Disclaimer: While I have attempted to provide pertinent details related to gun-control laws, possession, carrying, etc., in America’s national parks, this article should not be taken as the definitive interpretation with regard to them. If you choose to possess or carry a weapon in a national park, please make sure you are familiar with the federal and state regulations and consult the applicable laws to ensure you are acting in accordance with them. Contact the National Park Service, and your intended destination specifically, if you have any doubts.
If you’ve looked at the news this morning, you may have seen a story about a toddler who accidentally shot and killed herself at Yellowstone National Park over the weekend. Though tragic, you’re likely aware that this isn’t the first time a child has accidentally shot him- or herself with a firearm. But what may strike you as odd is that the incident occurred in a national park. Which begs the question, is one even allowed to have a gun in a national park? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.
Until 2010, firearms weren’t allowed in national parks. According to 36 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) – Title 36: Parks, Forests, and Public Property, section 2.4 on weapons, traps, and nets, possessing, carrying, and using weapons are all prohibited “except as otherwise provided in this section and parts 7 (special regulations) and 13 (Alaska regulations).” There were some exceptions, but unless you were in Alaska, for the most part you weren’t allowed to possess a functional firearm in a national park. Exceptions varied by park and these gun laws were sometimes seen as confusing since they were allowed on some public lands (USFS and BLM land) but not on others (NPS).
While this law may seem like an infringement on American’s right to bear arms as defined in the second amendment, you’ll be interested to note that it was first put in place during Ronald Reagan’s administration. (A similar provision kept visitors from carrying weapons at national wildlife refuges.) This seems unusual since Reagan was a republican and the prevailing republican stereotype with regard to guns is that Americans need to be allowed to possess and carry them at all times. One could be forgiven for assuming that gun-control restrictions, such as those previously in place in our national parks, were put in place under a democratic administration.
One could also be forgiven for assuming that the change to allow individuals to carry their guns in national parks took place during a republican presidency, but this change also goes against accepted stereotypes as it was signed into law under a democratic administration in 2009 and went into effect on February 22, 2010.
You might think that a bill to allow possession of guns in national parks would have a name like “The Guns in National Parks Act,” or “The Now it’s Time to Let Everyone Carry Guns in National Parks in Accordance with the Second Amendment Act,” but if you did, you would be wrong (and slightly verbose). It was actually part of H.R. 627 of the 111th Congress, better known as the “Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009.” What???
I first heard about the new gun rules when I was visiting Bryce Canyon National Park in 2011, but at the time I didn’t actually know that the bill which was meant to help protect consumers by putting new credit card rules in place was also the one which allowed individuals to carry weapons in national parks. If you’re familiar with politics and how these things work, this may not seem overly shocking. If you aren’t, the long and the short of it is that Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, helped with Section 512 (the guns in national parks section) of the bill, which was an unrelated rider to the main gist of the bill, which was to protect consumers by enacting new credit card legislation.
In keeping with the second amendment, it seems reasonable that new rules for gun-control in national parks would have been put in place at some point, regardless of the Credit Card Act. However, this process was likely accelerated since some members of Congress didn’t want to delay credit card reform by fighting the gun-control portion of the bill.
That’s the background, but what does it mean as far as actual gun laws in national parks and national wildlife refuges today? To boil it down to its primary components, the new (well, new in 2010) law provides that individuals who are legally allowed to carry weapons in compliance with state and federal laws must be allowed to do so in national parks as well. However, there are additional rules depending on state laws and a NPS document from 2010 indicates that guns may not be carried into federal buildings for security reasons (this appears to include visitor centers and other government buildings).
Since state laws necessarily vary, it would be impossible to list all exceptions and regulations here, but there are a few items to remember, not least of which is that some national parks are in multiple states, and as such the rules for possessing a gun may change from one part of a national park to another. In addition, not all states allow for carrying fully automatic weapons, you may not be able to carry your gun on a shuttle bus, and most parks do not allow hunting. In fact, although it is legal to carry your gun in a national park, in most instances and parks and with very few exceptions, it is illegal to actually fire it.
So would your gun be a useful defense against bears, like those discussed in my last blog post? Some folks do carry guns in grizzly country, but in most instances and as recommended by the NPS, bear spray is a better deterrent.
Although it’s now legal to possess guns in national parks, since in most cases it is illegal to actually fire them and they aren’t particularly useful against bears, is there any reason to carry them? In most situations, I would say no, but freak incidents do occur when they might come in handy or might make you feel safer. An example would be if you were visiting Mt. Rainier National Park on January 1, 2012, the day an Army veteran shot and killed a ranger there.
The bottom line is that you can now legally bring your gun into a national park as long as you do so in accordance with state and federal laws. Just remember that according to the NPS, “Other weapons such as bows, swords, pellet or BB guns are not affected by the new law and remain prohibited by the National Park Service,” so make sure you leave your Red Ryder at home.
Author of Don’t Step on the Dirt and Grow Your Family Tree Online