A group of Western Republicans are searching high and low for an opportunity to push ahead with legislation to allow citizens to bring concealed weapons into national parks.
House and Senate bills would codify a Bush-era rule to allow visitors to carry concealed firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges in states with concealed carry laws. A federal judge blocked the rule last month, siding with anti-gun and conservation groups that argued Interior failed to conduct an environmental assessment as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"This is not an environmental issue, this is a civil rights issue," said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, H.R. 1684. "The Constitution trumps NEPA. Period."
In court filings late last week, Interior said it would comply with U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly's injunction but asked for Kollar-Kotelly not to issue a final ruling until it conducts the environmental analysis (Greenwire, April 20).
"The Interior can still do its review, but my intention is to proceed with our legislation," said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), one of the co-sponsors of the Senate bill, S. 816. "This continues to be a question that needs an answer."
Crapo and co-sponsor Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) were instrumental in getting 51 senators to press former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to re-examine the National Park Service's gun policy in late 2007.
Interior's gun rules were established in the 1930s to bar poaching. They were amended in 1983 by the Reagan administration to allow a firearm to be carried into parks and refuges if the gun is unloaded.
Methods for passage
Bringing a standalone gun bill to the House or Senate floor is likely a nonstarter, and it is unclear whether President Obama would even sign such a measure. That means sponsors are on the lookout for the right legislative vehicle.
"I could see us proposing it as an amendment to a parks bill" in the Natural Resources Committee, said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the panel's ranking member. "The easiest way to resolve this issue is to pass the intent of the Kempthorne rule as law."
Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) supports the Kempthorne rule, but spokeswoman Allyson Groff said it is unlikely he would support a guns bill or amendment until the Interior Department completes its review.
"There is an administrative process in place, and Chairman Rahall believes that it is best to allow that process to proceed and come to a conclusion," Groff said in an e-mail.
Another likely target is the fiscal 2010 Interior appropriations bill.
Hastings did not rule out that option, noting it would force the issue out in the open much the same way a proposed amendment to last year's spending bill to open the outer continental shelf to oil and natural gas development expanded the energy debate last summer.
But House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who opposes the rule change, said it is unlikely a gun amendment would get much of the same traction as the OCS issue.
"The OCS issue was very hot and driven by the oil prices," Dicks said. "It'll be a big thing with the [National Rifle Association], but really it's just a wedge issue."
Last month, Bishop and Hastings attempted to attach their gun bill as an amendment to a public lands omnibus bill. When that effort failed, they wrote a letter to House members asking them to defeat the omnibus. The package passed the House 285-140 (E&ENews PM, March 25).
Rule of law
Supporters of the Bush-era rule, who argue the change is needed to clear up confusion about conflicting gun statutes, said that there is no reason to wait for Interior to finish its review.
"We believe the Kempthorne rule was a common-sense correction to an outdated rule," said Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, noting that 31 states already allow concealed carry in their own parks and that Montana, Tennessee and Mississippi have similar proposals pending.
"An impartial scientific look at the rule would do nothing but confirm what the states have realized," Cox said.
Robert Levy, chairman of the CATO Institute's board of directors, noted that establishing the gun rule as law rather than as an Interior regulation would help guard the policy change from additional litigation. "There is considerable question whether the Interior Department should be passing the rules to begin with," he said. By establishing it as a law, "Congress can decide whether there needs to be NEPA review."
While the NRA, Republicans and some Western Democrats have supported the rule change, several conservation groups, law enforcement organizations and former National Park Service directors have spoken out against the change.
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 that led to the injunction, and representatives of those groups said they are cautiously optimistic that any move to make the rule a law would not get very far.
"Clearly they'll be continued interest from certain members of Congress to codify the Bush administration rule," said Bryan Faehner, associate director of NPCA. "But this has happened before without success."