Advocacy Update: Safety On: The Right to Bear Arms Extends into Park Territory

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With the recent Supreme Court decision (Heller v. District of Columbia) ratifying the Second Amendment's individual right to keep and bear arms, the issue of the carrying of concealed, loaded weapons has suddenly burst into the consciousness of virtually every American. The issue of whether, when, and where concealed weapons can be carried in American parks will likely be something that every agency will have to deal with very soon.

NRPA has recently been engaged in the national discussion, having submitted official comments to the Department of the Interior regarding proposed new federal regulations that would allow the concealed-carry of loaded, operable firearms in national parks and national wildlife refuges.

Earlier this year, 51 senators wrote Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, requesting him to authorize such a rule change administratively. Present regulations, in force for more than 25 years, allow for the possession of firearms in national parks and national wildlife refuges, but require that they be unloaded and stored so that they are not easily operable.

The NRPA Board of Trustees Public Policy Committee, in response to a notice of proposed rulemaking in April 2008, prepared formal comments opposing changes in the present regulations for national parks and national wildlife refuges. NRPA's opposition to changing the present regulations is based on several reasons, most notably concerns that the new rules are proposed to be based upon how each state regulates firearms possession and transportation, thus creating a patchwork of differing regulations for each national park or refuge. As a result, some national parks and refuges might have different regulations within a given unit if the park has land in more than one state. However, there are other concerns, including the potential effects on wildlife, especially rare and threatened wildlife, and the increased demands it will place on all park personnel.

Many NRPA members have weighed in on this issue, and many oppose relaxing current regulations. They categorically oppose the idea of allowing the carrying of loaded, operable firearms in national parks and national wildlife refuges. They cite the impact on park personnel who will have to deal with visitors who may be carrying loaded firearms; the loss of probable cause to search vehicles for evidence of wildlife poaching when weapons are discovered; the potential negative impacts on wildlife; and the compliance and enforcement issues when every national park or refuge may have a different set of regulations.

A county park director in California wrote, "We are concerned about this legislation because of its potential spillover effect into state and regional park lands, and because we want to support NPS law enforcement needs. As you are probably aware, it's more difficult to do law enforcement when guns are allowed and since NPS and the wildlife refuges were established to protect resources, there is no need to enact rules that would make it easier to poach or create more liability for park officials."

However, opposition to the proposed rule has not been unanimous. A county park director in Michigan wrote that "As a former or current director of three different county park agencies, I am able to say that persons with a valid CCW [carrying concealed weapons] permit are allowed to possess firearms in all three county park systems. There has never been a violation of any park rules and regulations or a safety issue resulting from this allowance."

Others say few problems have occurred in states or counties under such rules once all personnel and park visitors had the chance to understand and adapt to them.

NRPA takes no position on the right to keep and bear firearms. In fact, NRPA official comments to the Interior Department state, "NRPA supports hunting, trap shooting, target shooting and other recreational activities that involve firearms if these activities are authorized by park authorities and conducted in a place and manner that ensures public safety. …