Twenty-five years ago, the Department of the Interior established a rule regarding firearms in National Parks.
The rule said that they must be unloaded and in locked containers. The inspiration for the rule is unknown. Times have changed and so has the rule.
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the rule was administratively changed to allow concealed carry in National Parks. This change was inspired by the troubles of Virginia concealed carry permit holders. Travel through the Old Dominion state traverses many Civil War battlefields which are now National Parks. Criminals also traverse these parks and prey in these parks. Even if criminals had chosen to obey the National Park Service’s one regulation regarding firearms (among thousands of others) and covenanted not to substitute knives, superior physical strength or other weapons, the rule would have been an annoyance to concealed carry licensees. The rule required that licensees stop at the border of parks, unload the gun and lock it up. While this harassment was dismissed in some quarters as a mere annoyance, it was an annoyance that could not show that it did any good.
Some National Park lands in or near urban areas have a law enforcement presence that is little more than a guide service for disarmed citizens. Under the old rules, this provided an easy-prey target for criminal activity. Other parks are in remote areas which provide refuge for marijuana operations. These operations represent a great deal of money, and the operators do not take kindly to the intrusion of casual hikers. Other parks touch international borders and are routes for smugglers of various sorts. The boundaries of these parks are often poorly marked. One of the observers watching for alien smugglers was arrested for gun possession when he wandered into a national park. In 2006 alone there were 11 murders, 35 rapes, 61 robberies and 261 aggravated assaults in national parks.1 Given the number of visitors to the parks, this is a crime rate that is below the national average. However, if one is a victim, the crime rate is 100 percent. A nation that strives to save endangered snails should have equivalent concern for a minority of human victims. There are less dangerous animals in the national parks, and attacks by creatures from snakes to grizzly bears are routine. Opponents of the law claim that carrying guns will make park visitors engage in dangerous behavior such as approaching dangerous animals. The 31 states which allow concealed carry in state parks have not recorded any such problem, but facts are not the issue.
The rising tide of concealed carry states created a demand for a change in the rule. This demand was countered with the usual predictions of a bloodbath coupled with predictions of casual poaching. None of the state parks which allowed concealed carry had experienced either a bloodbath or poaching; however facts are not the strong point for the anti-gun element nor even of any particular interest to them. Associations of retired park employees took the demand for concealed carry as criticism of the park system, its safety and value. The rule was not changed through reason or the example of experience, but through political power.
However, just as Leonardo da Vinci never regarded his Mona Lisa as finished, the struggle over gun rights is never finished. Given that the change came during the last month of the Bush presidency, the result was predictable. The usual suspects filed suit to overturn the new rule. The suit claimed that the new rule was improperly enacted because the late administration had failed to do an environmental impact study on the change. It was alleged that there might be some slight impact, and the failure to conduct a study of the speculative effect of a negligible impact was fatally defective to the new rule. The new rule was defended by the new administration, which would appear to be a bad sign to most persons but does not appear to have affected the result. The opposition followed its lawsuit with a motion to restrain implementation of the new rule pending the outcome of the case.
The trial court issued a forty-four page opinion on the merits of the motion. In those forty-four pages, one paragraph was good news for gun people. The court quoted from the Department of the Interior’s brief which argued that The Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service already allowed the possession of concealed firearms on public lands. The history of these agencies did not indicate that the new park rule would result in poaching, illegal shooting or any danger to the public. However, the law requires an environmental impact assessment. Even when there is no indication whatsoever of even the slightest ecological damage, a study must still be conducted. The court spent forty-four pages trying to explain why a law requiring an expensive study of unlikely and insignificant outcomes trumps facts.2 In the end, it didn’t have to make sense; it was just the law.
An environmental impact study could take a great deal of time, especially when the administration conducting the study did not want to remove the obstacle to concealed carry. The struggle next moved to Congress. A bipartisan amendment was successfully attached to a bill regulating credit cards. The credit card bill enjoyed high priority and was considered “must pass.” Despite an anti-gun leadership, the bill sailed through Congress and was signed into law, despite the anti-gun prejudices of the signer. Politics is the art of the possible.
In 2006 alone there were 11 murders, 35 rapes, 61 robberies and 261 aggravated assaults in national parks.
The new law allowed concealed carry in national parks and wildlife refuges under the same circumstances as the surrounding state. This has the disadvantage of not having one rule for the entire federal system. However, it has the advantage of geographical consistency. It is the policy used by the National Forest Service. It is a policy that has worked. Some parks cross state lines. This may impose two different rules in the same park. This is not a perfect system, but until there is a national concealed carry law it is the best we can do.
Once the bill was law, the opposition was unable to block concealed carry in parks, and so they contented themselves with speed bumps. Because the credit card bill goes into effect on 22 February, 2010, the concealed carry provision will not go into effect until that date. The Department of the Interior claims that it requires the additional time to establish rules to exempt certain parks from the new law. It is claimed that the Statue of Liberty is an example of a park where licensed concealed weapons would be inappropriate. The basis for finding the Statute of Liberty “inappropriate” is not given, but facts are not the issue. The Statute of Liberty is surrounded by New York City, where only the politically connected can get a license to carry. Licensed concealed carry at the Statute of Liberty is not “inappropriate”; it is unlikely.
Despite these petty harassments, the law will go into effect on 22 February, 2010. It has been more than three years in the making through all three branches of government. It did not pass based on facts or experience. It passed because of political muscle and legislative guile. It passed in the face of a hostile administration. It was taken away from us once before and doubtless someone will try to take it away again. Like the Mona Lisa, efforts to restore our rights are never finished.
[ Kevin L. Jamison is an attorney in the Kansas City Missouri area concentrating in the area of weapons and self-defense. ]
|Kevin L. Jamison
2614 NE 56th Ter
Gladstone Missouri 64119-2311
Individual answers are not usually possible but may be addressed in future columns. This information is for legal information purposes and does not constitute legal advice. For specific questions you should consult a qualified attorney.