PUBLIC LANDS:

House Republicans to push for guns amendment to omnibus

Two House Republicans today will push to add an amendment to the public lands omnibus that would codify the right to carry concealed weapons in national parks, less than a week after a federal judge blocked a similar proposal.

The amendment would reverse the Interior Department's 26-year-old firearms policy by allowing visitors to carry concealed weapons into parks and refuges in states with laws that allow concealed firearms -- even if those states have outlawed concealed weapons in their own parks.

House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and National Parks Subcommittee ranking member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) are sponsoring the proposal, which is the same as an Interior rule finalized earlier this year just before President Bush left office.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly placed an injunction on the Interior rule last week, finding that the department failed to conduct a proper environmental analysis of the rule's effect on park environments and visitor safety (Greenwire, March 20).

Kollar-Kotelly reinstated Interior's previous gun rule, which required visitors to federal lands to unload and secure their weapons, and ordered the department to conduct a review of the new rule.

But Bishop said the judge's ruling infringes on the rights of gun owners, noting that drivers in areas such as Washington, D.C., often drive through federal park lands every day. "It's ridiculous for people to be subject to two different sets of regulations simply because their car moved a few feet," Bishop said in a statement. "The judge's decision last week was wrong."

The House Rules Committee will meet this afternoon to create a rule for considering H.R. 146, the package of more than 160 land, water and protection bills the Senate passed last week.

Earlier this month, the House fell two votes shy of passing the omnibus under suspension of the rules, a maneuver that shields legislation from amendment or a motion to recommit but requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Senate leaders then devised a strategy to use a bill that had already passed the House -- H.R. 146, a proposal to protect Revolutionary War battlefields -- and strip its contents, replacing it with the omnibus lands bill.

Because the House already passed H.R. 146, the Rules Committee can approve a closed rule that would block a motion to recommit, eliminating the GOP's best procedural chance to stymie the bill. The chamber would only need a simple majority vote to concur with the Senate amendment.

Hastings said Democrats should stop their game of "Parliamentary Twister" and allow for a vote on the amendment. "Congress must not allow one federal judge to single-handedly deny Americans' their Second Amendment rights on federal land," he said.

The omnibus would designate more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states and establish three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, more than 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails. It would enlarge the boundaries of more than a dozen existing national park units and establish 10 new national heritage areas.

It would also authorize numerous land exchanges and conveyances to help local Western communities address water resource and supply issues and launch programs to study the effects of climate change on natural resources (E&E Daily, March 23).

The revised omnibus bill also includes language from Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) meant to ensure that the measure would not close off lands that are already open to hunting and fishing, but Hastings said last week's court ruling left "a giant hole" in that amendment.

Along with the guns amendment, Republican members of the Natural Resources Committee plan to offer nearly a dozen other amendments, including one that ensured motorized recreation is unaffected by the omnibus and another requiring a report on the bill's impact on renewable energy production.

House Democrats are expected to block any efforts by Republicans to offer amendments, because any change would require the omnibus to return to the Senate -- and another date with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- for a final vote before it could become law.

"Given the long, tortured history on the public land bill, I think it is time for the House to pass it and send it directly to the president," Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said in an e-mail.

Effect on omnibus

Hastings spokeswoman Jill Strait would not say whether House Republicans will push for defeat of the omnibus if a vote on the guns amendment is not allowed, saying in an e-mail, "Right now we are focused on getting the Democrat leadership to consider this bill in a fair and open process."

David Dreher, a government affairs representative for Campaign for America's Wilderness, said he hopes members will resist the guns amendment but did not expect it to affect final passage of the omnibus. "I don't give it any particular credence," Dreher said of the amendment. "This is a hugely popular bill."

This is not the first time the omnibus has faced the gun issue. When the Senate first began crafting the public lands package in late 2007, Coburn wanted to include an amendment that would have also amended Interior's gun rule, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blocked that effort.

Coburn then spent most of last year using procedural tactics to block the omnibus package, during which time lawmakers in both chambers proposed amendments that essentially mirrored the Interior Department plan.

The National Rifle Association, which pushed for the Interior rule change and has already filed an appeal against last week's injunction, is hopeful that the House will be allowed to vote on the amendment.

"We'll definitely be doing everything we can" to get the amendment passed, said NRA spokeswoman Alexa Fritts. "We are hopeful that [the amendment] will receive bipartisan support; that both Democrats and Republicans see it's a good rule that would ensure the safety of their constituents and our parks."

While the NRA, Republicans and some Western Democrats have supported the rule change, several conservation groups, law enforcement organizations and former National Park Service chiefs have spoken out against the change, calling it unnecessary and dangerous.

Three of those groups -- the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Coalition of Park Service Retirees and the National Parks Conservation Association -- filed the lawsuit against the Interior rule change that led to the injunction.

Bryan Faehner, associate director of NPCA, admitted that there is support in the House for changing the gun rule but doubted that there would be enough to either pass the amendment or defeat the omnibus if the amendment is blocked.

"At the end of the day, Western Democrats and other representatives from rural areas will see this is a reasonable regulation that park rangers need to do their job," Faehner said of the existing gun rule. "This is not about guns, this is about politics, and the [existing rules] have been working just fine."