The Right to Arm Bears

Bearing Arms in National Parks (

Bearing Arms in National Parks
by Kathryn Ciano | October 15, 2008

Lost in all the noise about the ongoing bail-out is an important vote before Congress, slated for November 1, on a controversial plan to overturn the ban on guns in National Parks. The proposed new rule would lift the ban only in National Parks located in states that allow concealed carry in their own State Parks. It’s not just about the Second Amendment, however. People’s lives are increasingly at risk from marauding drug dealers who grow vast quantities of marijuana on federal parkland and jealously defend their turf.

Since 1983, the Department of the Interior has prohibited people from carrying firearms into lands controlled by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This rule correctly separates laws governing federal lands from those of surrounding states—federalism dictates that state laws should not automatically apply to federal land within its borders. However, in the recent Heller ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the individual’s right to bear arms on federal territory (the District of Columbia), thereby calling into question the validity of the park ban on Constitutional grounds.

In overturning the District’s gun ban this summer, the Court did not rule on whether states have to respect the Second Amendment. However it’s now clear that individuals can successfully defend their Constitutional rights on federal land. While D.C.’s reluctance to accept the Court’s ruling may be annoying—guns still must remain disassembled until an intruder actually breaks in, and the District rejected Heller’s own application to purchase a firearm—the legal writing is clearly on the wall for the nationwide park ban.

Yet the ban cannot be lifted soon enough.

The National Park Service claims that the gun ban protects park visitors from violent crime. But gun bans only affect law-abiding citizens, leaving them defenseless against armed criminals who ignore the laws. While park rangers wear bulletproof vests at all times and travel with guns on their persons or vehicles, the National Park Service denies such protection to campers and hikers. Indeed, the Park Service withholds research permits until researchers sign waivers acknowledging that the National Park Service cannot protect them.

According to the White House January 2008 drug policy report, armed drug traffickers cultivate most American marijuana grown outdoors in National Parks. Worth billions of dollars, 80% of the marijuana plants officials eradicated from federal lands in 2007 grew in National Park areas of California and Kentucky.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, drug smugglers cannot easily transport drugs across tightened US borders. Instead, cartels bring cultivators into the US to grow marijuana in remote, sparsely policed federal lands. Criminal drug trafficking organizations headquartered abroad supply workers with weapons and materials necessary to maintain these extensive operations. These workers clear cut native trees, poach and hunt wildlife, divert natural waterways to irrigate the land, and devastate the soil with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. National Park officials estimate that traffickers destroy ten acres of forest for each acre of cultivated marijuana.

Traffickers live close to their crops, often less than one hundred yards off the trail, growing intimate with the land and rangers’ schedules. While parks are still relatively peaceful places, an increasing amount of violence occurs when unsuspecting tourists stumble upon these plantations and are menaced by the drug farmers. These criminals know that tourists are not armed, and have been known to detain and threaten hikers.

A repeal of this dangerous and unconstitutional law is within reach. The November 1 vote is on a Department of the Interior proposal repealing the ban in National Parks located in states that permit concealed carry. Forty-eight Senators support the right to bear arms on federal land and will likely support this measure.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed HB-1845, overruling the Pennsylvania State Park firearm carry ban. Pennsylvania is signaling approval of the proposed national policy, and has tailored its own law, ensuring that National Parks in Pennsylvania qualify for the National Park gun ban repeal.

Yet the Interior Department has specifically prohibited Park Service employees from commenting on the proposed change. Conflicting evidence regarding crime statistics surrounds these obscure but ominous problems facing our National Parks. The Interior Department should weigh rangers’ comments at least as heavily as those from the general public.

Since the Supreme Court categorized the right to bear arms as a fundamental individual right, both the Congress and the Department of the Interior should consider this federal precedent and the dozens of state cases decided since then. Pennsylvania’s commitment to individual liberties further signals state support for this federal policy.

We need to ensure that our National Parks remain safe, allowing us to enjoy the grandeur of nature that is our inheritance. Depriving law-abiding citizens of another hard-won inheritance, the right to bear arms, is at best counterproductive.

-Kathryn Ciano is a law student in Virginia.


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