Guns in National Parks

In 2010, President Obama signed a piece of legislation which revoked a more than two decades’ old ban on firearms in national parks. For the last two years, that law has been active, allowing gun owners to carry their firearms legally throughout our National Parks. Laws regarding their regulation are left up to individual states such that national park property in Wyoming follows Wyoming’s gun laws, Montana parkland follows Montana gun laws, and so forth.

Where this creates confusion is in the handful of national parks that share land among two, or even three states. Thus requiring each gun owner to comply with different laws, depending on where in the park they are. Furthermore, guns are not allowed in federal facilities, meaning it may be illegal for you to bring your guns inside any park building or shelter, from simple outhouses to ranger stations and visitor centers. The confusion has led to frustration by many gun owners who aren’t entirely sure where and when they can have their guns on them.

Support for this law has come from the expected organizations, including the NRA, who advocate for guns in national parks as a means of protecting park visitors from violent threats, including those from both animals and fellow park visitors. Opposition has come from many national park advocates who feel that allowing guns in parks only increases the likelihood of poaching and gun-related deaths over altercations between visitors.

To be fair, the idea that guns are protecting visitors from violent deaths is fairly naïve. Take bears for instance. In the last century, only a handful of visitors have been killed by bear attacks among the billions of visitors that have come to the national parks. According to Yellowstone National Parks, visitors have approximately the same chance of being killed by a bear as they do of getting struck by lightning or finding souvenirs which are reasonably priced. Violent deaths enacted by fellow park visitors are similarly low, usually less than 10 per year, once again among hundreds of millions of visitors. What’s more, it’s likely that most, if not all, those attacks could have been prevented with proper use of bear repellent. Additionally, the number of reported altercations and assaults between park visitors is extremely low estimate because of the number of incidents which are never reported, like drunken fights over favorite campsites.

When considering the benefit of having guns for recreational use, well, there isn’t any as hunting and recreational shooting is strictly prohibited inside all national parks, so there’s no chance of you sighting in your newest rifle at Zion or Rocky Mountain. The only time you are technically allowed to shoot is if your life or the life of another is in immediate danger. But, as shown with the example of bear attacks vs. human incidents above, there seem to be more chances to create gun violence than there are opportunities which require their protective power.

However, it does seem odd that one of our most sacred inalienable rights is not congruent with one of our nation’s most treasured possessions, as if it were illegal to eat apple pie at a Yankees game. National Parks and gun ownership are inextricable linked because of their deep connection to our heritage as Americans. Initial statistics for the effect of gun privileges in National Parks are not yet available, but with pressing legislation regarding their use in the rest of the country, the next few years should provide for an interesting case study and hopefully not a tragic one.

By Patrick Hutchison