Loaded, concealed weapons will be allowed in Smokies

From Staff and Wire Reports Daily Times

People will soon be able to carry concealed, loaded guns in most national parks and wildlife refuges -- including Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Bush administration said Friday it is overturning a 25-year-old federal rule that severely restricts loaded guns in national parks.

Under a rule to take effect in January, visitors will be able to carry a loaded gun into a park or wildlife refuge -- but only if the person has a permit for a concealed weapon and if the state where the park or refuge is located also allows concealed firearms.

The new rule goes further than a draft proposal issued last spring and would allow concealed weapons even in parks located in states that explicitly ban the carrying of guns in state parks. Some states allow concealed weapons but also ban guns from parks.

"If you can carry (a gun) on Main Street, you are allowed to carry in a national park," said Chris Paolino. a spokesman for the Interior Department.

Bob Miller, Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokesman, said the Park had not yet been informed of the specifics of the new policy or how to implement it, but it will allow guns in the Smokies.

"This just came down today. We haven't gotten any operating instructions," Miller said Friday.

The new regulation is likely to encourage new attempts to loosen state regulations that prohibit guns in Tennessee state parks.

State Rep. Doug Overbey, state senator-elect who will represent Blount and Sevier counties, said he may try to get state law changed to allow properly licensed Tennesseans to carry firearms for protection in state wildlife refuge areas.

Currently, all Tennesseans are entitled to carry firearms as long as they have an active permit and keep the firearm in their immediate possession at all times. However, the General Assembly has banned the carrying of firearms in certain areas including public parks.

Overbey said bills have been introduced over the past four years that would allow people with a license to carry a concealed weapon to go armed in wildlife refuge areas.

"Those bills have not passed, but I expect them to be refiled. In fact, I might carry that bill next year," Overbey said.

"I've had several constituents write that they feel like it is a matter of protecting their families -- whether from wildlife or from people -- when they are camping."

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has opposed the previous bills, partially because it would cause a loss of revenue. If the law is changed, the number of people caught violating weapons laws would be reduced, along with the money collected in fines.

"TWRA might support the change (next time)," Overbey said.

Attacks by wild animals are a concern to people who camp in remote areas. They also worry about unlicensed gun toters.

"Those that aren't concerned about following the law might have firearms on them anyway," Overbey said. If the state law is changed, "those who have followed the law and gone to the trouble to get the permit would also have firearms."
Overturns regulation

The Interior Department rule overturns a Reagan-era regulation that has restricted loaded guns in parks and wildlife refuges. The previous regulation required that firearms be unloaded and placed somewhere that is not easily accessible, such as in a car trunk.

Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty said the new rule respects a long tradition of states and the federal government working together on natural resource issues.

The regulation allows individuals to carry concealed firearms in federal parks and wildlife refuges to the same extent they can lawfully do so under state law, Laverty said, adding that the approach is in line with rules adopted by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Those agencies let visitors carry weapons consistent with applicable federal and state laws.

The National Rifle Association hailed the rule change, which will take effect next month before President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

"We are pleased that the Interior Department recognizes the right of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges," said Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.

The rule will restore the rights of law-abiding gun owners on federal lands and make federal law consistent with the state where the lands are located, Cox said. The NRA led efforts to change gun regulations they called inconsistent and unclear.