Campers may now pack heat along with their sleeping bags when they travel to national parks.
The Bush administration on Friday struck down federal regulations banning loaded guns in most national forests, a move that was widely seen as a parting shot on behalf of the National Rifle Association.
The ruling overturned a 25-year-old federal regulation severely restricting concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges. The new rule, which would take effect in January, would apparently allow anyone who already has a concealed weapons permit in his or her state to also tote a gun in federal parks within state boundaries.
Conservation groups, park officials and many politicians blasted the decision as a politically motivated slap against public opinion in favor of the gun lobby.
"This is something the park service does not want that is being driven by the political appointees in the Department of the Interior," said Bryan Faehner, associate director for park uses for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group established in 1919 to look out for the interests of the national parks. "This is pretty outrageous. We're concerned that there is going to be an increase in gun-related accidents in parks and opportunistic poaching."
The decision shoots down a 1981 wildlife refuge and a 1983 national park regulation signed by President Ronald Reagan requiring firearms to be unloaded and placed somewhere not easily accessible, such as in a car trunk, when visiting federal parks. Faehner said folks will now be able to lock and load in 388 of 391 parks, refuges and sites in 48 states, including California.
Only the three national park units in Wisconsin and Illinois, which do not issue concealed carry permits, are excluded.
The idea behind the ruling, according to Lyle Laverty, the assistant interior secretary, was to foster the long-held tradition of having states and the federal government work together on natural resource issues. He said similar rules were recently adopted by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
"We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist.
The NRA lobbied hard for the change to the gun regulations, which Cox said were inconsistent and unclear. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had also supported the change, organizing a letter-writing campaign to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne complaining about the gun restrictions. The letters were signed by half the Senate - 41 Republicans and nine Democrats.
As of 2007, there were 40,296 people with concealed weapons permits in California, according to Scott Gerber, spokesman for the state attorney general. Such permits are issued by police and sheriff's departments, usually to people in high-profile positions or to those who show a legitimate need for their protection.
The attorney general's office checks the fingerprints of all applicants and excludes people with felonies and violent misdemeanors on their records or who have been committed to mental hospitals.
Faehner said the new regulations go even further to loosen gun regulations than what was proposed earlier this year by the Bush administration. The earlier proposal, he said, would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons in federal parks only if the state parks allowed it.
California state parks do not allow loaded concealed weapons, but the newest ruling ignores the state parks and says that if state law permits concealed weapons, it is OK in a national park within that state's boundary.
"It appears that people who have been issued concealed carry permits will be able to travel into Yosemite with their guns, but they would be prohibited from entering the state parks in California," Faehner said. "So the bar has been lowered."
The change came despite more than 140,000 comments that were sent to the Department of the Interior after the earlier proposal was made. The overwhelming majority of those who commented opposed changing the regulations to allow concealed firearms in national parks, according to representatives of park rangers, retirees and conservation organizations.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., joined numerous organizations, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in denouncing the move.
"This unprecedented rule change wipes out common-sense regulations originally enacted by the Reagan administration," Feinstein said in a statement. "There is simply no good reason why this administration would change a rule that has helped make our national parks among the most popular and safest places in the country."
The regulation, which will be published in the Federal Register Wednesday and go into effect 30 days later, was timed so it would be in the books by the time President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Changing it would require a long bureaucratic rule-changing process possibly lasting years. Several groups, including the conservation association, are considering a lawsuit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.