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by J.R. Pegg

Bush Wants Rollback Of Public Land Protection (2003)

(ENS) WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is taking aim at longstanding regulations that ban individuals from bringing loaded weapons into many U.S. national parks. New rules that would relax the firearm restrictions will be formally proposed by the U.S. Interior Department within the next two months, despite fierce opposition from current and retired park rangers who argue the changes are dangerous and unnecessary.

The proposal is "a terrible idea," said Doug Morris, a retired park superintendent and member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "These rules work and have long contributed to the indisputable fact that our national parks are among the safest places in America."

Firearms were first banned in national parks in the 1930s in a bid to curb poaching. The rules were eased in 1983 by the Reagan administration to allow visitors to national parks and national wildlife refuges to possess firearms so long as they are unloaded or "packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use."

Advocates of the regulations contend they fairly balance the rights of gun owners with the desire to preserve the fundamental character of the national park system.

The rules are an essential part of efforts to protect wildlife and prevent poaching, Morris told reporters during a conference call last week.

He added that relaxing the restrictions would also jeopardize the safety of park employees and visitors.

"Routine disagreements in camp grounds, parking lots, restaurants and lodges are more likely to turn lethal just as they often do in the cities and rural areas around parks where state laws provide for easy access to loaded firearms," said Morris.

Other park groups, notably the Association of National Park Rangers, the Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the National Parks Conservation Association agree with Morris and have urged the Interior Department to resist calls for the change.

Officials with the Park Service have also shown opposition to the revisions. A letter sent in January 2007 to a Virginia gun group by Karen Taylor-Goodrich, the Park Service's associate director of visitor and resource protection, said the agency does not support any change in the current regulation.

"This is not about guns or parks -- it is about politics," Bryan Faehner, legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said during the February 25 press call with Morris and other critics of the proposal. "The rules are working fine."

But a considerable number of lawmakers disagree, arguing that the regulations violate on the constitutional gun rights of U.S. citizens.

Lawmakers from both parties began openly pressuring Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on the issue late last year.

The rules "infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners" who want to transport or carry firearms within national parks and national wildlife refuges, a group of 47 senators said in a December 14, 2007 letter to the Interior chief.

The letter, signed by 39 Republicans and eight Democrats, noted that other federal land management agencies do not have the same restrictions on firearms.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service follow state laws on firearms, as do the 61 units of the National Park Service that permit hunting.

"These inconsistencies in firearms regulations for public lands are confusing, burdensome and unnecessary," wrote the letter's lead authors, Senators Michael Crapo, an Idaho Republican, and Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.

On February 11, a group of four additional senators sent another letter to Kempthorne, echoing the argument that state gun laws should govern firearm regulations in all national parks and refuges.

The current rules "preempt state regulatory frameworks for transporting and carrying firearms, thus invalidating concealed weapons permits and other state laws that allow law-abiding citizens to transport and carry firearms," the senators wrote in the second letter.

Kempthorne appears to agree, informing the senators in a February 22 letter that the Interior Department would propose changes to the rules along the lines they have suggested.

"This administration supports the long-standing tradition of affording states the right to determine those who may lawfully possess a firearm within their jurisdiction," Kempthorne wrote.

He said a rule change would be proposed and put out for public comment by April 30.

The announcement was hailed by the nation's leading gun lobby, which has pushed lawmakers and the administration to relax the rules.

"Law-abiding citizens should not be prohibited from protecting themselves and their families while enjoying America's National Parks and wildlife refuges," according to Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

"Under this proposal, federal parks and wildlife refuges will mirror the state firearm laws for state parks," Cox said. "This is an important step in the right direction."

Members of both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation to revoke the firearm restrictions. In addition, Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, has announced plans to try and add an amendment to a public lands bill to repeal the regulations.

Critics of the change hope to rally the public to keep the existing laws in place, arguing that the revisions seek to fix a nonexistent problem.

The idea that the current rules are inconsistent and hard to understand is "ludicrous," Morris told reporters. "What could be easier to understand than regulations which apply a longstanding single set of rules throughout our system of national parks?"

Critics of the proposed change note that if parks had to defer to state gun laws, individuals could carry loaded semi-automatic weapons in campgrounds and park trails in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

The efforts to change the rules show "a total disregard for how our society values our national parks," Morris said. "Experience tells us that park visitors, including hunters and gun owners, seem to understand that parks are special places and that loaded guns are not needed and not appropriate."

© 2008 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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