Guns in parks. ... It's complicated

Two months ago, as the busy summer season was winding down at Yellowstone National Park, 3-year-old Ella Marie Tucker found her father's gun and shot herself.

Park rangers tried to resuscitate her. But Ella died, the victim of the first fatal shooting in the park since 1978.

Her death came almost four years after Congress passed a new law allowing loaded guns in national parks. At first, the tragedy seemed a realization of critics' worst fears: a child's death, all because guns were allowed in the quintessential embodiment of America's backyard.

The reality is much more complicated.

Officials at parks throughout the country say the law change has so far affected little, beyond complaints from visitors surprised to see an assault rifle openly carried on a visitor's shoulder or a handgun secured to a belt. Statistics from the National Park Service show no clear spike in crime, violent or otherwise. The parks had 282 million visitors last year, and police investigated six homicides. On the whole, parks appear safe.


Charles Cuvelier, the chief of law enforcement, security and emergency services at NPS, said officials don't keep separate data on crimes with guns.

"I don't know that I can draw any specific conclusions as to what the law did or did not do," he said. "We just don't track it at that level."

Each park is also different. One might allow hunting for historical reasons, making the law almost moot. Another may have little land beyond buildings, where guns still are not allowed.

At Yellowstone, officials are investigating four illegal discharges this year, including the one that killed Ella. That's slightly above average. But Chief Ranger Tim Reid said it's difficult to draw clear cause-and-effect conclusions.

In Ella's case, "I don't think necessarily you can link it to the gun law. I don't," he said. "It could happen at home. It could happen anywhere. ... I think it's a base-line, fundamental firearm safety issue."

The other three discharges may shed more light on the legal issues park officials will face in the coming years. They neatly run the gamut: One was a visitor using a tree for target practice, another served as a warning shot at a grizzly, and a third euthanized a sick horse in the backcountry.

Such incidents are "new territory for the National Park Service," said Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent of the Colorado National Monument and spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. They mirror warnings from the coalition, which opposed the gun law change when lawmakers proposed it back in 2009.

But Anzelmo emphasized that the group now supports NPS in its efforts to implement the law. Still, it's a cultural change. Where visitors could once assume guns were absent, they are now openly carried.

"America values parks as extra-special sanctuaries," she said. "We do think adding extra guns to the beautiful parts of the national parks adds new challenges."

A patchwork of rules

The 2009 law -- which was applied in 2010 -- requires national parks to follow the state gun laws. It was buried in a credit card reform package, a victory for conservatives and gun rights advocates.

The Park Service's main challenge at first was administrative. National parks had operated under a single rule for almost a century: no loaded guns, period. Visitors were allowed to keep guns unloaded and disassembled in their cars, but carrying the weapon was against the rules.

When the law went into effect, officials were faced with a patchwork of state laws. Some allowed concealed weapons, others didn't. Licenses valid in one state might not be valid in another -- even if a single park spread across both.

In the end, NPS put the burden on the visitor. Park websites provide links to state laws, and it's up to a gun-toting visitor to know whether he or she has the necessary permits.

In Yellowstone, that can be tricky. The park is in three states, each with its own nuanced gun code. Cross over an invisible line in the backcountry, and you could go from law-abiding to criminal.

Reid said rangers have become "students of the nuances and differences in three state laws" to help visitors who carry firearms. At times, it can verge on the ridiculous. A hip firearm covered by the edge of a jacket, for example, may count as concealed in one state and not in another.

The 2009 law was also very specific: It applied only to guns. So a visitor can carry along an assault rifle to Old Faithful -- but the minute he takes out a bow and arrow or a slingshot, he's broken federal law. Guns also are not allowed in federal facilities, such as visitor centers, under an exception.

Mark Magnuson, the chief ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, was hard-pressed to come up with examples of the law's effects. But one was immediate confusion from visitors.

"The year after the law change, we had several complaints from visitors about people openly carrying firearms -- which was now legal," he said. "So it was a little bit of an educational learning curve for members of the public, but not a huge deal."

A gray area

A possible consequence that is hard to track is easier poaching, particularly in the larger parks that have become sanctuaries for wildlife that may be legally hunted just a few miles away.

Before 2010, park rangers could assume that anyone carrying a weapon in the backcountry was hunting. It was an easy way to discourage the practice: Loaded firearms were illegal, so rangers could immediately take action.

But that is no longer the case. Proving that someone is hunting -- short of seeing the person shoot an animal -- is a time-consuming operation. What was once a relatively easy citation has become a study in people and behaviors, rangers say.

Rangers might have to prove, for example, that hunters are tracking animals, moving in such a way as to drive them off protected parklands and into legal hunting areas.

Though shooting an animal is illegal inside a national park, hunters are often able to legally take certain animals on the perimeter. In some cases, it's a way to manage animal populations, such as deer.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, park officials once directed hunters to travel with unloaded weapons along designated corridors in the park to access legal hunting areas, according to Magnuson. Now hunters can travel across the park however they choose.

Randall Kendrick, an officer in the National Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he had not heard of any increase in poaching since the law went into effect. But he argues that park rangers are already spread thin, especially when it comes to monitoring poaching.

"The rangers don't get to go out there," he said. "They're not exposed to the profit-driven poaching activity because they're out there so infrequently. You can't blame the chief ranger because he needs rangers where there are people."

But many park officials said that the law has had little effect on their day-to-day responsibilities at parks. That's because law enforcement rangers are already trained to assume suspects are carrying firearms -- and for the most part, visitors don't cart around guns or fire them.

At Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, rangers mostly give out speeding tickets, said spokeswoman Valerie Gohlke. And most visitors come to see the caverns, where guns aren't allowed under the exception for federal facilities.

Similarly, at Blue Ridge Parkway, the law change was almost a nonissue, with officers already used to stopping drivers carrying guns. The parkway is used as a throughway by many, who get on the road and then get off a few miles later, never visiting the park itself.

"We were already somewhat -- I don't want to say lenient -- understanding of the situation," said Chief Ranger Steve Stinnett. "We did then what we do now: make sure they have a valid permit."

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