WASHINGTON – A new law will lift the 94-year-old ban on carrying loaded firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges when it goes into effect Monday.
The law,passed by Congress in May as an amendment to a credit-reform bill,will end the ability of the National Park Service to set its own gun-carry restrictions,making each park subject to the gun laws of its home state.
While the law will not give park visitors blanket permission to possess firearms,it will allow visitors to carry guns into any park,provided they follow all federal,state and local laws.
Current regulations allow park goers to possess firearms,but they must be unassembled,unloaded and stored away from ammunition. Starting Monday,specific rules will vary by location.
The new law does not give visitors permission or fire their weapons – only to possess them.
David Barna,chief spokesman for the NPS,said firearms will still be prohibited in federal buildings such as ranger stations and visitor centers. Firearms will be permitted in facilities not directly owned and operated by the NPS,including many campgrounds and hotels.
“We will take the ‘firearms prohibited' signs off at the front gate,” Barna said. “A lot of the burden is on the public to know the laws of your state.”
In states that allow the open carrying of firearms,park guests will be permitted to keep loaded weapons on hand and in plain sight. Permit requirements for firearms will vary among parks.
Regulations may also vary within some parks. Yellowstone covers land in three states,and the Appalachian Trail winds through 14.
For example,Yellowstone visitors in Idaho will have to be at least 18 years old to openly carry a firearm,but those in Montana can do so at age 14. Permit-holding guests in Montana will be able to carry a concealed weapon at age 18,but those in Wyoming will have to be at least 21.
In such cases,it will be up to the public to know where specific gun laws are in effect,Barna said. He said the NPS cannot post signs along every trail at every state border.
To help ease the transition,the NPS will hand out informational cards at visitor centers and brief park rangers on state and local gun laws. Every park will post specific information on its Web site before the law takes effect.
The NPS is preparing park rangers for the law by briefing them on local and state gun regulations. The law will dramatically change the role of park rangers,said Scot McElveen,president of the Association of National Park Rangers.
Under current regulations,rangers can stop any park visitor for carrying a firearm. That lets them spot poachers and illegal hunters because they are among the only ones carrying firearms.
The new law will bar rangers in some parks from questioning visitors for carrying weapons. That will make rangers less able to prevent wildlife crimes because they will not be able tell poachers and guests apart,McElveen said. Rangers will soon have to catch poachers in the act to make an arrest,he said.
The new law will also make gun regulations harder to enforce,McElveen said.
“Some counties have laws,” McElveen said. “For all we know,there could be a park that sprawls across three or four counties in a state.”
The law has drawn ire and praise.
Bill Wade,chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees,said more guns will put both parks and rangers at risk.
“The more guns that are available in national parks … the more likely that we're going to see shooting at wildlife,shooting at cultural resources,” Wade said.
Even those with firearms training may not use guns wisely around animals,Wade said. For example,he said,if someone is startled by a large animal such as a grizzly bear,shooting at it is likely to provoke the bear to attack.
Alexa Fritts,a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association,said the law will decrease confusion about state gun laws and allow park guests to defend themselves.
Fritts said park visitors should be allowed to use guns in self-defense,even if the odds of an attack are low.
“The chance is there,and one attack on a person by another person or an animal is too many,” she said.
Although murders and robberies do occur in parks,national parks are safer on average than the rest of the country,Barna said.
Park rangers will still have the authority to investigate crimes in parks and make arrests. The law will not affect places such as the National Mall in Washington,which has strict gun laws.
The law will not apply to national forests,which already use the same gun laws as their home states,said a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. States may allow firearms,but the Forest Service may restrict gun use in some areas for safety reasons,according to a 2006 memorandum of understanding