Ever since I saw the Great Smoky Mountains  as a child, I've been an ardent fan of America's national park system – and the outdoor activities they inspire. Since starting the American Nomad  blog on Moon.com, I've written about exploring the mysterious underworlds of Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns , relishing the incredible vistas of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks , encountering the Grand Canyon  for the first time, enjoying the unique flora and fauna of Everglades National Park , and finding a balance between enjoying national parks and protecting them . So, it surely comes as no surprise that I once again have U.S. national parks on the brain.
Recently, I discovered that the U.S. National Park Service  and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  will soon adopt a new firearms policy. Effective this Monday, February 22, people who can legally possess firearms under applicable federal, state, and local laws can now possess, carry, and transport those same firearms in the national parks and national wildlife refuges of those particular states. Apparently, the new law (Section 512 of P.L. 111-24, an amendment to the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed last May by President Obama.
Prior to February 22, firearms have generally been prohibited in national parks – except in Alaska parks and those parks that allow hunting. This new bipartisan measure is intended to protect Americans from violent crime, allow them to defend themselves when necessary, and adhere to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ensures that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
But, of course, as with all such laws, there are caveats. Visitors who would like to bring a firearm with them to a national park still need to understand and comply with applicable state and local laws, which can vary. In places like Yellowstone National Park , which exists in three states – Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho – visitors need to know exactly where they are in those parks and which state's law applies. Before visiting any national park, you should consult the park's website or headquarters, just to make sure that you're following proper protocols – especially in regards to concealed weapons. It's also important to note that federal law continues to prohibit the possession of firearms in designated “federal facilities” in national parks – such as visitor centers, offices, or maintenance buildings – places that are posted with “firearms prohibited” signs at public entrances. The new law also does not change hunting regulations or prohibitions on the use of firearms in national parks.
U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who authored this amendment, believes that, besides “protecting every American's Second Amendment rights... this amendment is about protecting the right of every state to pass laws that apply to their entire state, including public lands... Visitors to national parks also should have the right to defend themselves in accordance with the laws of their states. National parks, while still generally safe for visitors, have seen an increase in crime recently.” Given that there's typically one law enforcement officer for every 110,000 visitors and 118,000 acres of national park land, I can definitely see his point.
Moreover, as Mark Chester, an editor with the National Rifle Association (NRA)  wrote, “Records prove that Americans with Right-to-Carry licenses are among the most law-abiding citizens in our country. In fact, that’s true in every state that has passed a Right-to-Carry law in the last 20 years.”
Naturally, there are extremely vocal opponents to this new policy. For one thing, it's not perfectly clear what's meant by “federal facilities” – those places where, with the proper signage, firearms will remain prohibited within national parklands. For another thing, as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR)  claims, the increased presence of firearms could heighten the risks for rangers and visitors alike, alter the perception of national parks as “sanctuaries,” and ensure the likelihood that wildlife, natural resources, and historical monuments will become tempting targets. As Bill Wade, chair of CNPSR's Executive Council and former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park said, “This is a sad chapter in the history of America's premier system of heritage areas. The law will have a chilling effect on how visitors behave in national parks. A feeling of safety and security will be replaced by wariness and suspicion. This diminishes some of the 'specialness and reverence' our citizens have long accorded to their national parks.”
Regarding this new policy, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has assured Americans that, “For nearly 100 years, the mission of the National Park Service has been to protect and preserve the parks and to help all visitors enjoy them. We will administer this law as we do all others – fairly and consistently.” Although I can appreciate his assurance, I must admit to having mixed feelings about this new policy. On the one hand, I'm glad that ordinary citizens can protect themselves from the criminal element that has increasingly encroached upon our national parklands. But, on the other hand, I can understand the fears of those who oppose the increased presence of firearms in our national sanctuaries.
For more information about America's national parks, consult such Moon travel guides as Moon Acadia National Park , Moon Glacier National Park , Moon Grand Canyon , Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton , Moon Yosemite , and Moon Zion & Bryce . For details about state firearms laws, consult the 2010 Traveler’s Guide to the Firearms Laws of the Fifty States . In the meantime, I'm curious about your thoughts on this controversial matter, so feel free to leave any and all comments below – and enjoy your next visit to a national park.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
© 2010 Laura Martone