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Friday, June 06, 2008

Shoot Down the NRA's Latest Loaded Proposal

The radical leaders of the National Rifle Association are at it again. This time they’ve set their sights on the National Park Service and have triggered a reckless about-face on the agency’s policy, seeking to allow park visitors to carry loaded weapons in national parks for the first time in a quarter-century.

Shenandoah Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed the rule change in response to the NRA and a letter from 51 U.S. senators—42 Republicans and 9 Democrats—who want a repeal of the current prohibition on loaded weapons in parks.

But supporters of maintaining the current policy, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, say the change would threaten public safety and would ruin the family-friendly atmosphere of our most pristine national treasures. There is very little crime in national parks. And carrying a gun could give people a false sense of security that they can approach a bear or a bison.

In fact, there is no compelling reason to change the current policy. As Roger Kennedy—one of the seven surviving former directors of the National Park Service who oppose the rule change—wrote in a letter in today’s New York Times, “The current regulations, which were written under the Reagan administration, allow people to possess firearms in national parks, as long as they are unloaded and are stored out of easy reach. The regulation is limited and reasonable and does not apply during hunting seasons in those parks that authorize hunting.”

Fortunately, members of Congress are speaking out as well. U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and twelve of her House colleagues sent a letter to Secretary Kempthorne urging the Administration to reject the rule change. “There is no good reason to overturn a regulation that has served the American people and our valued natural resources so well,” said Sutton. “Retaining the current regulation will ensure the safety of the public.”

There’s no good reason to change the current policy, but there’s one more good reason to maintain it: It was enacted in 1983 as a way to combat poaching, and it still has a relevant and timely rationale. Our national parks are among the few remaining safe havens for wildlife. However, park rangers are struggling to stay one step ahead of the poachers.

In Shenandoah National Park, for example, black bears are illegally hunted for their gallbladders for sale in illegal markets. Allowing loaded guns in parks could make the problem much worse.

Grizzlies The illegal killing of wildlife in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. Wildlife officials estimate that for every wild animal hunted legally—tens of millions of animals per year—another is killed illegally. And with scarce wildlife enforcement resources and countless acres of open land, only a handful of poachers are caught and punished for their crimes.

Allowing loaded weapons will give cover to poachers who would take aim at park wildlife. Currently, the presence of a loaded weapon is the main clue available for rangers in discovering and identifying poachers. Let’s not take away this critical management tool in an already difficult battle against poaching.

The Interior Department is accepting public comments on the proposed rule change until June 30. Let’s stop the NRA’s latest assault on America’s wildlife, and its latest attempt to help poachers. You can help park rangers protect wildlife by submitting a comment here and asking that the federal government keep loaded weapons out of national parks.

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