Visitors to America's national parks may soon be able to pack more than a picnic lunch on their next visit to Yellowstone, the Everglades, or the Grand Canyon.
The US Interior Department is considering a proposal to scrap a 25-year ban on carrying concealed weapons in national parks.
If adopted, the measure would mark a significant victory for gun rights advocates and would come at a time when gun control efforts are under increased scrutiny across the country.
The high court did not address whether the Second Amendment guarantees the carrying of loaded, concealed weapons in national parks. But, at the urging of 51 US Senators, Interior Department officials are weighing the option of writing it into federal regulations.
The department received an estimated 100,000 comments during a public comment period that ended Aug. 8. Interior officials are now examining the submissions before announcing a final decision.
Ban would hold in some parks
Under the proposed new rule, the ban would be lifted only in national parks and wildlife refuges located in states that permit concealed weapons in their own state parks.
Although 48 states have enacted concealed gun permit procedures, only 24 of them currently allow concealed guns in state parks.
Those states are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
The new regulations would allow concealed guns in some of the nation's most popular and beloved parks, including: Denali National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Everglades National Park, Isle Royale National Park, Glacier National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Olympic National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.
Concealed weapons would continue to be banned in national parks in states with stricter gun laws like California. That means the new regulations would not apply in Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. They would also not apply in most of Death Valley National Park, except potentially for a small triangle of that park that extends into Nevada.
Opponents of the measure say it would lead to confusion among park patrons since the ban would apply in some parks but not others. That problem might become particularly acute for hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which is part of the national park system. In effect, the trail is a long, skinny national park extending for 2,176 miles from Georgia to Maine through 14 states.
"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."
"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."