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Coming Soon to a National Park Near You: Guns, Guns, Guns!

Josh Sugarmann

Currently, visitors to national parks are allowed to possess guns only if they're stored out of reach and unloaded. All this will change on February 22, 2010, when park visitors will be able to possess firearms in national park areas consistent with the laws of the state in which the area is located.

The change is the result of an amendment sponsored by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) added to the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act of 2009 signed into law by President Obama last May.

To mark this National Rifle Association-backed change, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) issued a release this week offering examples of what visitors may soon be experiencing in our national parks. According to the CNPSR:

  • Yellowstone National Park (WY, MT, ID): In the world's first national park, Yellowstone, while watching Old Faithful erupt you could be in the company of other park visitors wearing holsters and handguns. In the evening campfire circle, you may sit next to someone who can legally carry a shotgun or rifle to that special place. Anyone hiking in the backcountry can openly carry guns, increasing the risk to other hikers and park wildlife.
  • Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (VA): Virginia's gun laws are very permissive. The grounds of Wolf Trap, including the "lawn seating area," will be open to people carrying firearms.
  • Grand Canyon National Park (AZ): Arizona's gun laws are very permissive and while standing on Mather Point, enjoying the breathtaking view of the canyon, you could see another visitor with an assault rifle slung on his shoulder. At your campsite in the park's campground, you could see guns prominently displayed in the campsite next to you.
  • Mesa Verde National Park (CO): Colorado law is very permissive about open carry of firearms except in some cities. During your visit to Cliff Palace, you could be listening to the ranger's interpretive discussion while standing next to someone with a handgun and holster prominently displayed.
  • Gettysburg National Military Battlefield (PA): Pennsylvania is also a very permissive state relative to gun laws. During your tour of the battlefield, you could encounter other visitors legally carrying rifles--and not the historic kind.
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM): At the evening bat flight program and even on the cave tours, you could be joined by others openly carrying firearms. As you wander through the park's restaurant and gift store, looking for a bite to eat or a souvenir to buy, other visitors might be seen legally carrying firearms.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN and NC): This park is an example of one of the problems visitors will face with the new law. In North Carolina, there are few gun restrictions and visitors could be seen openly carrying guns. However, if you happen to be a gun-carrying visitor, you will need a "carry permit" when you cross into the part of the park located in Tennessee.
  • Mount Rainier National Park (WA): While hiking the famous "Wonderland Trail" you could encounter other hikers openly carrying handguns, rifles or shotguns.
  • Denali National Park and Preserve (AK): While riding on an NPS-licensed bus operated by the park concessioner on a day-long trip on the "park road" (the only way to get into the heart of the park other than to hike) you could be sitting next to someone with a handgun in a holster.

Not surprisingly, the Coburn Amendment was opposed by every major parks organization, including in addition to CNPSR, the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police and the National Parks Conservation Association.

But they're only the stewards and defenders of our national parks. Apparently it's the National Rifle Association that owns them.

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Josh Sugarmann is Executive director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington, DC.

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