The Bush administration said Friday it is overturning a 25-year-old federal rule that severely restricts loaded guns in national parks.
Under a rule to take effect in January, visitors will be able to carry a loaded gun into a park or wildlife refuge — but only if the person has a permit for a concealed weapon and if the state where the park or refuge is located also allows concealed firearms.
The new rule goes further than a draft proposal issued last spring and would allow concealed weapons even in parks located in states that explicitly ban the carrying of guns in state parks. Some states allow concealed weapons but also ban guns from parks.
"If you can carry (a gun) on Main Street, you are allowed to carry in a national park," said Chris Paolino. a spokesman for the Interior Department.
The Interior Department rule overturns a Reagan-era regulation that has restricted loaded guns in parks and wildlife refuges. The previous regulation required that firearms be unloaded and placed somewhere that is not easily accessible, such as in a car trunk.
NRA likes the change
Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty said the new rule respects a long tradition of states and the federal government working together on natural resource issues.
The regulation allows individuals to carry concealed firearms in federal parks and wildlife refuges to the same extent they can lawfully do so under state law, Laverty said, adding that the approach is in line with rules adopted by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Those agencies let visitors carry weapons consistent with applicable federal and state laws.
The National Rifle Association hailed the rule change, which will take effect next month before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
"We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.
The rule will restore the rights of law-abiding gun owners on federal lands and make federal law consistent with the state where the lands are located, Cox said. The NRA led efforts to change gun regulations they called inconsistent and unclear.
Opponents say change will bring confusion
A group representing park rangers, retirees and conservation organizations said the rule change will lead to confusion for visitors, rangers and other law enforcement agencies.
"Once again, political leaders in the Bush administration have ignored the preferences of the American public by succumbing to political pressure, in this case generated by the National Rifle Association," said Bill Wade, president of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
"This regulation will put visitors, employees and precious resources of the National Park System at risk. We will do everything possible to overturn it and return to a commonsense approach to guns in national parks that has been working for decades," Wade said.
The park rule will be published in the Federal Register early next week and take effect 30 days later, well before Obama takes office Jan. 20. Overturning the rule could take months or even years, since it would require the new administration to restart the lengthy rule-making process.
Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, said no decision had been made on the gun rule.
"President-elect Obama will review all eleventh-hour regulations and will address them once he is president," he said.
Bipartisan push in Senate
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, hailed the new rule. Crapo and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., had organized letters to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne complaining about the gun restrictions. The letters were signed by half the Senate — 41 Republicans and nine Democrats.
"I congratulate Secretary Kempthorne for taking this stand. The rule as it has come out is what we asked for with regard to handguns," Crapo said. "It's a very, very significant improvement."
Crapo called the current rule confusing and complex and said it "literally resulted in different standards as you traveled through the same state."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the new rule was a mistake.
"The Reagan-era rules have stood the test of time and make our national parks safe for all who visit them," Feinstein said. "The Bush administration changes will make our national parks more dangerous and will upset the delicate balance that exists between park visitors and wildlife."
Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino said the rule would not affect a ban on guns in federal buildings. Guns will still be prohibited in national icons such as Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, he said. Guns also will be banned in visitor centers and other buildings at national parks.