A debate on allowing firearms in national parks splits local residents like the icy fissures that crease the flanks of Mount Rainier. People such as Jim Williams and Jim McAfee, longtime National Rifle Association members, see it as a Second Amendment issue.
George Coulbourn is an NRA member too, but works as a volunteer backcountry ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. He sees no benefit to allowing people to carry loaded weapons in the park.
Kris Paynter is a mother of two young girls and a wife of a police detective. She said allowing guns at Mount Rainier would ruin the park’s sense of sanctuary.
Park rules, last updated in 1983, require firearms to be temporarily inoperable or stowed so they aren’t easily accessible. But a call for change came in December, when 47 U.S. senators asked Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to revise the law to allow park visitors to carry firearms when allowed by state law – as is the case in Washington state.
Last month, Kempthorne said the department would develop a firearms policy revision by April 30.
The NRA, which pushed for the review, argues that park visitors have the right to protect themselves against wild animals and people. The association also argued that the existing law is confusing because it differs from regulations allowing loaded weapons on other federal recreation lands. Visitors can carry firearms in national forests but not on adjacent national park land, NRA officials said.
A MATTER OF DEFENSE, RIGHTS
“From my view, a lot of restrictions we have are unnecessary,” said Williams, a Puyallup resident who addresses the issue from the perspective of the Second Amendment. “I think people who hike in the park should be able to carry a gun to protect themselves.”
McAfee, a Tacoma resident and president of the Pierce County Sportsmen’s Council, agreed: “I would be in favor of people being able to carry a firearm if they felt it was necessary to do so, based on Second Amendment rights.”
Alan Gottlieb of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation said the unsolved 2006 slayings of two Seattle women killed while hiking near Granite Falls, Snohomish County, is an example of the dangers one can encounter.
“If you’re out in the woods, calling 911 doesn’t do you any good,” Gottlieb said. “If some of these people had guns in the national park where they were victimized, I would think some of them wouldn’t be victims.”
He also pointed to the law enforcement rangers who carry weapons and wear body armor. A 2004 report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility stated that park rangers and U.S. Park Police “are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents.”
“Why can’t everyone else protect themselves?” Gottlieb asked.
Violent crimes have occurred at Mount Rainier. There was a double rape and armed robbery on Rampart Ridge in 1978. In 1981 there was an armed robbery at the National Park Inn. The 1996 death of Sheila Ann Kearns, a housekeeper at the inn, was ruled a homicide.
But such crimes are rare, said park officials.
The park’s law enforcement rangers, who undergo standard law enforcement training in tactics and firearms, handled nine reports of serious crimes – all thefts or larcenies – in 2007, when more than 1.04 million people visited the park. That’s a rate of 0.86 violent crimes for every 100,000 recreational visitors.
“We are fairly close to a major metropolitan area, so we get people crimes,” said Chuck Young, chief ranger at Mount Rainier.
“Maybe once every three to five years we get something that causes us to arrest someone for assault. Most often, the people crimes we get are domestic-type disputes in a campground. It usually involves alcohol. Maybe we get three or four of those in a year.”
The most common problem at the park, Young said, is traffic violations. In the last five years, park rangers have issued 1,024 traffic citations.
In the same five years, they wrote 34 citations for possession or improper transportation of a firearm.
“If you look at the numbers, in terms of visitation year after year, and compare that to the number of incidents, I would have to say it’s one of the safest places in the country – your national parks,” said Mount Rainier superintendent Dave Uberuaga.
“I think it could change, over time, the experience and feel of Mount Rainier if guns were prevalent. It could change the feel,” Uberuaga said.
AGAINST A CHANGE
Coulbourn, a park volunteer for eight years, views the debate from the perspective of a hunting safety instructor, a member of the state’s master hunter program and a veteran of 60 years of hunting.
“It is inappropriate for a visitor to a national park to carry a weapon to defend himself against the wildlife inhabitants of the park,” he said.
“If you’re not comfortable visiting the park because of animals, you don’t belong there,” Coulbourn said. “I have seen countless bears in the backcountry of Mount Rainier. But every single one of them has ignored me or run away.”
He added that the handgun a park visitor would likely carry wouldn’t have enough stopping power to bring down a bear or a cougar.
Greg Shimek of Lakewood is a gun collector. He’s donated money to defend the right of people to carry firearms, but he doesn’t think that right includes places such as Mount Rainier.
He fears people would turn to their guns when trouble arises.
“Conflict resolution through violence is not the answer,” he said.
Paynter, as a mother of 41/2-year-old and 8-month-old girls, sees no need for guns in the parks, even though her husband carries a gun as a police detective.
“There should be places where we don’t have to worry about people running around with guns. It should be a sanctuary,” she said. “The national parks should have that feel, a place you can go and not worry about the person in front of you on the trail having a gun.”
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640
Entity Violent crimes Population or park visitors Rate per 100,000 people
NPS* 4,485 272.6 million 1.65
MRNP** 5 1.17 million 0.42
Tacoma 2,076 199,264 1,041.83
Washington 22,120 6,395,798 345.85
U.S. 1,417,745 299,398.484 473.53
Association of National Park Rangers: www.anpr.org
National Parks Conservation Association: www.npca.org
National Rifle Association: www.nra.org
Second Amendment Foundation: www.saf.org