Packing Heat in Our National Parks: How Did We Let the Gun Fanatics Get Their Way?

Human Rights

WASHINGTON -- Hiking boots, check. Sunscreen, check. Water bottles, check.Guns, clips, ammo. Check, check, check.It's enough to make you sick before you've grilled a single hot dog. Just as the National Park Service was kicking off the summer season by reminding us that these public jewels "offer tradition, heritage, recreation and fun for all members of the family," the National Rifle Association was having one heck of a good time. The gun lobby had much to celebrate this Memorial Day weekend.With their usual steely conviction, contempt for the rights and safety of others, and string of nonsensical arguments, gun supporters in Congress managed to accomplish what even President George W. Bush failed to do with a last-minute rule that was blocked in court: They pushed through a law to allow national park visitors to carry loaded weapons -- openly or concealed -- in the millions of acres of wilderness, scenic byways and historic sites that generations of Americans have come to treasure.It is difficult to calculate which is the more dangerous menace: the disdain the gun lobby shows for the nation's most beloved public spaces, or the gutless Democrats, especially in the Senate, who went along with this abomination. Then there is President Obama, who as a candidate said he supported gun control but who as president has complied with the gun lobby's dictates, and without much protest.In April, Obama reversed a campaign pledge to try to reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, turning aside a plea from Mexican President Felipe Calderon to re-enact the ban as part of an effort to quell drug-related violence along the border. Now Obama has signed legislation -- a credit card reform bill he eagerly promotes as part of his economic reforms -- without making a strenuous effort to keep the guns-in-the-parks rule from being brazenly attached to the unrelated consumer measure.Candidate Obama used to say this sort of legislative trick was symptomatic of Washington's old ways -- the unsavory logrolling that results in bad laws. Now he just rolls right along with it.As with most arguments the gun lobby and its supporters make, the case for toting loaded weapons in parks and historical grounds is phony. It starts with the premise that the Second Amendment right to bear arms always trumps regulatory common sense, when nothing is further from the truth. Legal gun owners are not allowed to carry loaded weapons aboard commercial aircraft, for example, nor into federal courthouses or other federal buildings.Though supporters, notably Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, claim that gun owners who hold state permits need to have "the right to defend themselves" in national parks, the question must be asked: What, exactly, are they defending against?The parks are reliably -- in fact, almost unbelievably -- safe. In 2007, according to the park service, there were 382 incidents that fit the FBI's categories of violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault). They were spread across 34 million acres of parkland that were visited by 275 million travelers.Coburn and pretty much every other American would be much safer in a park than at home. Oklahoma, with 3.6 million residents, recorded 18,072 violent crimes in 2007, FBI data show.Before this legislative coup, gun owners were not banned from transporting their weapons into or through the parks. They merely had to keep them put away and unloaded, under rules established during the Reagan administration. Last year, when it became known that the Bush administration wanted to change the regulation, seven former directors of the park service -- dating back to the Johnson administration and including Republicans and Democrats -- opposed it. The former directors said in a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that the regulation was meant to put gun-owning visitors on notice that "they are entering a special place where wildlife are protected and the environment is respected both for the visitor's enjoyment and the enjoyment of others."In the gun lobby's crabbed worldview, the enjoyment of others -- let alone the safety of others -- is of little concern. The right to carry a loaded weapon, concealed or openly, even where families gather to celebrate nature and history is paramount.The parks and various charitable organizations that support them are celebrating their heritage this year in part with the release of a Ken Burns documentary titled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." It is a tragedy that our political leadership decided to mark the occasion with one of America's worst ideas.

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