Aiming for trouble in our national parks

Absolutely no good can come from a late-term Bush administration rule change allowing concealed weapons in national parks, a move that endangers the lives of park employees and visitors, encourages poaching and will probably worsen damage to archaeological treasures. The only justification we can imagine for this politically motivated breach of the public trust is that if campers are as careless with their guns as they are with their picnic baskets, it will finally guarantee the right to arm bears.

After a lawsuit from retired park workers, gun-control activists and conservationists, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered an internal review of the rule change to determine whether the Bush administration followed proper procedures in approving it. That’s a fine start, but not enough, especially given that the new administration’s Justice Department is seeking to block a preliminary injunction of the rule.

Until Jan. 9, firearms were allowed in national parks and monuments only if they were kept unloaded and out of easy reach, such as in a car’s trunk. Under the new rule, those with permits to carry concealed weapons can do so in parks, if the state in which the park is located allows it. The impact of this rule change should have been obvious to those who drafted it; ancient petroglyphs that are already used by some for target practice will become even more bullet-scarred, rangers will have to cope with armed and dangerous visitors, wildlife will come under fire and campers will have to worry that the rude guy in the Winnebago next door is packing heat.

The Bush administration changed the rule under pressure from the National Rifle Assn., which is determined to abolish even the most common-sense restrictions on gun rights. The NRA disingenuously argued that park visitors needed concealed weapons for self-defense, even though before the rule change, national parks were among the safest places in the country.

Because the rule change was published in the Federal Register, overturning it could take years. Salazar will have to start the entire rule-making process over, this time carrying out a proper environmental review, a detail that his predecessor omitted in his headlong rush to placate the gun lobby. Meanwhile, though, Salazar can and should suspend implementation of the rule until the process is complete. That would allow national parks to remain the refuges they were intended to be.