Firearms in Voyageurs: Gun rights debate moves to parks

Firearms in Voyageurs: Gun rights debate moves to parks
MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nestled deep in the North Woods, just south of the Canadian border, sits Voyageurs National Park. It’s an oasis of islands and streams, of lakes and land touched by time but barely by man. One could say it’s smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, if only calling a place that beautiful “nowhere” wasn’t so cruel.

Isolated, maybe, but that won’t stop Voyageurs from becoming part of the latest front in the debate over gun rights Monday, when the federal ban on firearms in the national parks is officially lifted.

Instead of a blanket ban on firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges, state regulations will reign. For Minnesotans, that means if you have a permit to carry a handgun, you can now head north and do exactly that.

Rifles and shotguns still won’t be able to be legally carried at parks in Minnesota because of existing state law, but those guns may be transported throughout the parks if the firearms are unloaded and locked away in a case or car trunk. Guns will remain forbidden in the park’s tour boats, or in facilities like the visitor centers, and hunting will still be banned.

“[Visitors] should approach it no differently than a state park where hunting is not allowed,” said Jim Hummel, chief park ranger at Voyageurs National Park.

Yeas and nays
The rule change came about when an amendment to allow guns in the parks was successfully inserted into a bill on credit card reform that, not so incidentally, was one of the Democrat-led Congress’ top legislative priorities.

The amendment didn’t pass by a little bit; it sailed through on a wide, bipartisan margin. The vote was 67 to 29 in the Senate, where Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s only senator at the time, voted in favor.

The vote in the House was 279 to 147, where only the state’s Twin Cities representatives, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, voted no.

The vote was hailed by the National Rifle Association, whose chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, called the new rule a “common-sense measure” to “amend out-of-date regulations and restore the Second Amendment rights of American gun owners.”

In an NRA statement at the time, the association called the new regulations as a victory for self defense.

“The National Park Service’s recent report revealed that 11 murders, 35 rapes, 61 robberies and 261 aggravated assaults occurred on parklands in 2006. Our parks also contain hidden methamphetamine labs, marijuana fields and illegal drug and illegal alien smuggling routes,” the release read. “In addition to these dangers and potential attacks from human predators, park visitors have to consider attacks from animal predators. Between April and December 2007 there were at least a dozen grizzly bear attacks reported by park visitors. Today, 31 states allow the carrying of firearms in state parks — all with safe and satisfactory results.”

The NRA is quite correct that crime exists in national parks, but it’s worth pointing out that crime rates in parks are significantly lower than in the rest of the country as a whole.

Parks are considered sanctuaries — places to just get away from it all escape the problems of everyday life, said Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park and executive council chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which opposed the new rules.

“People are going to be more suspicious, more wary, more concerned about whether people in a campground — or in a canoe at Voyageur’s — are carrying a firearm,” Wade said.

Poaching remains a problem in the national parks, and park officials in Western states have reported incidents were people used ancient petroglyphs and other landmarks for target practice — problems, Wade said, will likely increase with more guns in the parks.

Concerns over confusion
Hummel said he doesn’t know if the law will lead to an increase in poaching or gun crimes. Instead, he’s worried about visitors being confused about what firearms they’re allowed to bring and what they can do with them once they’re there.

Voyageur’s should have some time to gradually adapt to the new rules once they take effect. About 80 percent of the park’s 230-250,000 visitors each year come during the summer months, and the park is busiest in July. Hummel said park rangers have been trained by Minnesota State Patrol officers on state laws “so that we know what they are and can apply them fairly.” A notice of the new regulations has been posted on Voyageur’s website, along with links to state gun laws and Hummel’s work phone number, just in case anyone still has questions.

The new regulations get a bit trickier for parks that cross state lines.

Firearms still can’t be carried on board the two ferries that run from Grand Portage to Isle Royale National Park, an island park located in the middle of Lake Superior, though one could conceivably transport one’s unloaded guns in a locked case, then take them out once on dry land. However, Isle Royale is technically part of Michigan (despite being closer to mainland Minnesota), so that state’s rules would apply. Similarly, the St. Croix National Scenic River touches both Wisconsin and Minnesota, so campers would need to adhere to the gun laws on whichever side of the border they happened to find themselves.

“The onus is on the people to know what state they’re in and what the laws are.” said Hummel. “Our concern is that we’ll see an increased number of people who are confused about their state laws and what they’re allowed to do.”

Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 02/19/2010 - 12:01 pm.

    I have spent a great deal of time in the Boundary Waters and other wilderness areas and the thought of people toting guns in these parks is horrible. These are beautiful, lonely (maybe not as much anymore), peaceful places where people can spend time and get their breath and minds and emotions back. I am sure some people will take guns, and some of those who are afraid of, say, bears, will use them. We had bears in our camp more than once, but they can be frightened easily.
    I would not want to go into a wilderness if I thought somebody was carrying a gun. Remember the case a couple of years ago when two guys from Ely went into the Boundary Waters and did a little shooting.
    KEEP IT PEACEFUL AND QUIET. It’s about the only place that is.
    Oh, and Klobuchar has been such a disappointment. She pushes legislation that is “safe” such as lead in children’s toys, but refuses to support legislation to control other predators.

  2. Submitted by Mark Nyffeler on 02/20/2010 - 01:54 am.

    I understand your fear of people with firearms. However, I think it’s important to understand that only those who are legally allowed to carry firearms in the state in which the park is located are allowed to do so by this legislation. In almost all states, this means, at the very least, a background check and may also involve the submission of fingerprints. So, a person legally carrying a firearm under the new law has been checked out by law enforcement and numerous studies have shown that these people are much safer and much less likely than the average person to be involved in crime, especially violent crime. Not only that, gun free zones, such as these parks were, have been much more frequently the scene of mass murders than areas where there is a higher probability that one or more people will be armed for self defense. And, finally, I’ll see your story about the guys, or perhaps, idiot, would be a better term, who used a park for shooting practice and raise you my story about a friend and his wife who were abducted and assaulted for days by a group of meth heads while camping in a national park.

  3. Submitted by PHILLIP HANKLAND on 02/22/2010 - 09:07 am.

    When will people in this country realize we are not in the Wild West…
    This is not allowed in Europe, could we maybe learn from them?

  4. Submitted by Mark Nyffeler on 02/27/2010 - 10:26 pm.

    Phillip. Your comment regarding firearms in Europe is not entirely true. While most of the European governments fear allowing their citizens the God given right of self protection, the Czech Republic does not adhere to that antiquated belief. To the best of my knowledge, allowing citizens to exercise this right has not resulted in the wild west being imported to their counrty, just as it has not been the result in the 42 states that now allow carrying of a loaded handgun for self defense purposes.

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