The Monitor's View

Armed to kill in national parks?

A rule that would allow visitors to carry loaded guns in US parks should be shot down.

Pressured by the gun lobby and 51 US senators, the Interior Department proposes enhancing everyone's national park experience by letting people pack heat with a picnic. That's just what the nation's millions of park visitors don't need.

Last week, Interior put out for public comment a rule that would allow people with concealed-weapons permits to carry loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges. Forty-eight states grant such licenses. The rule only applies if the park or refuge is located in a state that allows concealed guns in its parks.

Rules banning gun use go back decades for some parks and were put in place to prevent poaching and ensure public safety. The Reagan administration unified the rules so that today visitors may bring guns into national parks and refuges but they must be unloaded and stored to prevent ready use. Gun owners needn't surrender them, but they can't use them.

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The new proposal came about not because the National Park Service wants it, but because gun advocates, so friendly with the Bush administration, say visitors need to protect themselves – from grizzly humans as well as bears. From 2003 through 2007 there were 59 homicides in national parks and 245 rapes or attempted rapes.

This is not to belittle violent crime in the parks, which apparently is increasing and needs stepped-up enforcement. But allowing campers and hikers to become lone rangers is not the way to improve safety in the wild – or historic homes, battlefields, and monuments. All living former National Park Service directors oppose the change, as do the current director and several park service employee groups.

The crime issue needs to be put in perspective. More than 270 million visitors enter the national parks each year. The probability of becoming a victim of a violent crime there is 1 in 708,333, which is less likely than being struck by lightening over a lifetime, according to a statement by a coalition of park service groups. The national parks continue to be one of the safest places to enjoy a vacation.

But altercations over campground sites and on crowded roads are not uncommon. Adding guns to the mix could sadly escalate tense encounters. At the same time, taking down an attacking grizzly is not so easy, and armed visitors may feel emboldened to go places or do things they shouldn't. Observing nature is not entirely without risk, and visitors can take precautions such as making noise in bear habitat and hiking in groups in cougar country.

Critics of the proposed rule say it will increase poaching and make it difficult for enforcement to distinguish poachers from other gun carriers. And the rule is confusing. Some parks cross state boundaries. Death Valley, for instance, straddles Nevada – which allows guns in its parks – and California, which doesn't. Which state law applies?

Advocates say it's a matter of consistency – bring all federal lands in line with state laws. The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service would simply be conforming to state gun rules that apply to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land.

But if that logic applies, why not allow logging on all federal lands, per state law? The nation's parks and refuges serve a different purpose and provide a different experience from other federal lands. They are special places with special rules, and should stay that way.

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