National park safety needs growing issue

By Freedom Newspapers

We only wish he’d done this two years ago. Virginia Sen. George Allen, a Republican who narrowly lost to Democrat James Webb on Nov. 7, in one of the races that overturned control of Congress, seems intent on going out with a bang rather than a whimper. Allen recently unveiled S. 4057, a bill that would overturn the almost-total ban on personal firearms in national parks. That’s an idea we strongly support because our constitutional rights don’t end at national park boundaries and there are sound reasons why Americans might want to be armed in these places.

Allen says the bill will “protect the Second Amendment rights of individuals to carry firearms” in all national park units, where and when this doesn’t clash with state law. Conceding that such a bill may have a hard time passing in the lame-duck session, Allen said he hopes to attach it as an amendment to some other must-pass legislation. While we don’t approve of such legislative end-arounds, we do support the intent of this bill.

This would be a controversial change, no doubt, but it shouldn’t be. It’s completely arbitrary to argue that Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms, but that the Second Amendment doesn’t apply inside park boundaries, where wild animal encounters are possible and crime rates are on the rise.

There’s no reason to believe this would lead to a flurry of Wild West shootouts, since we see no similar outbreaks of violence or lawlessness in national forests, where firearms are permitted. This argument gets trotted out by the firearm-phobes whenever strengthening gun rights is debated, despite the fact the sensationalist scenarios never come to pass. An argument might be made that lifting the ban would make it harder to police poaching in national parks, though we doubt this is a serious enough problem to justify continuing a blanket gun ban.

“Serious crimes against persons in national parks are extremely low under existing federal law,” the associate director of visitor and resource protection for the NPS wrote in one memo. “There are no discernible facts or statistics that demonstrate the need for visitors to carry concealed firearms.”

But crime is a growing problem in national parks — that is a discernible fact — and we have seen numerous reports of their increasing use by meth-makers, pot growers and smugglers. Perhaps it’s the unlikelihood of running into an armed civilian, in addition to their physical remoteness, that makes parks seem like safe venues to the criminal element.

Help can be a long way off if one runs into a dangerous person or animal in some remote area of a national park — all the more reason why Americans should have the option a going armed, if they so choose.

Each of the arguments for maintaining the ban is easily knocked down, with reference to fact or logic. Yet emotion will probably carry the day in this dispute, as it does with so many involving public lands issues. Park officials have consistently resisted lifting the ban, as have other groups. “From our standpoint it’s a non-starter,” Blake Selzer of the National Parks Conservation Association said in one news story. “The parks have much more urgent needs that need to be addressed by Congress.”

But this isn’t about the needs of the parks; it’s about the rights of American citizens, which don’t get thrown out the car window when they drive through a national park entrance. If these were private natural preserves, the owners could ban whatever they wanted. But these are public places, where our constitutional rights should be fully respected. After all, it can’t be really called a right if the government can waive it on a whim, as they have in this case.

It’s unlikely Allen’s bill will pass. It’s also unfortunate that he waited until so late in his Senate tenure to bring it forward. Had he done so several years ago, S. 4057 might have had a chance of passage. But this is a debate worth having nonetheless, if you believe, as we do, that the crown jewels of the Constitution are as worthy of protection as the crown jewels of the national park system.