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Bid to allow guns in national parks

The Interior Department considers a proposal to lift a 25-year ban on concealed weapons in national parks.

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"It is hard to view this proposed change as anything more than an election-year gimmick directed at the [NRA] and the sportsmen's community," says David Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "We've got bigger issues facing our parks than accommodating a relative handful of people who want to carry a concealed firearm."

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Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America (GOA) in Springfield, Va., says it shouldn't be up to the government to tell Americans where and how they can defend themselves.

"We are all about the right to self-defense," he says. "We don't think people should forfeit that right when they go for a hike in the woods."

Divided views on safety

Opponents of the proposed regulation say national parks are relatively crime-free and that wildlife does not pose a significant threat. Supporters of the proposal say being armed is just a precaution, not a declaration of a free-fire zone.

One submission to the Interior Department questions why rangers carry weapons if the parks are so safe. "Are their lives and safety more important than mine?" asks the writer from Huntley, Mont.

Experienced hikers say guns aren't necessary to be safe in the backcountry. And in a worst case scenario, a concealed weapon may not be enough. "If we are talking handguns, you'd need a pretty-good-sized piece to stop a bear," says Mr. Startzell. "I don't picture a hiker packing a .44 Magnum. These are people who drill holes in their toothbrushes to save weight."

The presence of even concealed guns reduces the aura of being in the wilderness, say opponents. They include seven former directors of the National Park Service, the Coalition of Park Service Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

"Our organization is not opposed to gun ownership and people carrying weapons," says Laura Loomis of the NPCA, "but we just don't feel they are necessary in national parks."

On the other side of the debate are the NRA, the GOA, several other gun rights groups, and a vocal grass-roots community of armed Americans.

"I am a retired police officer, retired Navy Masterchief, and a grandfather," says a man from Plant City, Fla., in an e-mail supporting the proposal. "I am too old to run and too big to hide. I have a concealed carry permit in my state. Therefore I keep a gun nearby to protect myself and family."

In another comment, a writer from Sparks, Md., said lifting the gun ban would make her feel less safe. "As a woman who often hikes alone in the national parks, I have rarely feared for my personal safety," she writes. "However, if this rule change is implemented I will be faced with the possibility that the next person I meet on the trail may carry a loaded gun. … This does nothing to make me feel safer."

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