Guns in the National Parks

Springtime in Dath Valley National Park - NPS Photo

Springtime in Death Valley National Park - NPS Photo

In the midnight hours of the departing Bush Administration someone in the Department of Interior decided it would be a good idea to revoke a long-standing rule prohibiting carrying concealed weapons in our national parks.  Why someone would want or need to lug a hidden gun around in the parks was not discussed.  I guess they were just remembering their King Lear, “Oh, reason not the need!”

So they adopted a new rule allowing concealed guns in the national parks.  But they skipped the part about doing an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by the law.

The Mythic Reason for Guns in National Parks

The Mythic Reason for Guns in National Parks

Recently, a federal judge in Washington D.C. threw out the proposed change on precisely that ground: An EIS was required but not performed; therefore, she granted an preliminary injunction against the government.

But before she did that, the judge granted an extension of time so the Obama Administration could file its own brief.  The government, speaking through lawyers who now work for President Obama’s Justice Department, argued that the rule was valid because it only allowed people to carry the guns, not fire them.  Since they couldn’t be fired, they would have no environmental impact; therefore, an environmental study was not required.

The judge was not impressed with that argument. [1]

It is worth noting that the case, in its current form, does not raise issues concerning the Second Amendment, although the National Rifle Association is trying to make it do so.  As of now, the case is purely about midnight rule-making and not a Second Amendment right to self-defense against wolves.

A Real Wolf

A Real Wolf

Besides, the Second Amendment has never allowed people to carry guns where ever they want.  If you don’t believe that, try taking one with you the next time you go to the airport and see what happens.

Moreover, the idea that tourists and backpackers in our national parks need to carry hidden guns is silly.  Hunters need guns; tourists don’t.  I’ve backpacked my entire life and have never felt even the slightest need for a gun.  In fact, the only time I’ve ever really been frightened by an animal in the wilderness was when some drunken Homo Sapiens started target shooting just over a ridge from where my family was enjoying a picnic.

A Real Girl

A Real Girl

All this reminds me of James Thurber’s fable, “The Little Girl and the Wolf.”  Once upon a time a little girl — let’s call her Red Riding Hood — was walking through a dark forest, perhaps one in a national park, on her way to deliver some food to her ailing grandmother.  She was accosted by a talking wolf who asked her if she was taking the food to her grandmother.  She said, “Yes.”  So the talking wolf ran along to grandmother’s house and got there before the little girl.  When the little girl arrived she went in and saw somebody in her grandmother’s bed wearing a night cap.  Here is the rest of Thurber’s tale:

She approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge.  So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

Maybe I’ve never felt the need to carry a gun in a national park simply because I’ve never met a talking wolf, but perhaps it’s a bigger problem than I thought.

Thurber’s fable can be found in Thurber: Writings and Drawings published by the Library of America or in any copy of the original book, Fables for Our Time, first published in 1940.

[1] Here is what she said:

The lynchpin of Defendants’ response is that the Final Rule has no environmental impacts–and that Defendants were not required to perform any environmental analysis–because the Final Rule only authorizes persons to possess concealed, loaded, and operable firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges, and does not authorize persons to discharge, brandish, or otherwise use the concealed, loaded, and operable firearms. In other words, the Final Rule has no environmental impacts according to Defendants because the Final Rule does not authorize any environmental impacts. By relying on this tautology, Defendants (1) abdicated their Congressionally-mandated obligation to evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts, whether authorized by the Final Rule or not, and (2) ignored (without sufficient explanation) substantial information in the administrative record concerning environmental impacts, including (i) Defendants’ own long-standing belief under the previous regulations that allowing only inoperable and stored firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges was necessary to safeguard against certain risks to the environment and (ii) the almost universal view among interested parties that persons who possess concealed, loaded, and operable firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges will use them for any number of reasons, including self-defense against persons and animals (all of which suggests that the Final Rule will have some impact on the environment).


UPDATE:  APRIL 18, 2009 – The Obama Administration’s Department of the Interior has announced that the government will not appeal.  The National Rifle Association will.


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One Response to “Guns in the National Parks”

  1. leon Richard Says:

    Snide remarks and sarcasm aside, the writing of the author basically says nothing. The plain effect of the law, as proposed, on environmental issues is none. The proposed law has no environmental impact at all, other than to allow prevailing local laws regarding carrying concealed weapons to apply inside the park as well as outside of it.

    Do a google search of crimes inside national parks, and re-evaluate your position based not on your experiences, but that of others. And consider well that poachers are not using concealable weapons such as handguns. They use shotguns and rifles for illegal hunting.

    The issue is one of basic parity with local laws. I am a former law enforcement officer, who is now a physical therapist. I am no danger to anyone who isn’t a danger to me, or you perhaps if I am nearby and can assist if you need.

    Scumbags and criminals don’t apply for permits, or care about laws.

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