By Kurt Repanshek
April 7, 2010
A concerted effort in Maine to draw the line on national park visitors arming themselves has fallen short of the original goal. But the measure Governor John Baldacci signed this week will at least outlaw open carry in Acadia National Park.
Among the groups seeking a complete ban on visitors carrying weapons in all national park units in Maine was the Friends of Acadia, a non-profit park advocacy group that never saw the wisdom in the weapons legislation that U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, deftly wielded through Congress by attaching the rule change to a popular credit card bill.
While the initial intent behind the senator's amendment was to allow the carrying of concealed weapons in national parks -- if the surrounding state's laws provided for concealed carry by permitted gun owners -- the measure wound up allowing open carry as well. For years the Park Service had allowed legally licensed weapons owners to bring their firearms through parks, as long as they were broken down and out of reach. Many Second Amendment supporters railed against that provision, and the National Rifle Association helped Sen. Coburn rewrite the rules.
At Friends of Acadia, officials never saw a need for a rules change.
"The previous rules were working perfectly fine here in Acadia, and I think that for, especially for the rangers, the new firearms laws present a challenge," Stephanie Clement, conservation director for the friends group, told the Traveler back in February. The old rule, she went on, made it easier for rangers to spot possible poachers; anyone carrying a firearm could be stopped. Under the rule change, it would no longer be that simple, she said.
"Really, it was a very effective anti-poaching tool. It was an opportunity for a point of contact, so that point of contact will be gone," said Ms. Clement.
The effort to stop the rule change from impacting the units of the National Park System in Maine resulted in legislation that, as initially drafted, would have banned visitors from carrying firearms in Acadia, along the Appalachian Trail, and at St. Croix Island International Historic Site. However, by the time the measure reached Gov. Baldacci's desk, it had been rewritten to apply only to Acadia, and in that park concealed carry, but not open carry, would be allowed if a firearm owner was properly licensed.
Still, Ms. Clement said Wednesday that the final version was better than opening the park to open carry of firearms.
"While it's not ideal that concealed weapons will be allowed in the park under the new legislation, we're pleased with the outcome for several reasons: One, the bill maintains the park rangers' ability to deter opportunistic poaching because they can contact visitors who are openly carrying firearms. The bill also still allows hunters to travel through the park as long as their firearms are unloaded, broken down and stored or not easily accessible," said Ms. Clement.
"Two, The bill is intended to protect public safety by preventing people who have not had firearms safety training from legally carrying weapons in the park. Those with concealed weapons permits in Maine have to demonstrate that they have received firearms safety training within five years, but other gun owners have not been required to go through such training," she continued. "Three, for those visitors to Acadia who may be concerned about their safety in the proximity of loaded firearms in the park, this bill regulates the possession of firearms in a way that should help reassure them.
"Ultimately, passage of this legislation is important because Acadia National Park is a safe, family-oriented destination without need for loaded firearms. The Maine Legislature confirmed this, using the provisions of the federal legislation to specify what firearms regulations they believed should apply to Acadia National Park."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, officials saw the finalized legislation as a step in the right direction and better than no change to the federal rule change.
"We applaud Maine state Senators Dennis Damon and Stan Gerzovsky for seeking stronger legislation that would have prohibited firearms in Acadia National Park," said Alexander Brash, NPCA's Northeast regional director. "Though Maine's proposed legislation falls short of providing the same level of safeguards that were in effect for wildlife and visitors at all national parks before February of this year when Congress made effective a new law that NPCA adamantly opposed, Maine's legislation is an important step back in the right direction.
"NPCA hopes that regulations similar to those created in the Reagan era, which simply required gun owners to keep their firearms unloaded and stored, will be re-enacted by Congress once again for the entire National Park System in the near future."
The measure will take effect three months after the Maine Legislature adjourns it's current session, so it should be effect in mid-July.