New firearms rule will make national parks less safe

Posted Dec. 17, 2008, at 7:15 p.m.

On Dec. 5, the Department of the Interior released its final rule allowing citizens with proper permits to carry loaded, concealed firearms into national parks, including Acadia. This is policy change motivated not by interest in bettering our national parks and the experience of all who visit them, but by a lame-duck presidential administration forcing its outgoing political views on our national heritage.

The action was initiated in April in response to a letter sent by 51 U.S. senators to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, based it seemed on a misunderstanding of existing regulations regarding firearms. The letter contained the misinformation that citizens were prohibited from transporting and carrying firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges.

Actually, the present federal regulations (36 CFR 2.4 (3)) allow the possession of firearms as long as they are “rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased, or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.” Enacted during the Reagan administration, these regulations have effectively protected Acadia’s visitors, wildlife and rangers.

Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe researched the firearms laws more thoroughly and did not sign on.

Beginning Jan. 9, however, the regulations will change. Loaded, concealed firearms will be allowed in all national parks and wildlife refuges located in states that permit concealed firearms. Maine is one of these states. So, despite the fact that hunting is not allowed in Acadia, anyone who has the proper concealed weapons per-mit will be allowed to bring their loaded weapon into the campgrounds, onto the Jordan Pond House lawn, to Sand Beach and the Cadillac Mountain summit. Does that make anyone feel safer?

Most disappointing about this rule change is the disregard shown by the Bush administration for the vast majority of public comments received about the proposed rules. Many of the 140,000 comments received by the Department of the Interior were form letters sent at the call of the formidable gun lobby, but many more were from park visitors who remarked about the special status of national parks as places of tranquility and retreat from the world’s problems, who questioned the wisdom of deferring to state policies for highly treasured national icons of natural and cultural heritage, and who cautioned about opportunistic poaching and increased risk of accidents.

There is plenty of room for confusion with the new regulations. For instance, how will Acadia’s visitors know about the rule change and Maine’s firearms laws? Maine residents who have their concealed firearms permits will be able to drive down the Park Loop Road with their guns on their hips rather than stowed in cases un-der the seat, but Acadia’s out-of-state visitors will still have to go through a permit application process that could take up to 60 days. That’s a lot of preparation and forethought for a vacation with your weapons in Maine.

Additional thought is also required related to the regulation of firearms in federal buildings and on their grounds. Guns are not allowed in federal facilities in national parks and wildlife refuges, but presumably with this new rule they will be allowed on the grounds of these buildings. But what does this mean on the grounds? At Take Pride in Acadia Day, I won’t be able to take a gun to the restroom at park headquarters, but I will be able to have it on my hip while eating chili and cornbread at picnic tables outside the headquarters building. Does this make sense? How about on the grounds of the Statue of Liberty or Independence Hall?

Presidential transitions can be exciting and frustrating — exciting because of the hope for a new way of doing things, but frustrating when so many last-minute steps are taken to effect ideological policies. Our present national park firearms laws are an effective compromise that allows the possession of weapons, while providing adequate protections for wildlife, rangers and the visiting public. Seven former National Park Service directors, the Coalition of National Park Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, and the U.S. Park Ranger Lodge, Fraternal Order of Police all have opposed this regulation change. Should we not heed their insight and guidance, and the expressed concerns of hundreds of thousands of visitors?

While it’s uncertain what national legal challenges will be issued to prevent implementation of the new firearms rules, Friends of Acadia knows that public comment continues to be important. If you are concerned about these new regulations, please contact your U.S. senator and representative and urge them to weigh in with President-elect Obama’s transition team and the Department of the Interior to prevent implementation or quickly reverse the rule.

Stephanie Clement is the conservation director for Friends of Acadia.

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