Those hikers you pass on trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and bicyclists you see on the Towpath Trail might be packing more than you expect.
Starting Monday, visitors to the Cuyahoga Valley can carry loaded, concealed weapons in the park under a new federal law.
The only proviso: Those carrying concealed weapons in the 33,000-acre federal park between Akron and Cleveland must have an Ohio permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Under the old federal rules, firearms generally were prohibited on federal parkland. Weapons that were unloaded, dismantled and cased could be transported for hunting and other programs.
Officials in the Cuyahoga Valley park do not expect a major impact with the easing of firearm restrictions, but others are convinced the move will make federal parks more dangerous.
Critics are worried the change will result in more guns — and thus create more risk to visitors and staff — in parks the National Park Service manages and refuges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs.
Assault rifles at the Grand Canyon, shotguns in the Yellowstone backcountry and handguns at Wolf Trap concerts in Washington, D.C., are all possible scenarios permitted under what has been called ''a dangerous new gun law,'' the Arizona-based Coalition of National Park Service Retirees said.
The new rule is ''sad to me'' and greatly increases the risk to park visitors, said Toby Hoover of the Toledo-based Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.
''The big problem is that park visitors will now be forced to rely on the judgment of those carrying weapons in our parks for our safety . . . and that's not an ideal recipe,'' she said.
The new law is not needed because parks are generally safe, critics say. In 2006, there were 1.65 violent
crimes per 100,000 visitors to federal parks, according to FBI data. In the general public, there were 473.5 crimes per 100,000 people that year, the data shows.
Carrying a concealed weapon makes park visitors safer, said Dan White, executive director of the Cleveland-based grass-roots group Ohioans for Concealed Carry.
''Safety is the issue,'' he said. ''Carrying a concealed weapon won't be a problem. The problem has never been law-abiding citizens. . . . We're convinced there will be less risk. Muggers approaching a victim in the park will be forced to stop and ask: 'Is this person armed?' ''
About 2 percent of Ohioans have such permits, he said.
In 2009, Ohio issued 56,691 permits to carry concealed weapons and renewed an additional 16,443. That's up from 33,864 new permits in 2008.
Ohio's concealed-carry permits are valid in 18 other states: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
State laws vary
Under the new rule, permission to carry a firearm and the actual restrictions on such possession will vary state by state because the federal law is generally governed by each state's firearms laws.
The new federal rule allowing both open-carry and concealed-carry covers 392 national park units in 48 states (Illinois and Wisconsin do not permit concealed weapons) plus 551 national wildlife refuges.
Under the new rule, concealed and open-carry weapons also will be permitted at campgrounds and lodges in most Western parks.
The National Park Service has not taken a position on the new law but intends to comply fully, said spokesman David Barna in Washington, D.C. The agency does not expect to see big changes, he said.
The new rule means that in-state gun laws will remain in effect when one enters a national park or national wildlife refuge, he said.
There are still federal laws in place against discharging or brandishing firearms in the parks, he said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., pushed the rule as an amendment to a federal credit card bill. Some see the new rule, which the National Rifle Association supports, as a defeat for gun-control advocates and a win for personal safety and the Second Amendment.
Some in Congress had tried for years to get the measure approved. They argued that the differences in state and federal firearm restrictions made it difficult for gun owners to travel between state and federal lands. Other federal agencies had changed their laws to comply with state gun rules.
New regulations adopted in the waning days of the Bush administration were overturned by a federal judge. The Obama administration refused to appeal the decision and the new gun provision was passed by Congress and signed without comment by Obama.
Signs to be posted
The Cuyahoga Valley park on Monday will post signs saying that weapons are prohibited in park headquarters, the Happy Days Lodge, four park visitor centers and the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center in Boston Township, said Paul Stoehr, acting park superintendent.
Other federal laws permit the park service to ban firearms in places where federal employees work. That means the Cuyahoga Valley park cannot block concealed weapons on trails or other park lands in Summit and Cuyahoga counties, he said.
Visitors to the Cuyahoga Valley could be carrying concealed weapons in the federal park now, and officials really have no way of knowing, Stoehr said.
Additionally, it is legal in Ohio to have weapons publicly visible in the park, Chief Ranger Christopher Ryan said.
It is illegal for park visitors to hunt or discharge the weapons within the park boundaries, but it has been legal under Ohio law to carry a weapon that is not concealed, he said.
Park rangers will always check when the park gets calls about people with rifles or shotguns in the park, something that most often happens during hunting seasons, he said.
Ryan said that in the past three years there have been 12 incidents involving firearms in the park: four suicides, three poachings with handguns, two concealed-carry violations, and one each for an open-carry violation, illegal possession and a report of a man carrying a firearm.
Unhappy with change
Bill Wade, chair of the retirees' executive council and a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, called the new rules ''a sad chapter'' in the history of America's national parks.
His group said it fears more guns in parks will increase the likelihood of wildlife and historic park resources being shot, the risk to park rangers and the potential risk of alcohol-fueled disagreements among campers.
The new law will likely have ''a chilling effect on how visitors behave in national parks,'' he said in a statement. ''A feeling of safety and security will be replaced by wariness and suspicion. This diminishes some of the 'specialness and reverence' our citizens have long accorded their national parks.''
The public should be aware of the consequences of Coburn's amendment, said coalition spokesman Doug Morris, a former law-enforcement ranger and a retired Shenandoah superintendent.
''While federal law prohibits the carrying of guns in any federal building where federal employees work on a regular basis, in many states there are few, if any, other prohibitions,'' Morris said.
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park Association, a friends-of-the-park group, did not take a stand on the new federal law, President and Chief Executive Officer Deb Yandala said.
She said, however, that she sees no reason for the law and no need for the public to be armed in national parks.
Rangers in the national park system are worried that the new law will result in more park visitors being armed and creating a greater risk for themselves and others, she said.
''The Cuyahoga Valley is and has been a safe place, and I would hope that the public would abide with keeping weapons out of the park,'' Yandala said. ''We have to trust the public to handle this in an appropriate way.''