AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on a proposal to reimpose restrictions on guns within Acadia National Park and along the Appalachian Trail in Maine in response to Congress’ controversial decision to lift long-standing limits on firearms.
Last year, Congress passed a law authorizing visitors to carry guns — both concealed and carried openly — in national parks. Congress passed the law after a federal judge overturned similar regulations enacted in the final days of the Bush administration.
But the new law, which takes effect later this month, does allow states to establish specific rules governing where and how firearms can be carried in the national park system.
A proposal pending before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, LD 1737, would essentially maintain the old law that has been on the books for several decades.
That law generally prohibits firearms within park boundaries but allows visitors to carry unloaded guns through the park as long as the firearms have been dismantled or rendered inaccessible.
“This really keeps the status quo for rules that have been in effect since 1982,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. Pingree, whose district includes parts of Acadia, said now is not the time to change a law that could affect the tourism industry.
“It is important to the tourism industry, and it is important to families for people to feel safe, and I think to set a standard any different than what is currently in place in our state parks and national parks would be a bad precedent,” she said.
The new federal law, as well as LD 1737, would only affect gun owners who desire to visit Acadia and the St. Croix Island International Historic Site or to hike Maine’s section of the Appalachian Trail. The laws would not affect Maine’s federally owned national wildlife refuges or the White Mountain National Forest, where hunting is permitted.
Much of Wednesday’s testimony focused on individuals who have a permit to carry a concealed firearm.
While the bill, as drafted, would prohibit loaded concealed weapons within the parks, the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton, said he would be open to allowing permit holders to carry guns in the parks.
Representatives from the organization Friends of Acadia, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, meanwhile, urged the committee to keep the laws that have been in effect for decades.
Marla O’Byrne, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia, cited FBI crime statistics showing that there were 1.65 violent crimes per 100,000 visitors to national parks in 2006. That compares to a nationwide average of 473.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people that same year.
O’Byrne urged the committee to think back to times they hiked trails in Acadia, rode the carriage roads or stopped at the Jordan Pond House for tea and popovers.
“I doubt that many of you felt like you needed to have a firearm on you,” she said.
Robert Proudman, representing the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said between 1 and 2 million people hike the trail every year. Yet during the past 40 years, there have only been eight murders — two of which involved guns — along the 2,200-mile-long trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.
Proudman expressed concerns about an increase in the number of guns on the trail leading to additional accidents or deadly altercations.
“I believe allowing firearms on the Appalachian Trail is unnecessary, possibly dangerous and, simply put, a bad idea,” Proudman said. “Perhaps most important, we don’t want the culture to change.”
Sportsmen and gun owners’ rights groups, on the other hand, urged the committee to let the federal law take effect without alteration.
John Hohenwarter, a lobbyist with the National Rifle Association, said the federal law on parks was changed in response to the growing number of states, including Maine, that allow the concealed carry of loaded guns. Hohenwarter added that he would never think of hiking the Appalachian Trail without a gun.
“Crime does not stop at the federal park gate,” Hohenwarter said. “The right to protect yourself does not stop at the federal park gate.”
George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said holders of concealed carry permits are not the people the park service or the state should be concerned about. They have already been cleared to carry a weapon.
Instead, the law-abiding public has the right to protect itself from the criminals who don’t follow existing gun laws.
“Congress got this one right. You don’t need to add” to it, Smith said.