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Gun advocates pushing for review of ban in national parks

A 25-year-old ban on loaded firearms in national parks, including Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, is in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior and 51 senators, including Minnesota’s Norm Coleman.

Senators have written two letters to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne asking for the ban to be shot down “in the interest of Second Amendment rights and consistency in firearms policy across federal public land management agencies.” Kempthorne has instructed his staff to develop new rules and propose them for public comment by April 30.

Rushing into the breach is the National Rifle Association, whose chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, said in a release: “Law-abiding citizens should not be prohibited from protecting themselves and their families while enjoying America’s national parks and wildlife refuges. Under this proposal, federal parks and wildlife refuges will mirror the state firearm laws for state parks. This is an important step in the right direction.”

Not everyone thinks this change is on target, including the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “Terrible idea,” retired park superintendent Doug Morris said in a conference call. The no-loaded-guns rule, which dates to 1982, protects wildlife, he said, adding that relaxing the restriction would jeopardize the safety of park employees and visitors.

A national park gun ban was originally established during the Great Depression to limit poaching, but the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service follow state laws on firearms on lands that they manage. Minnesotans with a permit to carry a handgun can do so on state park land; some state parks are also open to hunting with special permits.

Hunting is currently allowed on more than 60 national park properties, but not in Voyageurs National Park; in fact, all firearms are prohibited there. Voyageurs officials kicked my request for comment upstairs to Washington, where David Barna, chief of public affairs for the park service, was non-committal on the issue.

Although the sympathies of the Senate seem to favor lifting the firearms ban, key members of the House of Representatives are not as interested. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chair of the subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, does not favor changing the rule.

The NRA’s Cox said the prohibition was outdated. He pointed out that in 1982, only six states routinely allowed citizens to carry a handgun for self-defense; currently 48 states, including Minnesota, have such rules.

Coleman, through a spokesman, said the present rule needs updating. “Sen. Coleman believes the current system governing firearms in national parks is confusing and outdated because it does not reflect the vast changes in state gun laws enacted over the past 25 years,” said Luke Friedrich, the Republican’s Minnesota press secretary. “The federal government should be consistent with the laws of the states in which these parks reside and it should also respect 2nd Amendment rights.”

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., did not sign the letters to the Interior Department. 

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