Loaded guns are now legal in national parks.
The new rule is two years in the making. Previously, guns had to be unloaded and stowed in the trunks of vehicles when traveling through a park. While hunting or firing a gun in a park is still illegal, visitors can now tote loaded guns freely per the firearm rules of neighboring states. Locally, that means the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
A move to lift the ban on guns in parks was pushed by the Bush Administration during its final months in power, but was staved off by lawsuits.
The Obama Administration then inherited the issue. It was tabled for study along with a host of other regulations left as a parting gift by the outgoing Bush administration, which is typical of outgoing administrations.
Before the Obama Administration could take up the issue and before the lawsuits played out, Congress passed a law lifting the ban on guns in parks. That trumped any debate over the rule change by simply making it law. The vote was last summer, but the law went into effect Feb. 22.
The law received stiff opposition from the national park traveling public, environmental groups and various park ranger associations, including the U.S. Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
“This law is a very bad idea,” said Bill Wade, chair for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Loaded guns increases the likelihood of opportunistic shooting at wildlife, or pot shots at everything from park signs to historic landmarks. A camper startled by a bear might pull out their gun and fire indiscriminately, posing a risk to campers nearby.
“Visitors will not only be more at risk, but will now see national parks as places where they need to be more suspicious and wary of others carrying guns, rather than safe and at peace in the solitude and sanctuary that parks have always provided. It is a sad chapter in the history of America’s premier heritage area system,” Wade said.
Hunting is still illegal in national parks. Sometimes hunters on adjacent land have to cross into a national park to retrieve hunting dogs gone astray. They typically hide their guns in the leaves or under a bush or take them back to their vehicles first.
Despite the new law, that’s still the best course of action, said Bob Miller, spokesperson for the Smokies. Wandering about the park with a shotgun in hunting gear during hunting season looks a lot like illegally hunting in the park, and could result in a ticket, Miller said.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is cautioning visitors to make sure they can legally possess a firearm under local, state and federal laws, which is a criteria for carrying one in a national park.
“Our goal is to provide safe, enjoyable park visits for everyone, and to preserve this very special place for people today and future generations,” said Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis.