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Self-Defense in the Great Outdoors

*The following is an excerpt from The Responsible Gun Owner’s Guide to Self-Defense in the Great Outdoors.

Self-Defense Has No Boundaries

Think about what a criminal really looks for when selecting a victim. Like all predators, a criminal wants some sort of advantage. That usually means he will select a target he believes he can overpower, and he’ll often do so by working with other criminals, ensuring greater numbers and obtaining the element of surprise or striking in a location where help will be slow to arrive.

The elements listed above are not exclusive to dark alleys in big cities. If you have ever seen the film Deliverance, you know what can happen if you are not ready to defend yourself when help is nowhere nearby.

I have said it before and will say it again here: Movies are not reality, and we should not get our training from Hollywood.

Back in 1990, Molly LaRue and Geoff Hood were killed at a remote shelter along the Appalachian Trail. These two murders sparked a huge manhunt and got plenty of media coverage. But between 1974 and 2011, there were nine other attacks along the trail that left 11 people dead. There is still plenty of argument among serious hikers about whether or not all of those people killed were through-hikers or day hikers and also whether or not the many more people killed along the side trails really count as hikers killed on the Appalachian Trail. Regardless of whether the body count is 11 or 31, the fact remains that violent attackers don’t care if you are on vacation or not. If you look like a victim, you will be preyed upon.

(Sub)urban Trails Can Be Perilous Too

Lest you think that only people hiking in the remote wilderness need to fear an attack, know that the number of people robbed, raped or murdered while walking or jogging on urban or suburban trails is too large to tally here. I would not know where to begin except to say that criminal predators know that most people out on jogging trails are unarmed. Don’t be like most people. There are plenty of good options for carrying a gun while jogging or hiking. You do not have to leave your gun at home just because you want to exercise.

Don’t think you can read this story and simply say, “Well, I don’t hike in the wilderness. I camp in my RV.”

Recreational vehicles are nearly constant targets for criminals. Assuming the occupants of RVs are either elderly couples or young families traveling with children, you can see why a big motor home would make a good target. Are you ready to defend yourself and your family inside an RV? Do you know the laws surrounding personal defense as you travel from state to state? Planning a road trip means more than just checking gas prices and looking for road construction.

As distasteful as it might be, you cannot forget about your personal defense when you are on vacation or engaged in outdoor recreation. A criminal doesn’t care about you or your feeling of safety. In fact, it is just the opposite. He wants to take you by surprise and overpower you with violence or the threat of violence. No matter where you go or what you do, it is your responsibility to defend yourself. Be ready. Always.

Backcountry Backup: Defending Your Life and Property

Enjoying a remote adventure, alone or among family and friends, combines the pristine grandeur of a wilderness setting with a challenge to your outdoor know-how and self-reliance skills. A vital part of that is knowing how to prepare should you ever encounter a situation in defense of life or property (DLP). Even venturing into managed areas such as national parks, designated wilderness areas, refuges and other outdoor recreation sites — particularly those with expansive sections of remote backcountry — requires the prudent outdoor adventurer to maintain a heightened level of DLP awareness and readiness.

Though extremely rare and highly unlikely, the most common life-threatening, animal-related scenarios in our national parks and other similar recreational areas involve large, carnivorous animals such as brown bears, black bears, wolves and mountain lions. Even a confrontation with a moose can result in a fatal kick or being crushed by a huge set of antlers. Then there’s always the human threat too.

A large brown bear walking in the forest with his mouth partially open, showing yellowed teeth

Large animals such as bears, wolves, mountain lions and even aggressive moose can injure or kill unprepared backcountry travelers.

Often, the threatening hand dealt to you doesn’t allow you the option of playing the avoidance card. Instead, you might be forced, sometimes traumatically, into the “flight-or-fight” mode. In the backcountry, where access is limited to flying, floating or footing it in, an effective retreat is not often a viable alternative either. Carrying a firearm might be your only lifesaving option and ultimate DLP course of action.

Public Law 111-24

In 2010, Public Law 111-24 made it legal to possess firearms in national parks and refuges. You may carry a firearm, concealed or otherwise, as long as applicable federal, state and local firearms laws in the state in which the park is located allow your possession of that weapon. That law does not, however, change prohibitions on the use of firearms in national parks or affect any hunting regulations. And even if it’s legal to carry a firearm within a park’s boundaries, it’s still not legal to discharge it.

