Group sues to halt new gun rule in parks
By MICHAEL JAMISON of the Missoulian
KALISPELL - A new and controversial rule allowing loaded guns in national parks has come under increasing fire, with critics filing suit on Tuesday to stop the measure.
Currently, guns are allowed in parks only if unloaded and properly stowed. In early December, however, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it would allow loaded, concealed weapons in parks, so long as the carrier was permitted to do so in that state.
The change was to take effect Jan. 9, 2009, but on Tuesday the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence sued Interior, saying the measure violates several federal rules.
“It's clear that the Bush administration rushed this through as a last-minute gift to the gun lobby,” said Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Campaign.
Current park gun rules date back to 1960, and were most recently updated in the early 1980s by the Reagan administration. At that time, Interior conducted an analysis of the rules, concluding that prohibiting loaded weapons was necessary “to ensure public safety and provide maximum protection of natural resources.”
The Reagan analysis determined that excluding loaded guns “will help the National Park Service provide improved visitor safety and resource protection,” and that such rules were a “basic mechanism” for park protection.
Gun rights groups, however, have long chafed under the traditional rules, which they see as an assault on their Second Amendment rights. In 2007, they pushed Congress for action, resulting in a letter from 47 senators - including Montana's delegation - asking Interior to review the old rules.
“The NRA initiated this letter,” the group told its members, “and worked closely with (Idaho) Sen. (Mike) Crapo to gather signatures from his colleagues. ... We have been working on your behalf for nearly five years to facilitate this policy change, and are committed to ensuring that it finally happens this year.”
But in the suit filed Tuesday, Vice wonders what has changed since the environmental assessment conducted in 1983. That analysis found the loaded gun restrictions “necessary,” and no subsequent analysis has been conducted to show that conditions have changed.
In fact, Interior authorized the rule change without conducting any formal environmental analysis - a central complaint in the Brady Campaign suit.
The complaint alleges Interior violated the establishing acts of both the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Refuge system, by authorizing a rule change that is inconsistent with the purposes of parks and refuges. It also charges Interior erred in not conducting an environmental analysis, which plaintiffs say was required by federal law.
The rule change, plaintiffs said, came “in response to considerable political pressure and in the absence of any substantive findings whatsoever that the (existing) regulations are no longer necessary.”
The fact that no formal analysis was conducted points to a “haste to finalize these regulations in the waning days of President George W. Bush's administration,” the suit contends.
In addition, the suit claims the new gun rule will diminish visitor enjoyment of parks, and points to school excursions to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., that have been canceled or curtailed in the wake of the rule change.
Tina Kreisher, spokeswoman at Interior, declined to address the lawsuit's particulars, saying “we cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association said his group would be keeping an eye on the court battle, adding that “I think the change made by the Department of Interior is a very good fit for Montana. We certainly oppose what the gun-control crowd is trying to accomplish.”
Marbut said he'll write to the state Attorney General's Office, asking it to intervene in the suit to protect Montana gun owners' interests.
Andrew Arulanandam, at NRA, said he had not yet reviewed the specifics of the complaint, but stressed that “we believe that the actions by the Department of Interior are sound, and we believe that we will prevail, or should I say, the Department of Interior will prevail.”
Proponents of the change have argued loaded guns should be allowed in parks in order that visitors might protect themselves. Critics have said the change is unnecessary, pointing to the relatively low crime rates in national parks.
Opponents also worry loaded guns will result in more violence between visitors, and increased threats to park wildlife and resources.
Among those speaking against the rule change were all living former Park Service directors, an association of retired NPS employees, park ranger groups and park law enforcement groups.
Vice said those critics had not yet signed on to Tuesday's lawsuit, but that many had been discussing litigation of their own to challenge the gun rule change.