By LES BLUMENTHAL
March 04, 2008
It's not an idle threat.
As chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., oversees the National Parks Service's annual budget and is in a position to prevent the administration from dropping the Reagan-era ban. While Dicks is usually reluctant to add legislative provisions to his spending bill, he's ready to make an exception in this case even if it prompts a presidential veto.
"Every now and then something rises up that needs to be fought, and this is one of them," Dicks said.
The ban and efforts by the National Rifle Association to lift it have emerged as a major Second Amendment issue this election year. Democrats say Republicans are using it as a wedge to exploit gun issues in an already heated political atmosphere. Republicans say they're just trying to protect the rights of gun owners.
The dispute already has interrupted consideration of a massive public-lands bill in the Senate.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has said the ban is under review and a new regulation will be released April 30 that will update firearms policies in the national parks and wildlife refuges.
Current regulations ban loaded weapons in federal parks and refuges. Unloaded weapons can be carried if they're locked up, such as in a car trunk.
Dicks said his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has told him she would use her position as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations interior subcommittee to block any changes in the current regulations.
"Permitting loaded firearms to be carried or used within our national parks or wildlife refuges would be a radical, unprecedented change that would likely upset the delicate balance that exists between wildlife and park visitors in these areas," Dicks and Feinstein said in a letter to Kempthorne.
"More importantly," the letter continued, "allowing loaded and accessible weapons in national parks would create a dangerous environment for millions of American families who annually visit our national parks expecting a safe and enjoyable experience -- not loaded firearms and stray bullets."
Dicks was an early supporter of efforts to ban handguns and assault weapons.
"Everyone knows when you have guns, bad things happen," Dicks said in an interview. Dicks called the effort to lift the ban on loaded weapons in the parks a mistake and vowed to "fight it all the way. If this ban was good enough for the Reagan administration and James Watt, why isn't it good enough now?"
Watt was President Ronald Reagan's interior secretary when regulations involving guns in the parks were last revised. The ban dates to 1936 amid concerns of illegal hunting and poaching in the parks.
An association of retired park rangers and the National Parks Conservation Association adamantly oppose any change in current regulations.
"It's truly unfortunate the National Rifle Association has chosen this issue to flex its election-year political muscle," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.
The NRA responded: "Law-abiding citizens should not be prohibited from protecting themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "Under this proposal, federal parks and wildlife refuges will mirror the state firearms laws for state parks. This is an important step in the right direction."
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