Guns in Parks

Posted June 18, 2009, at 5:28 p.m.

Congress bowed to the National Rifle Association last month and voted to permit loaded guns into Acadia National Park. It is not too late to reconsider this move before the federal law takes effect on Feb. 22, 2010.

Year after year, NRA-sponsored bills to let loaded guns into the national parks had failed. This year, Rep. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, slipped an amendment to that effect into a popular credit-card reform bill. The amendment was adopted 67-29 with both of Maine’s Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voting for it. So did Rep. Michael H. Michaud, Democrat, of Maine’s Second District. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Democrat, of Maine’s First District, opposed it.

The full bill containing the amendment passed overwhelmingly, and President Obama signed it into law rather than veto credit-card reform.

Until the 2010 deadline, rules adopted by the Reagan administration will remain in place. Guns brought into the national parks must be kept unloaded and locked in car trunks or glove compartments or otherwise be inaccessible.

National park professionals want to keep that rule. The associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, Bryan Faehner, told the Associated Press: “We hope that the American public and members of Congress will have more time to understand the far-reaching repercussions of this outrageous and disturbing law that has nothing to do with credit cards and will only put park visitors at risk.”

In Acadia, Chief Ranger Stuart West says the present restrictions protect both the public and wildlife in the park. He quotes a National Park Service claim that parks are among the safest places in the nation. He points out that Acadia National park had 2.1 million visitors last year and not one reported crime of violence.

The carefully worded gun amendment forbids any Interior Department regulation that “prohibits an individual from possessing a firearm including an assembled or functional firearm in any unit of the National Park System.” But it includes a loophole, presumably out of deference to the Tenth Amendment, which reserves undelegated powers to the states.

The loophole says that the new permissive rules must be “in compliance” with any state law where a park is located. An Interior Department spokesman agrees that a state law would take precedence over the new federal law.

Acadia is not Yellowstone or Denali National Park where grizzlies, wolves and other predators could pose a danger to backcountry visitors. So differentiation makes sense.

The NRA hailed the new federal law as a move to restore the Second Amendment in national parks. Maine’s senators also frequently invoke the constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms. But the Second Amendment, like many provisions of the constitution, is not an absolute. Hardly anyone finds fault with rules that prohibit guns in schools and court houses.

They shouldn’t in national parks either.

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