Safe and sound

It was a hard, cold spring rain. My husband, Lenny, and I had been walking on the Appalachian Trail since 8 that morning. When we finally got to the shelter as it was getting dark, we saw that someone had hung a tarp to prevent rain from getting in. Inside, an old man was sitting and cooking, his gear spread out to dry.

“Hi,” I said. “You’re going to have company.” He grumbled.

“This shelter is for eight people, so could you please move your stuff?” No answer; he just kept stirring his pot.

I was about to push his things aside to make room for our sleeping bags when Lenny’s cooler head prevailed. “Let’s get out of here,” he said. We had to walk another two miles before we found ground flat enough for our tent.

But if this old man and I had had guns, we could have settled the matter pretty quickly.

Here in Western North Carolina, we’re blessed with four National Park Service units: the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the A.T. and the Carl Sandburg Home. Many hikers and park officials in the region say they’re leery of a proposal to allow loaded guns in national parks. Congress, however, is considering lifting the ban on loaded, operable weapons in national parks and wildlife refuges. Labeled “A bill to protect innocent Americans from violent crime in national parks,” it basically says that ready-to-fire weapons will be allowed in national parks if they’re allowed in the state the park is in (S. 2619 and H.R. 5434). And that holds true for North Carolina.

I can’t help but wonder if the bill’s sponsors—Sen. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas—and its supporters have ever slept in a national park, particularly as adults. When you stay in a backcountry shelter in the Smokies or along the A.T., you sleep cheek to jowl; the only personal space is the width of your sleeping bag. One person snores, another rustles plastic bags all night, and there’s always someone who comes in late, finds there’s no room and puts up his tent, dropping poles and cursing under his breath. The togetherness is wonderful; by morning you’ve become family. Guns will tear that apart and make it risky to have a disagreement.

So what do those who actually camp and backpack in our national parks think of the idea?

Jim Parham, co-owner of Milestone Press near Bryson City, frequently backpacks in the Smokies with his son. “Anyone who wants to take a gun in the park already does, so this will legalize these people,” he notes. “But it’s nuts that they want to do this. It’s a total overreaction to a once-in-a-blue-moon event.” Jim is referring to the recent murders in several national forests, including Pisgah, committed by a drifter—not with a gun but by physically overpowering his victims.

Brian King, spokesperson for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in West Virginia, says that though his group has not taken a position on the bill, “We strongly recommend that people not carry guns. Guns are already legal on about 40 percent of the trail, where it crosses national forest and state game lands. In other sections, the trail goes through national parks, or the A.T. itself is a national park, so no guns are allowed. Guns are heavy, and they change the experience.”

King also questions the proposed law’s practicality. “The A.T. crosses 14 states. In some states, counties can be more restrictive than the state. Some require permits and fees. The logistics of the law-abiding hiker is a nightmare. What A.T. hikers need is mental preparation: For example, don’t post your day-to-day itinerary on a blog and alert predators.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies in two states and spans several counties. Cataloochee Valley is in Haywood County, Fontana Lake is in Swain, and Ramsey Cascades is outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. Is the gun-carrying visitor going to check out each county’s regulation?

Besides, we’re talking about national parks: They shouldn’t be subject to state regulations. These parks were created to preserve outstanding areas, and they’re not the same as national forests. Where will it stop? Hunting? Dogs on the trail? Logging? Call me paranoid, but is this a step toward turning parks into forests? I’m not against hunting and carrying rifles in forests. Bears, deer, crows and squirrels, you can shoot them all—in season. There’s a possum in my neighborhood you could help me with. But you can’t hunt in the Smokies.

“Guns don’t get you out of trouble—guns get you into trouble,” declares Dan Rogers, the director of Camp Daniel Boone and the author of America One Step at a Time (Thirsty Turtle Press, 2003). And Gary Eblen, community-outreach director for Diamond Brand Outdoors in Arden, sees the proposed law as an overreaction to an isolated incident.

There will always be “bad guys” carrying loaded weapons. What I’m worried about is a good guy who loses his temper over space in a campground, a barking dog, or loud music after 10 p.m. Is he going to use his voice, his fists, a knife or a gun?

Marion native Jim Reel, a national Sierra Club trip leader, echoes those sentiments. “Most people are in a lot more danger at the mall than in the park. We don’t need guns in the national parks.”

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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