The Gun Lobby Targets Yellowstone

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Erin Siegal / Redux

Correction appended on December 27, 2007

For more than 20 years, people have been prohibited from openly carrying firearms in most of America's national parks. Rangers argue that the rule cuts down on the potential hazards to wildlife as well as to visitors in the congested parks. But now, 47 Senators have signed on to a letter to the Interior Department requesting an end to the ban on firearms. Initiated by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, the letters other signatories include Montana's two Democratic Senators — Max Baucus, who is up for re-election, and Jon Tester — as well as the entire delegations of Wyoming and Idaho.

Technically, you can drive through a national park with a firearm, as long as it's not loaded and not readily accessible in order to prevent poaching and accidental shootings. But now the Senators want the law loosened to allow Winchester-toting, pistol-packin' visitors to enjoy the national park, without feeling as if they were somehow engaging in an illegal act. The change in the regulations would most immediately benefit pro gun-rights constituents who live near Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks, allowing them not only to bring in their weapons but display them as openly as they would outside the parks. Currently, the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, where the parks are located, have no restrictive gun laws. They also have a preponderance of voters favoring liberalized gun-possession laws.

The rationale for requesting the change? "These regulations infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners, who wish to transport and carry firearms on or across these lands," the letter said, pointing out that the laws discriminate even against citizens with valid concealed weapons permits. It asked that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service allow transporting and carrying of firearms on their lands in accordance with the laws of the host state. "These inconsistencies in firearms regulations for public lands are confusing, burdensome and unnecessary," the letter said. It added that such a change of rules for parks and nature refuges "would respect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners, while providing a consistent application of state weapon laws across all land ownership boundaries."

In a message to its members this week, the National Rifle Association said, "The NRA initiated and worked closely with Senator Crapo on this letter and appreciates his bipartisan effort.... We have been working for nearly five years to change this policy and applaud the strong Senate support for this policy change expressed in this letter." Among the other Senators whose signatures appear on the letter: Republicans Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; and Democrats Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Senator Baucus's spokesman Barrett Kaiser said there's "no reason that law-abiding citizens shouldn't be allowed to carry a firearm on our public lands.... Max thinks it's a matter of Second Amendment rights, and it's also the right thing to do for people who simply want to cross through our parks to access prime hunting areas," he said.

"The Second Amendment is not an issue in Yellowstone National Park," says Deputy Chief Ranger Tim Reid. "You can legally possess an unloaded firearm," stored in the vehicle. He says Yellowstone has about 30 firearms cases a year already, including wildlife poaching, but noted that crime relative to numbers of visitors is a fraction of the national average. In 2006, out of 2.8 million visitors, 260 people were arrested in Yellowstone on a variety of charges. "The way the regulation works now seems effective from our point of view," says Rick Obernesser, Yellowstone's chief law enforcment ranger. Added Special Agent in Charge Brian Smith: "That's an expectation when you come into most parks — that guns aren't loaded and in the racks." The rangers declined to comment on how their jobs could change if guns are allowed, except to say, according to Obernesser, "If it's changed, we will make that one work."

Laura Loomis, senior director of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it supports the current regulations and opposes change, saying her organization "believes that changing this regulation would further strain underfunded and understaffed Park Service rangers, and cause increased intentional and unintentional visitor injury. It may also lead to increased incidences of poaching of park wildlife." Says Loomis: "There is no reason for a thoughtful sportsman to carry a loaded gun unless in a park area that permits hunting."

The original version of this article identified the wrong state that Senator Tim Johnson represents. It is South Dakota, not North Dakota.