WASHINGTON — Opponents say U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s efforts to change decades-old rules for national parks could lead to loaded guns, even assault weapons, in some of the nation’s most sacred sites. "This is a bad idea,” said Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers. McElveen even took issue with the Oklahoma Republican’s claims that his Senate-passed amendment would not apply to monuments. "That’s not how I read it,” he said, citing Coburn’s own language that indicates his amendment, if it became law, would apply to all units of the National Park System. McElveen said that would include Southwest sites that are "very sacred” to some American Indians. "To have folks with firearms there would be very disturbing to them.” Another example of a park service site where loaded gun would be inappropriate is the San Antonio missions in Texas, McElveen said. Coburn’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Last week, the Senate caught critics of Coburn’s efforts off guard when it attached his gun amendment to a credit card bill by a vote 67 to 29. Insisting his legislation was not a "gotcha amendment,” Coburn claimed his proposal was to ensure constitutional rights were not being trampled by unelected bureaucrats. "It is to say, does the Second Amendment mean something?” Coburn said. His language would allow visitors to carry loaded guns into national parks located in states that do not bar such activity.
Why the change?Under regulations that date back to the Reagan administration, weapons carried into parks have to be inoperable and not readily accessible. Coburn said that left law-abiding citizens who live in states without such restrictions vulnerable to violating a federal regulation. He said his amendment also was about upholding states’ rights and giving park visitors the ability to defend themselves against attacks — from other visitors and animals. He cited 2006 statistics showing that the Fish and Wildlife Service and park service handled 16 homicides, 41 rape cases, 92 robberies, 16 robberies and 333 aggravated assaults. McElveen did not challenge Coburn’s crime statistics but said what they really prove is how safe national parks really are. He said national parks draw about 300 million visitors a year, adding crime statistics indicate the rate of violent crime in the parks comes to 1.65 per 100,000 park visitors. The national crime rate comes to 469.2 per 100,000 people, McElveen said. Crime rates, he said, are not a legitimate reason to change regulations that have their origin in a 100-year-old law that created the park service and charged with, among other duties, preserving wildlife. McElveen also pointed out that Coburn’s claim that his amendment would help protect park visitors does not track with its actual language because it would still be against the rules to fire a gun, even at a rabid animal. He conceded that anyone discharging a firearm in self-defense probably would not be prosecuted. Another critic of Coburn’s amendment called on President Barack Obama to show leadership and demand that it be taken out of the credit card bill. "Families should not have to stare down loaded AK-47s on nature hikes,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. McElveen said he was "shocked” by the Senate vote on the amendment, adding he would not be surprised now if House Democratic leaders left the language in the bill.