As widely reported, an epic political victory for the gun lobby hit the ground on Monday, February 22. The National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must now, in accordance with applicable state laws, allow visitors to carry guns into most national parks and wildlife refuges, including loaded firearms and concealed weapons with a proper permit.
For the first time in decades, anybody who can legally carry a firearm in a state can also carry it into national parks and wildlife refuges in that state, but not into most “federal facilities” such as visitor centers and administrative buildings, and federal law still prohibits the use of firearms in most national parks.
I’ve written about this issue several times, and every time I do, I’m reminded of a fantastic, nine-day backpacking trip in the mid-1990s to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. While planning the trip, I called NPS offices in Alaska to ask a few questions, and to my surprise, the NPS recommended our group bring a gun. They even gave us detailed advice, preferring a short-barreled 12 gauge pump loaded with a rifled slug for the first shot followed by double-ought buckshot in the rest of the magazine. The NPS even told us how to carry it–with the safety off, but no shell in the chamber, so we could quickly pump the first shell in for a fast shot, if a bear suddenly charged.
We took bear pepper spray instead and had a safe trip, but that conversation stuck with me because, clearly, bringing guns into national parks (at least in Alaska) was–and is–a culturally acceptable no-big-deal. It can be in the Lower 48, too.
A Battle Worth Fighting
In an earlier commentary, I said the national park gun rule/law was a waste of time and conservation groups and park retiree and ranger nonprofits had bigger fish to fry. My reasoning was–and is–that people have been taking guns into national parks for decades and will continue to do so whether or not it’s legal. Nobody really disputes this fact, but the point is, through those decades, there has been minuscule, if any, gun-related incidents in national parks.
Yes, I realize I’m not in Alaska any more, and western national parks are a lot different than small, historical national parks back East. Keep in mind, though, that state firearms laws continue to regulate firearms in national parks where they exist. Guns laws in urban America are likely to be more restrictive than in southern and western states, and those laws will apply to national parks in highly populated states.
I had to retract my waste-of-time commentary when it became clear that the Battle of the National Parks was worth fighting. It turned into a political war that told us who was Boss. The clear winner was the gun lobby and the millions of gun owners it represents. It was sort of a no contest, actually.
But my opinion about the real, on-the-ground, non-political significance of the new law governing firearms in national parks hasn’t changed. To me, it’s still a yawner. People will continue to go to national parks doing the same things they always have, and the fact that a few more people might be packing will have little impact on anything.
Interestingly, I received several press releases from groups opposed to the national park gun law with the same tired predictions of impending disaster, but nothing from groups favoring the new law. The firearms lobby could’ve been out in force flaunting and flag-waving on February 22, but instead, pro-gun groups appropriately chose to let it quietly happen.
Now, the onus is on gun owners to make sure the new law does indeed turn out to a yawner–and keep me from having to eat my words. Be discreet and respectful with open carries and honor the “Firearms Prohibited” signs going up on visitor centers, park offices and other federal facilities in national parks and refuges.
Also, know the applicable state laws, keeping in mind that thirty national parks, such as Yellowstone, are located in more than one state. Gun owners must be aware of the laws of the state they’re in because those are the same laws of the park or refuge they’re in. In Yellowstone, for example, the laws at the north entrance station in Gardiner are different than the laws of Mammoth, five miles up the road.
Grizzlies and Guns
Fortunately, we still have grizzly bears, but unfortunately, it’s the reason many people take firearms into western national parks. Gun owners must resist trigger itch when seeing a bear. A few untimely and unnecessary dead bears from quick triggers could make the new law a lot more controversial than gun owners want it to be.
We don’t need any more documentation that bear pepper spray works better than firearms during encounters with bears. Yes, all bears are dangerous wild animals, but the threat of injury is minute at best.
Even though black bears pose as much–if not more–of a threat, grizzlies grab the most attention. Montana’s Glacier National Park, for example, has one of the highest densities of grizzly bears ever recorded. Over the past five years (2005-2009), almost ten million people visited Glacier, but only three were injured by grizzly bears, perhaps because none of the three used bear spray.
FWS statistics tell the same story. Since 1992, 50 percent of people involved in grizzly encounters and defending themselves with firearms suffered injury. Those defending themselves with bear pepper spray escaped injury most of the time and those who were injured experienced shorter attacks and less severe injuries. Pepper spray is a lot easier on the bear, too.
We don’t want even one trigger-happy tourist blasting away at a bear walking by a campground in Yellowstone or feeding on Glacier lily corns up on Going-to-the-Sun Highway and posing no threat to park visitors. The media would go nuclear on any such incident, which would not only result in a dead bear and a highly publicized citation, but also validate claims currently being made by anti-gun groups. Any inappropriate or dangerous firearms use in national parks could be a game changer and a big shift in the currently high level of political momentum the gun lobby enjoys.
So, gun owners, come through for me and millions of gun owners like me who want this new law to turn out to be a big yawner.
Footnote: Here, courtesy of the NPS, are some key links to answer your questions about the new gun law and the use of bear pepper spray.