Loaded guns allowed in national parks under bill

May 19, 2009 11:19:24 AM PDT
The Democratic-controlled Congress is moving to restore a Bush administration policy that allowed loaded guns in national parks. The Senate voted Tuesday to allow guns in national parks and wildlife refuges, and the House could follow suit as soon as Wednesday.

The measure is included in a popular bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies. Democratic leaders have said they hope to send a final version to the White House for the president's signature by week's end.

The Senate vote is a stark reversal from what many gun-control advocates expected when a federal judge blocked the Bush policy in March. The Obama administration accepted the ruling, saying that the Interior Department would conduct a full environmental review.

The review is expected to take several months at least. In the meantime, restrictions that had been in place since the Reagan administration remain in effect. The rules severely restrict guns in the national parks, generally requiring them to be locked or stored.

That timetable changed quickly last week after Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn inserted an amendment to the credit bard that would allow concealed, loaded guns in parks and refuges.

To the surprise of many, the amendment easily passed, winning support from 67 senators - including 27 Democrats. Among those who voted "yes" was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had blocked Coburn's amendment from coming to the Senate floor for more than a year. Seven other Western Democrats voted with Reid to support the Republican senator's amendment, which allows a range of firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges as long as they are allowed by federal, state and local law.

Spokesman Jim Manley said Reid is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, adding that the guns in parks issue was a major concern for many Nevadans.

"The rules that apply to our federal lands are felt acutely in Nevada, where 87 percent of the state's land is managed by federal agencies," Manley said.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which sued to block the Bush policy, called the Senate vote reckless. The group called on President Barack Obama to demand that the gun provision be stripped from the credit card bill.

"Families should not have to stare down loaded AK-47s on nature hikes," said Brady campaign president Paul Helmke. "The president should not remain silent while Congress inserts reckless gun policies that he strongly opposes into a bill that has nothing whatsoever to do with guns."

Helmke and other critics, including environmental groups, park rangers and the Humane Society, say the Coburn amendment goes further than the Bush administration policy that briefly allowed loaded handguns in national parks and refuges. The measure would allow individuals to openly carry rifles, shotguns and even semiautomatic weapons on ranger-led hikes and campfire programs at national parks, the groups said.

Coburn said the gun measure protects every American's Second Amendment rights and also protects the rights of states to pass laws that apply to their entire state, including public lands.

"Visitors to national parks should have the right to defend themselves in accordance with the laws of their states," Coburn said.

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