Hikers in the Grand Canyon, visitors to Old Faithful and anyone else sleeping at hundreds of national park campsites across the country might now be surrounded by other tourists carrying shotguns or rifles.
Thanks to a new law that took effect today, it is now legal to carry loaded guns into our national parks.
The change in federal law basically means that national park visitors must obey the federal, state, and local gun laws appropriate to the parks they are visiting. It's a sharp change to previous laws that severely restricted guns in the national parks, generally requiring them to be locked or stored.
Supporters say the law brings uniformity to the laws governing gun use on federal lands, but some gun-control advocates fear it could lead to increased violence, or at the very least upset the parks' tranquility.
Bill Wade, who heads the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said that the law brings "a very unfortunate and sad situation" to the parks.
"I just think that people go to national parks often to get away from the things they face in their everyday lives," said Wade, who spent more than 30 years in the park service including nine as the superintendent of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park.
Wade said that visitors are often out of their comfort zones when hiking or camping in the parks and that having loaded firearms there could lead to accidents. For instance, he asked, what happens if somebody is camping and hears a suspicious noise outside and decides to start firing at the dark shape outside their tent? Or somebody who is hiking and fires at a bear, only wounding it, and therefore making it a greater threat.
Wade said the parks are currently among the safest places in the nation. About 275 million people visited national parks in 2008, the most recent year with data available. In that time, the National Park Service reported 3,760 reported major crimes, including five homicides and 37 rapes.
"Our national parks are not the safe havens as many think they are," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the National Rifle Association, which lobbied hard for the parks' gun laws to be changed. "We think it's reasonable for those with a concealed carry permit to be able to defend themselves and their families should the need arise."
Guns Permitted in Most National Parks
Guns are now allowed in all but about 20 of the 392 locations the National Park Service governs, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Firearms will be prohibited in visitors' centers and park rangers' offices because of a separate law banning guns in buildings where federal employees work. Nothing would prohibit the carrying of weapons into hotels, restaurants and other facilities in the parks operated by private companies.
David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, said the laws are now the same inside and outside of the park gates.
"The law doesn't change when you enter a park," Barna said. "What you see in the parks shouldn't be any different than what you see outside the park."
He said there are still laws prohibiting the discharge of firearms.
"We don't believe this is as controversial as you think," he said. "We are embracing this law like we embrace all laws. We are hearing from people of both sides of it."
Hunting rules for the parks will not change because of this law. Currently, hunting is allowed in cordoned-off locations in 42 parks, but only after the peak tourist season.
Barna said visitors do need to be aware of the changes in laws across state lines within the parks. For instance, Yellowstone crosses into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, which all have differing gun laws.
Gun Owners May Now Visit National Parks
While some visitors might be apprehensive to visit the parks now, Barna pointed out that others who have stayed away because of the gun restrictions might now be more willing to visit.
Arulanandam said the NRA lobbied for the change for seven or eight years. The measure gained momentum after 2008 when the Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., and declared that individuals have a constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense and other purposes.
The national park gun law change was included in an amendment to the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act of 2009, authored by Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and signed into law by President Obama on May 22, 2009.
"We think wherever Teddy Roosevelt is, he's got to be rolling his eyes and shaking his head, said Peter Hamm, communications director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "The national parks are places of solitude and quiet and places to get away from the large number of firearms they are already seeing in society."
The Brady Campaign sued the government to block the rules change. The courts initially sided with the Brady campaign before Congress passed a law overturning that decision.