Battle Lines Drawn over Guns in National Parks

An Interior Department plan to allow loaded guns in national parks has drawn bipartisan support in the Senate. But park rangers are opposed and some lawmakers vow a fight to keep guns unloaded and stowed.

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As we've been reporting, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether to overturn the ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. But there's another big effort under way this election year - to roll back a long-standing gun law.

Gun lobbyists and members of Congress want to change a rule of the Interior Department. It will allow visitors inside national parks to carry loaded, concealed weapons in those states where it's legally to carry concealed weapons outside the parks.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: On a frosty late winter morning, you might be the only person watching as the waters of Potomac River roar by at Great Falls Park. It's 800 acres of national park land along the Virginia shore of the river.

Michael Sachs(ph) is a supervisor there with the United States Park Service. He says this place can get quite crowded.

Mr. MICHAEL SACHS (Supervisor, United States Park Service): On a busy weekend, over a course of two days - Saturday and Sunday - could be as many as 10,000 people.

WELNA: How would you feel having people coming in here with loaded weapons?

Mr. SACHS: I wouldn't be uncomfortable about it.

WELNA: And why not?

Mr. SACHS: I don't see there be any reason to have a weapon in a public park.

WELNA: Guns is used to be banned entirely in the nation's 390 national parks, mainly, to keep out poachers. That rule was changed a quarter century ago during the Reagan administration to allow guns in national parks as long as they were kept out of reach, disassembled and unloaded.

Representative JIM MORAN (Democrat, Virginia): I don't see why we need to change the policy. The policy has been working.

WELNA: That's House Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia. Like most other states, Virginia allows people to carry loaded concealed weapons. Its lawmakers are now being pressed to bring national parks like the one at Great Falls in line with state law. At a recent House appropriations hearing, Moran vented his frustration.

Rep. MORAN: If anybody can carry a loaded gun, I don't know how you distinguish between the poachers and the, you know, people who feel as though they need a gun to walk and enjoy nature. Can you describe how you're going to distinguish? How the park rangers are going to deal with this?

Moran's question was for the woman who face the committee, National Park Service Director Mary Bomar.

Ms. MARY BOMAR (Director, United States National Park Service): That is a concern to us. You know, I have great staff out there, law enforcement. But I will say to you that, you know, twice we've received a petition to change our regulations by the Virginia Citizens Defense League. And also…

Rep. MORAN: The Virginia citizens - they're the ones?

Ms. BOMAR: And also, you know, letters from half of the Senate in support of a rule change. So, you know, a great senator has often said to me and sent this fact to Mary, let the citizens be heard.

WELNA: But it was those letters from 51 senators, 44 of them Republican and seven Democratic, that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited last month when he announced the Interior Department will propose a rule change by April 30th. Kemthorne said the aim is to have gun rules in national parks reflect those of the states they're in. Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt says it's both an issue of state's rights and public safety.

Representative TODD TIAHRT (Republican, Kansas): The problem we have in our park is - were not worried about hunters. I'm worried about criminals. We have criminals there that are carrying guns and private citizens who are trained in having firearms on their body could help protect the public, just the uncertainty alone creates a certain zone of safety.

Mr. BILL WADE (Chairman, Coalition of National Park Service Retirees): The statistics show that National Park Service areas are just about the safest places that you can possibly be in.

WELNA: Former Park Ranger Bill Wade chairs the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. He says his group and others, including active park rangers, are against any rules change allowing some of the nearly 300 million people who visit national parks each year to carry loaded, concealed weapons. Park rangers, he says, often have to respond to squabbles among park visitors.

Mr. WADE: And those kinds of disputes occur in camp grounds and I've seen them myself where you go in there and two parties are arguing over at camp site or arguing over something. If one of them has access to a loaded weapon, why, that situation certainly can be aggravated or certainly can increase more than it's likely to do if somebody doesn't have a weapon.

WELNA: Still, some lawmakers are confident the rules on guns in national parks will be changed this year. Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn has introduced legislation that would accomplish the same purpose.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): I'll offer this amendment on any appropriation bill that comes through. It's wrong. You know, we may decide against it but 51 senators have signed the letters saying they support it, and I suspect I'll get about 65 votes when we (unintelligible) for the amendment.

WELNA: Bryan Faehner of the National Parks Conservation Association is working against that bill, which is backed by the National Rifle Association.

Mr. BRYAN FAEHNER (Legislative Representative, National Parks Conservation Association): This issue is not about guns, it's not about parks, it's about politics and the NRA trying to flex its political muscle during the election year.

WELNA: Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA's spokesman disagrees.

Mr. ANDREW ARULANANDAM: That argument has no standing whatsoever because if you look at the fact, the simple fact that we have worked on this for five years.

WELNA: Still, as gun rights advocates will know, usually the best time to put lawmakers on the spot about guns is right before a big election.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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