WASHINGTON — A new law will lift the 94-year-old ban on carrying loaded firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges when it goes into effect Monday.
The law, passed by Congress in May as an amendment to a credit-reform bill, will end the ability of the National Park Service to set its own gun-carry restrictions, making each park subject to the gun lawsof its home state.
While the law will not give park visitors blanket permission to possess firearms, it will allow visitors to carry guns into any park, provided they follow all federal, state and local laws.
Current regulations allow park goers to possess firearms, but they must be unloaded and stored away from ammunition. Starting Monday, specific rules will vary by location.
The new law does not give visitors permission or fire their weapons – only to possess them.
David Barna, chief spokesman for the NPS, said firearms will still be prohibited in federal buildings such as ranger stations and visitor centers. Firearms will be permitted in facilities not directly owned and operated by the NPS, including many campgrounds and hotels.
“We will take the ’firearms prohibited’ signs off at the front gate,” Barna said. “A lot of the burden is on the public to know the laws of your state.”
In states that allow the open carrying of firearms, park guests will be permitted to keep loaded weapons on hand and in plain sight. Permit requirements for firearms will vary among parks. Regulations may also vary within some parks. Yellowstone covers land in three states, and the Appalachian Trail winds through nine.
For example, Yellowstone visitors in Idaho will have to be at least 18 years old to openly carry a firearm, but those in Montana can do so at age 14. Permit-holding guests in Montana will be able to carry a concealed weapon at age 18, but those in Wyoming will have to be at least 21.
In such cases, it will be up to the public to know where specific gun laws are in effect, Barna said. He said the NPS cannot post signs along every trail at every state border.
To help ease the transition, the NPS will hand out informational cards at visitor centers. Every park will post specific information on its Web site before the law takes effect.
The NPS is preparing park rangers for the law by briefing them on local and state gun regulations. The law will dramatically change the role of park rangers, said Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers.
Under current regulations, rangers can stop any park visitor for carrying a firearm. That lets them spot poachers and illegal hunters because they are among the only ones carrying firearms.
The new law will bar rangers in some parks from questioning visitors for carrying weapons. That will make rangers less able to prevent wildlife crimes because they will not be able tell poachers and guests apart, McElveen said. Rangers will soon have to catch poachers in the act to make an arrest, he said.
The new law will also make gun regulations harder to enforce, McElveen said.
“Some counties have laws,” McElveen said. “For all we know, there could be a park that sprawls across three or four counties in a state.”
The law has drawn ire and praise.
Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said more guns will put both parks and rangers at risk.
“The more guns that are available in national parks … the more likely that we’re going to see shooting at wildlife, shooting at cultural resources,” Wade said.