These regulations were adopted with specific scrutiny toward each state’s laws (including non-restricting laws) regarding the carrying of concealed weapons. Certain areas within federal recreation areas (visitor centers, offices, etc.) still enforce site-specific bans on firearms.

“More than 30 national parks are located in more than one state, so visitors need to know where they are in those parks and which state’s law applies,” said Kathryn Warnes, grant management specialist with the National Park Service. National Park websites have been updated to include links to each state’s firearms laws. A firearm-carrying visitor’s responsibility becomes even more challenging when that individual crosses an international border.

A square brown Forest Service sign depicting two stylized hikers and a large white arrow pointing to the right to indicate the start of a hiking trail. Both signs are full of bullet holes. The arid landscape and weathered rail fence in the background denotes that the sign stands in the Southwestern portion of the United States.

Because many national parks overlap multiple states, its important to know the local firearms ordinances for all jurisdictions you’ll encounter while hiking the back trails.

Conflicting Firearms Laws

Many of the laws between adjoining states conflict. In the case where a portion of two or more states lie within a park boundary, it is up to each individual to check the status of laws in each of those particular states.

While the question of whether it is legal to carry a concealed weapon in a national park has been answered by Public Law 111-24, the need to carry a firearm for DLP in those parks and other backcountry recreation areas continues to be one of personal preference and ongoing debate and discussion.

Even before this new firearms possession law was tacked on as a rider to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, proponents of the law were applauding it as yet another expression of the country’s Second Amendment rights. Opponents, however, feared its passing would cause a heightened potential for gun-related mishaps in otherwise pristine and safe environments. The law is still too new to have been subject to enough statistical scrutiny to solidly confirm or dispute the concerns regarding occurrences of firearms-related violent behavior in national parks.

Crime Statistics

According to a posting on the National Parks Traveler website, Part I crimes (murder, rape, robberies, etc.) increased by approximately 700 cases in 2012, up from 2,900 incidents the year before. Fraud, vandalism and other Part II offenses dropped from 113,000 in 2012 to 105,000 in 2013. Those numbers represent incidents from a base of more than 280 million annual visitations to parks throughout the nation. Whether or not a firearm was involved was not included in the findings, but statistics matter little if you and your family are confronted by a deadly threat.

An Incident of Crime in the BWCAW

Consider an incident that occurred on a border lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) several years prior to the passing of this law. Randomly firing into the air and surroundings using an assortment of weapons, a half dozen drunk men, operating boats powered by outboards (illegal on a section of this particular lake), raided several remote campsites and spent hours terrorizing canoe campers on Basswood Lake. It was a rare incident that has not been repeated (at least within the remote BWCAW) in the years since. Nonetheless, those campers were defenseless against this attack. Under the revised law, members of those campsites could legally possess weapons to use in self-defense. Whether such counter-actions would have evolved into an even more dangerous situation fuels an ongoing debate.

Defense Against Wild Animals

Defense against attacks by wild animals has always been a valid concern among those who frequent the backcountry of America in areas where there is a heightened chance that one might encounter a huge carnivorous animal. However, incidents resulting in death are extremely rare. According to an article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, through a 25-year period in Alaska, 52 brown bears and 38 black bears (5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of the total bears killed during that period) were dispatched in defense of life or property. Of that number, there were no human injuries in 98.5 percent of brown bear incidents and none in 99.2 percent of incidents involving black bears. Still, during the period from 1985 to 1996, bear attacks did result in 36 injuries to humans and six deaths.

As far as a preferred weapon for DLP, particularly against attacks from large critters, .40-caliber service sidearms, .44 Magnum revolvers and shotguns appear to be the weapons of choice among those who carry firearms in the public and private sectors. Bear spray is a serious option as an alternative or complement to a firearm, and many feel it is equal to or better than a firearm for deterring animals or humans.

There are no definitive answers as to whether or not you should possess a firearm when adventuring within a national park or other similar area or which caliber to use if you do. Clearly, owners of firearms should be proficient and comfortable with their weapons if they are going to use them as effective and safe tools in defense of life and property. Public Law 111-24 now extends that right and responsibility throughout most of our national parks and other recreation lands as well.

*If you enjoyed this excerpt, check out some of the USCCA’s other great learning experiences.

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