New Firearms Law in Effect for Spring/Summer Season
BY PAT HILL
Laws banning firearms in America’s national parks and wildlife refuges were relaxed in February, which means visitors to Yellowstone this summer may see some loaded guns along with the geysers and big game in the country’s first national park.
The new law allowing loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges was attached to a credit card reform bill that passed easily in the U.S. House and Senate; the gun legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), was supported by Montana’s Democratic senators and Republican congressman and signed into law by President Obama last year.
Guns were first banned in the nation’s national parks in the 1930s in an effort to curb poaching. Those laws were amended by the Reagan Administration in 1983, allowing for the possession of unloaded weapons and firearms packed away “in a manner…that will prevent their ready use.” By 2007, legislators from both parties were urging the Interior Department to do away with the gun ban entirely.
“I think it’s a long-overdue correction,” said Rep. Joel Boniek (R-Livingston), a backcountry guide as well as a Montana legislator. Boniek often takes visitors into the backcountry of Yellowstone, and he told the Pioneer that “the right to protect one’s self is the most fundamental of all human rights.”
“As a guide in Yellowstone, I was not legally allowed to protect my clients [with a firearm],” said Boniek. “That was a curious thing to me…to not have your most fundamental human right.”
Montana State Senator Joe Balyeat (R-Bozeman) agreed with Boniek’s assertion that restoring gun rights to law-abiding citizens within the borders of America’s national parks is the right thing to do.
“I’ve spent my entire life in the mountains of Montana,” Balyeat told the Pioneer. “As an experienced outdoorsman, I wouldn’t be caught dead [in the backcountry of Yellowstone] without a weapon.”
The law doesn’t mean anyone can have a loaded gun in a national park. The rules governing guns in Yellowstone and other national parks and wildlife refuges will be the same as the laws of the states housing those parks and refuges. Those gun laws vary state to state. In Yellowstone’s case, parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyo-ming make up the park. All three states allow for open carry of a firearm on one’s person or in a vehicle. All three states also allow for concealed carrying of a handgun with a valid permit. But Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana all have different rules regarding which out-of-state conceal carry permits are honored within their respective borders.
The burden of determining which state and local gun laws apply will fall on park service employees, and that has generated opposition to the ban being lifted by a group speaking for those employees, along with others who stand in opposition to removing the ban.
“I think [allowing loaded guns in national parks] is a totally unnecessary move that in all likelihood will cause some serious harm sooner or later,” Doug Morris, a former Park Superinten-dent and member of the Coalition of National Park Retirees, told the Pioneer.
Morris said he is worried about animal as well as human safety.
“One thing we worry about is the likelihood that an animal posing no real threat will invite the inexperienced park visitor to harm or kill that animal,” said Morris. “We have this rela-tionship built on trust between animals and people in the park…from time to time animals will let you know you’ve invaded their space.”
Morris also said the wounding of an animal “posing no real threat” can lead to real danger for any humans near the wounded creature: wounded animals can be unpredictable at best.
Morris said he also worries about guns in crowded park campgrounds, where tensions can sometimes run high.
“In Yellowstone, people gather together outside their comfort zones,” Morris said. “A big part of our job is to ‘referee’ situations that blow up. These things usually work themselves out. With firearms added in, I think we’re also adding in a much greater chance that tension will result in lethal gunfire.”
“Those fears are just not founded,” asserted Boniek. “An armed society is a polite society. That’s the way it works in real life. Many of us carry firearms on a regular basis at work and at home.” Boniek added that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is “part of what America is all about.”
“Many Americans were raised with guns,” he added. Balyeat also said he believes that fears of campground feuds involving guns are overblown, but that other dangers in Yellowstone are quite real.
“There are predators in Yellowstone,” he said, “both animal and human. There are many cases historically where people have been attacked by both. It’s a bad idea to ban guns in our national parks because you’re advertising to human predators that parks are filled with defenseless people. It’s like putting up a flashing sign that says “Human predators welcome! Defenseless people are here!” Regarding possible campground incidents involving guns, Balyeat said that “an individual who would resort to gunplay to solve a campground argument is already showing disrespect for the law.”
“The new law reduces the chance that a law-breaking individual would pull a gun,” he said.
“The reason we’ll have peace is because we’re peaceful people,” said Boniek of law-abiding gun owners. “Law enforcement only reacts…I don’t need a deputy looking over my shoulder to keep me peaceable. I don’t need a ranger tagging along.”
In the case of animal predators, Balyeat cites both grizzly bears and mountain lions as potential threats, but he emphasized his belief in the dangers that wolves pose to people.
“A school teacher jogging in Alaska was killed and eaten by wolves,” Balyeat said. “There was a similar incident in Canada. While there may be minor problems for Park officials [regarding guns in the Park], on balance the consequences for visitors is that they will be far safer…it’s well worth it. While there may be a chance [that an animal is shot unnecessarily], I place far more value on human life than wildlife. If we can save even one human life because of this new law, that far outweighs the minor risk that someone may shoot a bear or a wolf unnecessarily.”
Morris maintained that part of the special experience that the nation’s national parks have provided to visitors will be lost with the new law.
“Parks have been among the safest places in America,” Morris said. “There’s just not been as much gun violence. The retired rangers have made such a strong argument that not only is this new law not necessary, but it can lead to real harm. For families and international guests the presence of conspicuously shown firearms makes our parks less special…we’re also quite worried about that.” Morris said the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees is monitoring events around the country regarding guns in the parks.
“I’ve known numerous folks who wouldn’t go into Yellowstone because one of their fundamental rights was taken away from them,” said Boniek. “I’m always very happy when our constitutional rights are restored. That’s a happy day. That’s why we live in America.”
Chief Ranger Tim Reid of Yellowstone National Park told the Pioneer that although the issue of guns in the Park “seems to be a pretty contentious issue with two polarized ends of the spectrum, we’re just going to implement the law fairly.” He also said that though loaded guns are allowed in the Park, firing those weapons in the Park is still against the law. Reid added that individuals intending to carry concealed firearms within the Park’s borders should familiarize themselves with the state laws applicable to the part of the Park they will utilize. Weapons will still not be allowed in any National Park Service buildings, including visitors centers, and hotels and concessionaires are expected to follow suit and ban weapons from their operations. Reid said he doesn’t anticipate any real trouble in Yellowstone resulting from the new firearms rules.
“We’re shooting straight down the middle here…pun intended…and intend to implement this new law like we do our other laws,” said Reid. “We’ll see how the season rolls out. It seems that pretty reasonable people are in possession of firearms. We’re hoping that will continue to be the case in Yellowstone this summer.”