Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed new regulations Wednesday that would allow people to carry a concealed weapon in some national parks and wildlife refuges.
The new rules would allow someone to carry a loaded weapon in a park or wildlife refuge only if the person had a permit for a concealed weapon and the state where the park or refuge was located allowed guns in parks.
The proposal would overturn a 25-year-old regulation that has restricted loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.
"The safety and protection of park and refuge visitors remains a top priority for the Department of the Interior," Kempthorne said in a statement.
The proposal would incorporate state laws authorizing the possession of concealed firearms "while continuing to maintain important provisions to ensure visitor safety and resource protection," he said.
Park rangers, park service retirees and conservation groups protested the plan, saying it would lead to confusion for visitors, rangers and other law enforcement agencies.
"This is purely and simply a politically driven effort to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said Bill Wade, executive council chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
Critics cited statistics showing that national parks were among the safest places in the country. The probability of becoming a victim of a violent crime in a national park is 1 in more than 708,000 -- less likely than being struck by lightning, the groups said.
"This proposed regulation increases the risk to visitors, employees and wildlife rather than reducing it," Wade said.
Interior Department spokesman Chris Paolino said the rule change would give great weight to state and local laws. In Washington, D.C., for instance, which has a lot of national park land, guns would not be allowed because the city banned handguns.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the rule change confusing.
"This change makes no sense. It would create an incoherent, ineffective and inconsistent patchwork of policies," she said, noting that in some cases, rules would be different within the same national park.
For example, Death Valley National Park is in both California and Nevada. California prohibits loaded and accessible weapons in state parks, whereas Nevada does not.