Will The Public Recoil From Guns In Parks?

Correction June 20, 2009

In some broadcasts, we incorrectly stated that the measure allowing visitors to carry loaded guns into national parks takes effect in 90 days. It actually takes effect in nine months.

The credit card bill that President Obama signed into law Friday contains an unrelated measure that allows guns to be carried in national parks and wildlife refuges.

At the visitor center at the Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, Ariz., some people were puzzled about the new law, which takes effect in nine months.

"I don't see why you would need it here," Ed Houser, an NRA member visiting the park from Pennsylvania, says with a laugh.

Houser's wife, Sylvia, notes that Ed is a hunter. "So we do appreciate the right to bear arms," she says. "But I don't know why you'd need it in a national park."

Both Sides Of The Debate

When asked about their views on the new law, Bill and Stacy Chick from Virginia Beach, Va., who were hiking along the Saguaro's Cactus Forest Trail, pretty much laid out both sides of the debate.

"I think anywhere you have guns, you're going to have accidents — and that means you're going to have people killed," says Stacy. "So it's kind of sad, I think."

Her husband counters that the law is simply an exercise of the Second Amendment. "I was going to say, people can have them anywhere else — the right to bear arms — so as long as they're being responsible, I don't see a huge difference with them taking them into national parks," he says.

The old law let people bring guns into parks if they were unloaded and disassembled. The new law says that national parks are now subject to whatever gun regulations apply in the state as a whole.

In a gun-friendly state like Arizona, that means someone can openly carry a loaded rifle, shotgun or six-shooter. Only those carrying a concealed weapon need a permit. It is still illegal to use a firearm in a national park or wildlife refuge.

The Crime Argument

"I just like the fact that this legislation is going to essentially level the playing field between the federal and state governments," says Bill Perkins, an NRA member who runs a summer camp to train kids in proper gun use. He echoes the organization's views.

"I don't want to be the victim of crime," Perkins says. "And by carrying a firearm, it provides me with one tool that enables me to resist the social predators and the outlaws that do exist."

FBI statistics show that America's national parks are far safer than the rest of the country. For 2006 overall, there were 469 violent crimes per 100,000 people in the U.S. The violent crime rate in national parks was 1.65 per 100,000.

Bill Wade is a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. He and a coalition of Park Service retirees opposed the legislation because they say parks were created to be different from their surroundings.

"People go to national parks, in fact, to get away from those kinds of pressures and those kinds of aggravations," Wade says. "So now, legislation of this kind would intend to make it just a little bit more like every place else in the country — and less special."

Wade worries that campground arguments could turn deadly with guns. Or that that gun-toting visitors will take potshots at signs, archaeological sites or wildlife.

The current superintendent at Saguaro National Park referred me to the Interior Department for comment. An Interior spokeswoman issued a statement saying the department will implement the new law and train its personnel in firearms laws in surrounding states.

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