U.S. national parks will open Monday to holders of concealed firearms as a hard-fought law passed last year takes effect, but both sides expect more battles over exactly what the legislation means in practice.
The law - probably the biggest legislative achievement for conservatives in what was otherwise a year dominated by President Obama’s agenda - says national parks will be governed by the same rules as the states in which they are located. That means about 370 of the country’s 392 National Park Service properties will permit visitors to carry firearms.
But the Park Service says exceptions are in place and that another federal law requires guns to be kept out of federal facilities. That means firearms are still prohibited at any building where park employees regularly work, including office buildings, maintenance sheds and, most contentious of all, visitor centers.
“I think you’re going to have people on both sides of the issue test this in what is or is not a federal facility,” said David Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service.
Gun rights advocates said they are pleased that weapons will no longer be off limits but that the Park Service should not poke exemptions into the law.
“That’s ludicrous. You’re going to tell someone if they have a concealed weapon permit they can’t go into the visitor center to use the restroom?” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican. “If they come up with restrictive exemptions, what they’re asking for is a lawsuit to try and stop implementation of what Congress clearly told them to do.”
The new rules, for example, prohibit concealed firearms on tours of the caves at Carlsbad Caverns, because it’s a location where park employees regularly work.
The law was written by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and adopted as an amendment to a bill rewriting rules for the credit card industry. The law included a delayed enactment date of Feb. 22.
Under the rules, those permitted to carry a firearm by state law can now do so on park property.
“Prior to this, there would be a patchwork of laws that governed different lands governed by different federal agencies. What this does, it provides uniformity within a state,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
Advocates of gun control were dismayed that House Democrats accepted the language and that Mr. Obama signed the bill. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Mr. Obama an “F” for his first year in office.
“In just one year, Barack Obama has signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than in President George W. Bush’s eight years in office,” the Brady Center said in its one-year report, which also noted rules that restored Amtrak passengers’ ability to carry firearms in checked luggage.
Mr. Bishop said the success of the park rules shows that even under a Democrat-controlled Congress, Second Amendment rights remain powerful.
“If I were to list anything positive that’s come out of Congress in the last year, year and a half, this is it. And anything that restricts Second Amendment rights are going nowhere in Congress,” he said.
Mr. Barna, the Park Service spokesman, said his agency doesn’t expect any problems from the new law.
He said city gun laws still prohibit firearms on the National Mall and other park properties in Washington, D.C., but not at places like the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia.
However, he said, Virginia law prohibits firearms at sites that are holding educational programs for children, such as at Wolftrap during children’s theater events. Hotels, bookstores and other concessions in parks not operated by Park Service employees will follow local rules.
Mr. Barna said gun owners, particularly those who carry their firearms, tend to be knowledgeable about state and local laws.
He said parks are updating their Web pages to explain what is or isn’t allowed, and will post signs at the buildings that are still off limits to firearms.
As of Sunday, the George Washington Memorial Parkway’s Web site had a page that said firearms could be legally possessed in the park in accordance with state law, then listed links to the D.C., Virginia and Maryland legal codes, though users had to hunt for the portions that dealt with firearms.
Mr. Barna said that firing a gun likely would incur a penalty in most parks.
By carving out so many exceptions, he said, the Park Service is creating a problem that doesn’t exist with other federal land agencies.
The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have allowed state laws to govern firearms on their property. Mr. Bishop said that policy is less complex than what the Park Service is imposing.
“The Park Service could treat Americans as Americans and respect the Constitution if they wanted to. I wish they wanted to,” he said.