You don't need a gun to enjoy a national park

by Wayne Hare

When I was 11 years old, I papered the walls of my bedroom with pages from gun catalogs. It was an attempt to convince my father that I really wanted a gun. He eventually gave in when I was 12 or 13, and I've owned guns ever since, even carrying one or more in the course of my job duties.

I love the look, the feel, the color and the precision of guns. I love the light coat of oil, the wood grain of a well-made stock. I have two old firearms decorating the walls of my den and a loaded handgun in my nightstand. And now I can carry a gun into a national park.

But I won't.

I won't, because I think Ronald Reagan had the right idea in 1983, when he signed into law a rule requiring everyone who entered a national park to disassemble and unload all guns and keep them out of reach. This gun-loving, conservative Republican president created a law restricting gun use that has worked -- and worked well -- for 26 years.

That hasn't stopped the National Rifle Association from trying to change that law. And now it has succeeded in Congress and the White House, thanks to a rider tacked onto a law addressing credit card reform. It's hard to know why seemingly rational politicians would support allowing loaded weapons into our parks and wildlife refuges, starting next year. Are there more ferocious animals to shoot nowadays? Has street crime risen in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite? Are tourists feeling so unsafe in the great outdoors that they're clamoring for the right to tote arms in their RVs and handguns on their hips? If so, I haven't heard about it.

I've either worked in or visited most of the country's Western parks, and so far I've always felt pretty safe. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the amendment's sponsor, insisted that tourists faced the possibility of death or serious injury from dangerous campers or wild animals. Clearly, the senator has never visited many national parks, or perhaps he has spent too much time reading Where the Wild Things Are to his children. Statistically, you're far more likely to be killed by your neighbor then you are by a wild animal -- which is why I have a gun in my bedroom but not in my backpack.

Let's be honest: This has never been about a need for guns in national parks to ward off criminals, bears or big cats. This is all about the NRA wanting to flex its political muscle.

The National Rifle Association and its adherents say they're convinced that President Obama wants to pry their hands away from their firearms. This fervent belief, stoked by talk radio and the Web, has resulted in folks flocking to gun stores around the nation to buy weapons and ammunition, even though no one in the Obama administration has ever suggested placing a moratorium on gun ownership.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz., who chairs the national parks subcommittee, opposed the gun measure but said that the White House wanted to get the credit card bill approved, no matter what. That urgency, combined with the NRA's clout, was impossible to overcome. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, put it succinctly: "The NRA is basically taking over the House and Senate," she said.

Unhappy campers or rabid animals don't scare me in national parks, but the pervasive influence of the NRA sure does. Gun advocates have become nothing more than a narrowly focused special interest group -- one that is well financed, increasingly powerful, and a master at the art of manipulating public opinion. They have scared the pants off our public officials who will remain afraid to buck them until voters let them know that the NRA doesn't represent them.

It's time the people we elected showed some spunk and talked common sense about guns -- about where they are appropriate and where they are not. So far, there's been no need to tote guns into our national parks, and we don't need families to start arming themselves now. As one tourist recently told the New York Times, bringing a gun into Rocky Mountain National Park is about as smart as lugging in a bowling ball: "You could do it, but why would you?"

Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He works as a backcountry ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado. The views he expresses are his own.

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