don’t want even one trigger-happy tourist blasting away at a bear strolling by a campground in Yellowstone or feeding on Glacier lily corns up on Going-to-the-Sun Highway and posing no threat to park visitors. Not only would any such incident result in a dead bear and a highly publicized citation, it would also validate claims currently being made by anti-gun groups. Any inappropriate or dangerous firearms use in national parks could be a game changer and a big shift in the currently high level of political momentum the gun lobby enjoys.
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