The Bush administration proposed allowing loaded handguns in national parks over the objections of park officials who argued it was unnecessary and would tempt armed visitors to shoot animals, government memos show.
A private conservation group, which obtained the memos under the Freedom of Information Act, said they show that the U.S. Interior Department's April proposal ignored park professionals' advice that allowing handguns would disturb the tranquility and safety of the parks.
"Untrained visitors with firearms will be tempted to use firearms when they feel threatened" and such shootings "could result in injury and death to employees and visitors, not to mention wounding of animals," Michael D. Snyder, the National Park Service's Denver regional director, said in an April 11 memo. "The danger" of wounded animals "would immediately apply to other visitors," he said.
The proposed rule would let visitors carry concealed handguns in parks in states where such firearms are legal. Noting that 48 states allow people to carry concealed weapons for self-defense, the Interior Department said many of these states allow such weapons in state parks.
The rule change would "respect the ability of states to determine who may lawfully possess a firearm within their borders," the department said.
Late last year, a bipartisan group of 51 senators, many from western states, asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to relax current regulations, which allow only unloaded and disabled firearms in national parks. The National Rifle Association, which represents gun owners, also pushed for the change.
Snyder's memo, and others obtained by the National Parks Conservation Association, were written while the Interior Department was drafting the proposal, published April 30 in the Federal Register. The Interior Department can issue a new rule after assessing public comments.
Allowing visitors to carry concealed handguns would result in the "indiscriminate destruction of such threatened or endangered species as elk, moose, bears, bison," wrote Snyder, who outlined his "concerns" in a three-page memo. Armed visitors would feel "a false sense of empowerment" when they confront dangerous animals, he said.
The Interior Department plans to assess the environmental impact of allowing loaded guns in the parks, department spokesman Christopher Paolino said. That assessment was not required before the proposal was published, he said. He declined to comment further because the agency is assessing the comments.
In a letter last year to the rifle association's top Washington lobbyist, Park Service Director Mary Bomar disputed suggestions that park visitors need guns to protect themselves from crime or attacks by animals.
"Overall, the crime rates in our national park areas are very low" and "the probability of becoming a victim of violent crime" is "roughly 1 in 708,333," Bomar said. Since 2002 there were only two deaths and 16 "serious injuries resulting from encounters with non-domestic animals," she said.
Seven former park service directors urged Kempthorne to preserve the current rules that "are essential to park rangers in carrying out their duties of protecting park resources and wildlife, and in assuring the safety of visitors."
The Association of National Park Rangers also opposes the change.