Coming soon to a national park near you: loaded guns?

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.”


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7 thoughts on “Coming soon to a national park near you: loaded guns?

  1. I’d say, odds are, there will be loaded weapons in the parks regardless of what Rangers want. They can’t search all the vehicles.

    Same goes for gun-free zones. It isn’t gun-free unless you search everyone.

  2. brebro

    The government should just pass a law making it illegal to murder a person in a National Park. Then there would be no more of that, either.

  3. Tycer

    Mr. Millard’s editorial sizzles with an hysteria that is reminiscent of when North Carolina proposed it’s concealed carry laws. Back in 1995 it was written that “the streets will run red with blood” if the average citizen were to be allowed to carry a concealed gun. More than a decade later the streets are not red, nor are they red in the 47 other states that have concealed carry. In 1983, when the current National Park System gun laws were amended, no state had right-to-carry laws. That changed in 1987, and the lack of mayhem shows that Americans as a whole are responsible citizens. It is my guess that our parks will not run red either if citizens are allowed the same right to carry there as in their cities and towns.

    A gun is a tool for just-in-case, like a fire extinguisher or spare tire and jack. Owning a gun does not pre-dispose you to be violent or criminally inclined any more than having that tire-iron in your trunk does.

    I trust that you, dear citizen, are a responsible member of society. I am 99% sure you are not part of that small percentage of evil that has existed since time began. If you wish to have a spare tire in case of a flat or a gun to protect yourself when you camp or hike, I trust you will still be that same responsible person.

    Oh, and if you are out on the trail and hear me call for help, I will not mind if you have a gun when you come to my aid.


  4. Lowell

    I would like to suggest you find someone who has a .22 rimfire target pistol, grit your teeth and force yourself to take the training course, qualify, and complete the process of obtaining a concealed carry permit in the State of NC. If you are going to disagree with concealed carry you should at least experience it first hand. Then you can speak from a position of full knowledge on the subject.
    I already know that through your jovial personality and open armed acceptance for all God’s children you will discover that most ccp holders are just regular folks like yourself. They’ve had some experience in their lives that causes them to want to protect themselves or their family but they’re not “nuts” or “blood thirsty rednecks” like most hand gun opponents seem to think.

    I am a trained and legal gun toter and I would not harm another human being, but I would defend myself and those I care for, kids, wife, siblings . . . I might even step in if I saw someone committing a violent act on you. Would you come to my aid if I was being beaten and robbed in a park? There is very poor cell phone coverage in a national park, you might have to run 2 miles to get me some help.

    The only way we will ever reduce violent crime, including gun crime, is to reduce the number of people who grow up in the world and will choose to be criminals. Until we all, as adults, accept this truth we will sit and type back and forth about things that won’t make a hill-of-beans difference in the real problem.


  5. Tim

    Your opening line, “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.” shows how ignorant you are to this issue. CCWers have gone through training and background checks and this is precisely the situation where a CCWer would NOT pull out a firearm. You see, we are reasonable people and a resonable person wouldn’t resort to a firearm in any situation closely resembling the one you describe. In fact, we are so reasonable that we know there are bad people out there, willing to harm us and our family, and we will do anything to protect ourselves and our loved ones even if it means using a weapon. We hope it never comes to that but if it does we will fight. Your use of former National Park employee Harrison is sad. We don’t carry to protect ourselves from bears, we carry to protect ourselves from human predators. We ARE the first line of defense of our family. As much as I respect and appreciate law enforcement they are, unfortunately, reactive, not usually proactive. They cannot stop a crime from being committed on us. I do not want a bodyguard like Hollywood and political types. I am my own bodyguard. You should do some research before you write an article like this and see how many times a CCWer has used a weapon inappropriately. You will find the number to be very, very small. C’mon, do your job.

  6. family man

    Mr. Steve Harrison has shared with us more about himself then he realizes. I disagree with him and anyone else who think’s that by allowing the carry of a concealed weapon more crime and chaos will soon follow. Law’s are designed and created to govern the law abidding citizen not CRIMINALS, and it’s because of this we the good guy’s always lose! Criminals carry gun’s because they have no respect for the law, so how do you take there guns away, You don’t,because you can’t. Instead you allow the right to carry to law abidding citizens to possibly keep them from becomming another statistic. Who are you Mr. Harrison to say what the elderly couple could have done to have stayed alive? We don’t know if they could have shot the perp and escaped to safety, or wait maybe we do! They apparently didn’t have a gun, because they were probably law abidding citizens who weren’t carrying because it was illegal. They lost there lives because they were rendered helpless. It’s people like you with your anti-gun idealogy
    along with criminals who we have to thank for the innocent blood shed. You are just as guilty as the criminal who killed the elderly couple because you agree with the NO GUN ALLOWED, rendering the innocent helpless. I am far from being a bloodthirsty redneck with an itchy trigger finger that I am viewed as, Actually I’m a loving father of three boy’s and a I have a beautiful wife and I couldn’t imagine living without them, so I purchased a gun payed for a class, paid the sheriff, and visit a range weekly. I have carried now for a period of two years, and I stay away from places of trouble and am now more aware of my surroundings because I carry a gun then when I did not. I don’t go around looking to cause a fight or start trouble thinking I’m invincible because I carry a gun, nor do I flash it around in an attempt to scare or intimidate anyone. I follow all the laws that go along with the responsability of carrying a weapon and I always practice safety first. I feel as though it’s best to have and never need, then to find myself in a position to need and not have! I should have the right to carry for protection, protection from criminals who only care about themselves. It’s because of criminals life is taken and families are left picking up pieces and it can happen to anyone at anytime at anyplace! Could you have walked away without a gun or would you have become another case of innocent unarmed man dies by criminal hands?

  7. Steve Jones

    People that have carry permits have had a background investigation, taken classes and spent considerable money in order to exercise the rights that are already given us through the constitution. The article makes it seem like a bunch of wild guys with guns will now go riding thru the parks shooting randomly. No, that is the guy with a criminal record, no background check and got his gun on the black market illegally. The government can’t stop illegal aliens from entering our country, they can’t stop the drug trafficking, they have drugs and weapons in our high security prisons and you want to deny law abiding citizens the right to protect ourselves and our families from those dirtbags? Sure the big wheels in government don’t care about it because MY tax dollars are protecting them and do you think that the SS is carrying mace? Not only the big wheels but what about the big mouths like Rosie O’Donnell? She has “armed” body guards walking her kids to school and I don’t have the same right to protect my children? Then she turns around and wants all guns banned because if law abiding citizens actually have the freedom granted us to bear arms, they might hurt her kids? I can tell you this that perhaps the next time the bad guys walk into McDonalds and start shooting adults and children randomly, I hope their is someone there that has taken the training classes and is carrying so they can limit the number of deaths that should be blood on our wonderful politicians that make broad based decisions on limited information.

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