National Parks Conservation Association Says NRA Effort to Weaken National Parks Regulations Risks Visitor, Wildlife Safety

Date:   February 22, 2008
Contact:   Bryan Faehner, NPCA, 202.223.6722, ext. 155

National Parks Conservation Association Says NRA Effort to Weaken National Parks Regulations Risks Visitor, Wildlife Safety

Under Pressure, Administration Reopens National Park Regulations Requiring Guns be Unloaded

WASHINGTON, D.C. - America’s leading voice for the national parks, the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), today expressed profound disappointment that the Bush Administration, responding to intense political pressure orchestrated by the National Rifle Association, has decided to re-open 25-year-old regulations governing firearms in the parks, risking the safety of visitors and wildlife. These reasonable regulations, updated during the Reagan Administration, provide that firearms carried into a national park unit where hunting is not permitted must be unloaded and stowed.

"Today’s action is alarming. Overturning Reagan-era rules that struck the right balance between the rights of gun owners and the safety of families and wildlife is a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year," said NPCA President Tom Kiernan. "It is truly unfortunate the National Rifle Association has chosen this issue to flex its election year political muscle."

In December, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne received a letter spearheaded by the NRA and signed by 47 members of the U.S. Senate, demanding that firearm rules that apply in national parks and national wildlife refuges be overturned, and that state firearms laws be applied instead. The letter misstates current law, erroneously stating that the regulations violate Second Amendment rights by prohibiting people from carrying guns into national parks, when in fact all they require is that firearms in a visitor’s possession be unloaded and put away while within park boundaries. Four additional senators signed a letter to Sec. Kempthorne in February. As a follow-up to the senators’ letter to Sec. Kempthorne, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) filed an amendment and later introduced a freestanding bill directing the Secretary to overturn the regulations. The issue was also raised when Sec. Kempthorne testified before the House Natural Resources Committee this month about the Administration’s 2009 budget.

Originally written in the 1930s to prevent wildlife poaching, the parks’ firearms regulation was carefully revised during the Reagan Administration to be as narrowly restrictive as possible, while also assisting park personnel to prevent unlawful killing of wildlife. NPCA believes the current regulations strike an appropriate balance between the rights of individuals to possess firearms under state and federal laws and hunt in areas of the National Park System where it is permitted, and the safety of national park visitors and wildlife. NPCA will express its views in the public comment period, but highlighted a few of them today.

Park safety and enjoyment: We believe that enabling individuals to carry loaded guns in national parks will alarm families visiting the parks, and heighten the possibility for deadly visitor conflicts.

New responsibilities for overtaxed park rangers: In a post-9/11 environment, where the safety and security of our national parks and visitors is pre-eminent, park rangers will now have to be alert to the fact that individuals are carrying loaded guns in the parks. The potential for conflicts to become deadly could increase, and park rangers would likely view visitors with loaded weapons suspiciously. Moreover, burdensome new enforcement responsibilities will be added to an already strained ranger corps and budget.

Increased opportunities for wildlife poaching: A genesis for the Park Service’s original firearms regulations, wildlife poaching is still a serious concern in our national parks, causing the decline of nearly 30 species. Poachers could operate with impunity because rangers would lack the authority to question individuals about their loaded weapons.

Deferring to state laws creates confusion: The Federal Government has a unique responsibility to set the rules for and manage our national parks. This is to ensure the safety, protection, and enjoyable experiences of nearly 300 million visitors annually. Deferring to divergent state laws, some of which permit loaded weapons and others that do not, will result in confusion for rangers, and visitors who travel to the parks from every state in the nation, and from countries around the world.

The Bush Administration today announced that it would publish its draft, revised regulation by April 30, 2008, in the federal register.

"The existing regulations were adopted after a thorough review, and we will be diligent in insisting that any proposed change undergoes the same thorough, legal procedural review and allows for public input," said Kiernan. "We are convinced when the review process is complete, it will show the existing regulations are not unduly burdensome but are limited, reasonable, and necessary to enable park rangers to carry out their duties of protecting the millions of families who visit our parks every year, and the wildlife that inhabits them."

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