WASHINGTON — The country's never-ending debate over guns is heating up again.
This time it's fueled by news that the Interior Department may relax a 25-year ban on loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges, leaving the issue for states to decide. In a decision that the National Rifle Association has applauded, the department announced that it will issue a new set of rules by April 30.
"Under this proposal, federal parks and wildlife refuges will mirror the state firearm laws for state parks," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "This is an important step in the right direction."
The number of criminal offenses reported in the nation's parks declined by 25 percent from 1995 to 2006, going from 6,009 to 4,485, according to statistics compiled by the National Park Service. That includes murders, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts and arson.
Despite the decline, Cox said that law-abiding citizens shouldn't be prohibited from defending themselves while visiting the parks. He said the ban was outdated, noting that while only six states allowed citizens to carry handguns for self-defense in 1982, 48 states now issue licenses or permits for people to carry firearms to protect themselves.
Under current law, guns are allowed in national parks only if they're unloaded and stowed.
Gun-rights advocates are optimistic that they'll have the muscle to change the law this year. In the Senate, 50 members already have signed a letter complaining about the ban.
In the House of Representatives, however, Washington state Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks said he was prepared to block the effort. As the chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee, Dicks oversees the National Park Service's annual budget. He's usually reluctant to add legislative provisions — such as one barring the Interior Department from lifting the ban — to his spending bill, but he said he was ready to make an exception, even if it prompted a presidential veto.
"Every now and then something rises up that needs to be fought, and this is one of them," Dicks said.
Dicks said that his counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, had told him that she'd use her position as the chairman of the interior appropriations committee to block any changes.
"Permitting loaded firearms to be carried or used within our national parks or wildlife refuges would be a radical, unprecedented change that would likely upset the delicate balance that exists between wildlife and park visitors in these areas," Dicks and Feinstein said in a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
Tom Kiernan, the president of the National Parks Conservation Association, called the plan to lift the ban alarming and said it was "a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year." He said that deferring to the states would result in confusion and that the federal government must be responsible for managing national parks.
"Poachers could operate with impunity, because rangers would lack the authority to question individuals about their loaded weapons," Kiernan said.
In recent years, Democrats in Congress have shown little interest in gun-control legislation, fearing that it's a losing issue with most voters. And many of them have little appetite for voting on the issue in a highly charged election year.
"This regulation has been in place for 25 years, and overturning it now would only serve to distract us from more pressing issues, such as our economy, quality health care and national security," Kansas Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore said. "I hope that Congress will stay focused and work together on these important issues."
The issue already has become mired in politics in the Senate, where Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn wants to force a vote by offering the plan as an amendment to a public lands bill. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., learned of Coburn's plan, he responded by delaying consideration of the bill. Republicans accused Reid of trying to protect Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York from having to vote on gun legislation.
The plan already has won support from a bipartisan majority of the Senate, including Arizona's John McCain, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee and one of 41 Republican senators who back the plan. Nine Democrats have joined the effort: Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia.
In their letter to Kempthorne, the senators said the ban infringed "on the rights of law-abiding gun owners" and that changes were needed to "respect the Second Amendment rights" of those who want to carry guns in national parks.
The senators who signed a letter complaining about the ban:
(Les Blumenthal contributed to this article.)