Heading to a national park? Now you can pack heat

McClatchy NewspapersMay 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Here's a list of stuff the typical American family can legally carry into national parks this summer: sleeping bag, toothbrush, change of underwear . . . loaded guns.

Thanks to a 279-147 vote Wednesday in the House of Representatives, visitors to the nation's parks and wildlife refuges will be able to carry weapons there if they abide by state weapons laws.

The bill is on its way to President Barack Obama, who faces a dilemma: Gun rights advocates attached the provision to a sweeping overhaul of the credit card industry, an initiative Obama strongly supports, so he has little choice but to let the gun section become law.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said only that Obama "looks forward" to signing the bill "as quickly as possible," and didn't mention the gun provision.

Gun control advocates howled Wednesday, but to little effect. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., protested "the bill has been hijacked," and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., maintained, "American taxpayers ought to be incensed."

Scot McElveen, the president of the Association of National Park Rangers, predicted that the measure would provoke problems at the parks.

"Members of the ANPR respect the will of Congress and their authority to pass laws, but we believe this is a fundamental reversal from what preceding Congresses created the National Park System for. Park wildlife, including some rare or endangered species, will face increased threats by visitors with firearms who engage in impulse or opportunistic shooting."

Nonetheless, the gun measure, which passed the Senate overwhelmingly earlier this month, had strong bipartisan support. In the House, 105 Democrats, most from Southern, Western and rural states, joined 174 Republicans in backing the measure.

Two Republicans, Reps. Michael Castle of Delaware and Mark Kirk of Illinois, and 145 Democrats voted no.

"This is one of those issues that breaks down regionally," explained Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

President Ronald Reagan first required guns to be stored or inoperable in national parks 25 years ago, but last December, just before leaving office, the Bush administration overturned that rule.

That began a game of legal Ping-Pong. In March, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned the Bush rule, and the Obama administration said it wouldn't appeal.

That action spurred Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to include the gun rule in the credit card bill. It wound up winning by an unexpectedly lopsided vote.

Coburn and his backers said that they didn't want, nor did they expect, people to be in danger of random shooters in national parks.

"It's really common sense," he said. "This is not about guns. What I want is gun rights. I want our constitutional rights to be protected."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the measure was also a matter of self-defense.

"The real issue is that law-abiding Americans will no longer be treated as criminals" when they carry weapons, he said.

National Rifle Association officials argued that weapons are needed for protection in parks that are becoming increasingly dangerous. Asked why police couldn't handle criminal activity, Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's director of public affairs, said, "At that moment when you're confronted by a criminal, it's between you and the criminal. Law enforcement cannot be there in position at any time."

Gun control groups said a new kind of danger would be lurking once the ban was overturned.

"Families should not have to stare down loaded AK-47's on nature hikes," said Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He added that Obama "should not remain silent while Congress inserts reckless gun policies that he strongly opposes into a bill that has nothing whatsoever to do with guns."

Brady group spokesman David Vice suggested that Democrats were overreacting to gun rights advocates. Democrats still have bitter memories of losing congressional races in more conservative areas in the 1990s after being tagged as soft on guns.

Vice suggested that last year's results, in which Democrats won their biggest congressional majorities since the early 1990s, are evidence that those districts recognize the need for some limits on guns.

"We're trying to change that perception," he said, "but it's been difficult."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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