The next time you go camping in the Smokies, you might want to think twice about complaining to your noisy neighbor. If proposed federal rule changes are approved, he could be packing heat.
Loaded guns—whether concealed or not—have long been a no-no in national parks, but the Department of the Interior and at least 50 U.S. senators, including North Carolina Republican Elizabeth Dole, aim to change that.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Feb. 22 that his department will suggest new regulations by the end of April to bring federal rules in line with state laws concerning guns in parks and on other public lands. The announcement came in a letter to Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, one of the 50 senators who signed a Nov. 26, 2007 letter to Kempthorne. Senators from both parties, though mostly Republicans, have backed a drive to repeal the ban, which has been in place in some parks for at least 100 years. Depending on the relevant state law, permit holders could be allowed to carry concealed, loaded handguns and other firearms if the changes go through.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has introduced a bill that would lift the ban should the Interior Department fail to do so. S.2619 would allow anyone to pack a loaded firearm if they had a concealed-carry permit valid in the state where the national park was located. A companion bill, H.R.5434, has been filed in the House.
North Carolina already allows permit holders to carry a concealed weapon—but not on parkland. So if Coburn’s bill were passed, anyone with a valid permit could pack a loaded gun in any of the state’s 10 national wildlife refuges or 13 National Park Service properties—including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail (all three of which, opponents note, go through multiple states where firearms laws may differ). A spokesman for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, however, has said he doubts the state would end a ban on guns in state-owned parks, regardless of what happens at the federal level. Federal legislation would supersede any new Interior rules, but not state laws on nonfederal land.
Currently, guns are generally allowed in national parks only if they’re unloaded and stored out of reach, such as in a vehicle’s trunk. A major argument for that policy has been to curb poaching.
Proponents of lifting the loaded-gun ban, however, cite safety as their primary concern, as well as making gun rules more consistent across all federally managed lands. In their letter to Kempthorne, for example, the senators note that unlike the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service allow weapons to be transported in accordance with the laws of the state where the lands are located. The current patchwork of rules is “confusing, burdensome and unnecessary,” the letter asserts.
Have gun, will travel
Environmentalists and other user groups are firmly against easing the ban, however. They are joined by the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and the Association of National Park Rangers—all of which argue that having more guns will only make parklands less safe and—law enforcement’s job more difficult.
Although violent crime is atypical on federal lands, it does occur. The most recent example was the high-profile murder of two elderly hikers by a drifter in Pisgah National Forest. Under current Forest Service rules (which follow state law), visitors to national forests are allowed to carry a loaded, concealed weapon with a valid state permit.
“My position is, guns should be available for people to defend themselves,” says Asheville resident Robert Levy. Although he doesn’t own any guns himself, he’s a staunch defender of those who do, or wish to. A successful businessman and fellow at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., Levy is funding a case—now before the U.S. Supreme Court—arguing that the District of Columbia’s complete ban on handguns is unconstitutional. Oral arguments in the landmark case are set for March 18.
“If people have concealed-carry permits, they ought to be able to carry in lots of different locations,” Levy told Xpress. “I don’t see why national parks should be any exception.”
Hendersonville resident Steve Harrison sees things differently. Now retired after 30 years as a National Park Service employee in parks throughout the nation, Harrison says repealing the current ban would be folly, making parks less safe for humans and wildlife alike.
As for those who want to carry guns to protect themselves against such things as bear attacks, Harrison laughs and says: “Well, if you’re afraid of grizzly bears, don’t go to parks where there are grizzly bears. … When you go into a park, you have to assume that there is going to be some kind of inherent risk.”
That risk, however, shouldn’t be a gun-wielding park visitor with an itchy trigger finger, says Harrison.
“I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk reaction,” he says, referring to recent murders in local national forests. Such incidents, he argues, are exceedingly rare, and there’s little reason to believe that any of the victims would have survived had they been carrying a gun.
“The tradition of not having [loaded] firearms in the parks is so important that it’s critical that we not react [irrationally] to what are isolated, although awful, incidents,” Harrison maintains. “Either you’re going to have more violence or you’re going to have more poaching, and neither of those is acceptable in national parks.”