U.S. parks at center of gun debate

Star-Telegram staff writer

D.W. Mays wants to be able to legally carry a gun with him wherever he
goes -- even into a national park.
"Protection is one of the main things that should be allowed," said
Mays, 90, of Kent County. "If you are going to travel around, you
don't know if punks are there. Punks are everywhere."

He and other gun rights enthusiasts say they are glad federal
officials are reviewing gun laws in national parks and planning to
announce new rules allowing visitors to carry loaded guns -- if
allowed by state law -- by the end of the month.

It's a controversial proposal that has pitted park rangers against
lawmakers. Supporters say carrying guns is a constitutionally
protected right; opponents say loaded guns will endanger both visitors
and animals at national parks.

The proposal would overturn a law restricting loaded guns in national
parks -- including Texas' Big Bend -- put in place in the 1930s, and
renewed in the Reagan era, to address the growing issue of poaching.
Current rules allow guns in national parks, but only if they are
unloaded and stowed away.

"I don't know why anybody needs a loaded gun in a national park," said
Ed Hueske of Denton. "Despite the fact that I'm a hunter, I still
don't know why you need one."

More than 270 million people visited the 291 national parks,
recreation sites and monuments in 2006. That year, there were 4,485
crimes at those parks, down from 6,009 in 1995, National Park Service
records show. Opponents of the upcoming rules say Americans are more
likely to get hit by lightning than they are to be victimized by a gun
crime on federal lands.

Texas concerns

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has been getting heat since
announcing the department would review the policy and issue new rules
for public comment by April 30.

In Texas, the issue of guns in parks has been a growing controversy
over the Christmas Mountains, a desert range next to the Big Bend
National Park.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Second Amendment advocate who has
pushed to sell the property, didn't want to transfer the property to
the national park system because of the gun restrictions.

"That you have to have a gun disassembled, unloaded and locked away is
the same thing as not having a gun," Patterson said. "It's absurd to
think you can ask a perpetrator to stand there and wait while you get
your gun and put it together. ... It's patently unconstitutional.

"There have been murders in national parks. But they say they don't
want guns there."

Just recently, Patterson asked that the land be designated a national
preserve to allow the public to carry firearms and hunt there.

He said the possible new Interior Department rules would be a "great,
great result."

"There is a movement to do this," Patterson said. "The friends of the
parks think we are all going to die. ... But it's a good thing and it
would let national parks be like state parks."

In Texas, visitors to state parks are allowed to have loaded handguns,
Patterson said.


Some gun opponents say changing the rules would encourage poaching,
boost violence and rid parks of their family-friendly reputation.

"The current laws which require that guns be in an inaccessible place
such as the trunk of a car are laws that support safe gun handling,"
said Lisa Siemers, president of Texans for Gun Safety. "Easily
accessible guns mean that animals and people get shot through
accidents or impulse.

"Anyone traveling in areas where there are predators should follow the
park's suggestions for safety, such as carrying an air horn to scare
off predators. This is a safer practice than carrying a loaded gun in
a backpack or belt or front seat of the vehicle."

Seven former directors of the National Park Service also oppose a
change, saying current rules help make national parks safe.

These rules "are essential to park rangers in carrying out their
duties of protecting park resources and wildlife, and in assuring the
safety of visitors to the parks," according to a letter they sent to
the Interior Department.

Other letters opposing the change were also sent, including one by the
Association of National Park Rangers, Coalition of National Park
Service Retirees and U.S. Park Rangers Lodge and Fraternal Order of

They said a change could lead to death or injury of wildlife and
accidental shootings of people, and hurt efforts to stop poaching.

"There is simply no legitimate or substantive reason for a thoughtful
sportsman or gun owner to carry a loaded gun in a national park unless
that park permits hunting," their letter states. "The requirement that
guns in parks are unloaded and put away is a reasonable and limited
restriction to facilitate legitimate purposes -- the protection of
precious park resources and safety of visitors."


The National Rifle Association has long argued for a change in the law.

Late last year, a group of 50 senators -- nine Democrats and 41
Republicans, including Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn --
joined the debate, sending a letter to the Interior Department
supporting a change, saying the rules are confusing and unneeded.
Hutchison said gun rights should not end at property lines; Cornyn is
opposed to a "blanket ban on firearms."

Proposals to change the rules through bills in Congress have stalled,
leading the senators to can on the Interior Department for change.

"Self-defense is a basic human right -- no reason to void it in
national parks," said Mike Stollenwerk, co-founder of, a
pro-gun Internet community.
"All we are asking is for the federal
government to join the rest of the nation and decriminalize normal
everyday citizen gun carry."

Stollenwerk, who lives in Virginia but owns a home in Killeen, drives
on roads that cross through national parks and visits the Great Falls
National Park each year.

He said he would carry a loaded gun onto park land during those drives
or visits if he could.

"Just like I carry often in daily life, and more so when in parks on
journeys," he said.