Do we need guns at Paradise?

Some Northwest lawmakers have pushed the Bush administration to allow visitors to carry loaded guns in our national parks. It gives backpacking a whole new meaning.
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Some Northwest lawmakers have pushed the Bush administration to allow visitors to carry loaded guns in our national parks. It gives backpacking a whole new meaning.

How do you feel about allowing loaded guns in our national parks? Do you feel the need to pack heat while wandering the wildflower meadows of Paradise on Mount Rainier? Are you determined to protect yourself against overly aggressive squirrels at Hurricane Ridge? As you may have heard, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne has agreed to modify existing rules that prohibit people from carrying loaded weapons in the national parks. The new rules will be ready for public comment by the end of April [289K PDF].

The push comes from the U.S. Senate. Fifty senators added their signatures to a letter by Sen. Michael Crapo of Idaho to Kempthorne (the former governor of Idaho), pressing him to address the issue. Basically, the proposal seeks to ensure that national park rules match the gun laws of the state in which the park is located. So if Montana allows you to carry a loaded weapon, so should the rangers at Glacier National Park. Currently, you can bring guns into parks, but they have to be unloaded and stowed away. You can't hike the trails or gaze into the Grand Canyon with a firearm on your hip. No using Mount Rushmore for target practice.

A similar proposal in the Senate has stalled a bill that contains, among other things, designation of the Wild Sky Wilderness Area in Washington. Democrats have claimed it is a political ploy, backed by the National Rifle Association, to force Democrats to take a tough gun vote during an election year.

The NRA is happy about Kempthorne's decision to make the rules change. Proponents argue that it is an issue of basic rights and liberties: You have the right to protect yourself wherever you are, consistent with state law. That's what the editorial board of the Idaho Statesman says.

But not all westerners from gun-friendly states draw the same conclusion. Both of Montana's senators back Kempthorne's move, but two anti-guns-in-parks editorials worth reading appeared in Montana papers. One, from the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake, argues that in nearby Glacier National Park there is no crime problem and that guns are a poor defense against the main predator, grizzly bears. Pepper spray is both non-lethal and more effective, since you don't have to hit a bulls-eye to deter a charging griz.

I'm reminded of what a friend in Alaska once told me about guns and grizzlies. I asked him if he carried a .357 magnum with him in the back country, and he said well, if you take one of those as grizzly protection, you better be sure and file off the gunsight. Why? Because that way, he said, it won't hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass.

The government has worked for many years to both bring back Glacier's threatened grizzly population but also to establish peaceful co-existence between the park's bears and people by keeping them wary of – and away from – each other. That seems to have worked pretty well. For those who don't want peace with bears, there's always hunting season.

Another op-ed, in the Billings Gazette, by veteran chief park ranger and superintendent Pete Hart, emphasized that the national parks are unique. "They are special places of inspiration and education with a sense of tranquility, history, and beauty," he writes. Current rules, Hart says, don't infringe on gun ownership and allow the parks to be managed as special, protected places with rules that apply to all of them, from urban parks like Independence Hall to Yellowstone. He quotes a longtime National Park Service employee named Bill Brown, who wrote in a 1971 book called Islands of Hope that he sees the national parks "as sanctuaries of nature, as landmarks of history and culture, and as places of contemplation, discovery and adventure."

There seems to be a division between those who see our national parks as special places outside the norm and those who think you should be able to do in a park whatever you do at home. But the parks, by definition, are special and require care and stewardship. They cannot survive without protection, regulation, and sensitive regard. Much of this is already eroding as groups lobby for greater commercialization of the parks and as funds for care and upkeep fail to keep pace with need.

There are a number of areas where I stray from liberal orthodoxy, and one of them is on guns. I am a strong supporter of our constitutional right to keep and bear arms for protection, sport, or any other legal purpose. That said, I think guns can be regulated to a degree. It seems to me that allowing people to carry around loaded guns in our national parks creates more problems than it solves. There is no major crime or outlaw problem, and to the extent that wildlife pose a risk to visitors, well, no wilderness park should promise a risk-free visit.

I think the key word is the one Brown used: sanctuary. Our national parks should be sanctuaries from life as usual. If you can take your hat off in church, you ought to be able to keep your gun in the car when visiting such a place. If that's going to spoil your vacation, go someplace else.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.