It was just about a year ago when the Bush administration, in a move some viewed as catering to the National Rifle Association (www.nra.org), started the process to rewrite regulations so visitors to national parks and national wildlife refuges could carry concealed weapons if they had valid permits.
Well, to say that decision was controversial is quite an understatement. There was outrage from many camps, from the National Parks Conservation Association (www.npca.org) to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (www.bradycampaign.org), and applause from those who believe strongly that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows them to carry weapons wherever they go.
Should visitors to the National Park System be allowed to carry weapons? It's a delicate question that quickly draws opinions, a question perhaps best left out of social gatherings. In questioning the safety of national parks the NRA and its supporters point to crime statistics from throughout the National Park System, which, while being far below crime rates from other parts of the United States, show that there is some crime occurring in some parts of the system.
Other groups, such as the Association of National Park Rangers (www.anpr.org) and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (www.npsretirees.org) worry that increased presence of weapons in national parks not only will raise safety concerns but could also lead to poaching and, in general, will make a park ranger's job more dangerous.
The matter was tabled, perhaps only briefly, in late March when a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., granted a preliminary junction that at least temporarily blocks the new gun rule from moving forward.
The concern Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly had with the government's plan was not tied to gun control but rather to whether the Bush administration's Interior Department had failed to perform "their congressionally-mandated obligation to evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts..."
Specifically, the judge pointed to the department's failure to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct studies to determine whether the rule change could have any environmental impacts. That might sound silly to those who believe the only impacts will be their increased safety. But others raise questions of poaching and campground safety, and the judge obviously felt that without looking into those issues there was no way the federal government could say there would be no environmental impact associated with the rule change.
Indeed, in her 44-page ruling, Judge Kollar-Kotelly said the Bush administration's approach was "astoundingly flawed" because it decided no environmental review was necessary.
"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," wrote the judge. "In other words, the Final Rule has no environmental impacts according to Defendants because the Final Rule does not authorize any environmental impacts."
Stayed tuned, as this is not the end of the matter. The NRA quickly appealed the judge's ruling, while the Obama administration has said only that it wants to review the rule change before deciding whether it intends to support it.
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com. This site tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Along with offering travel tidbits for those visiting the national parks, the Traveler offers anecdotes, insights, and a place for park junkies to speak their minds and stay atop park-related issues.
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