Bush Ignored Warnings that 'Guns in Parks Rule' was Illegal

WASHINGTON -- The Bush Administration ignored warnings from senior career Interior Department officials that its last-minute rule change allowing the carrying of loaded, concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges was being hurried through in violation of Federal law, government documents obtained by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence show. 

The rule, which took effect on January 9, 2009, overturned Reagan-era restrictions on the carrying of loaded, concealed weapons in national parks. The documents were released late last week by the government in response to a lawsuit filed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The suit charges the new rule is unlawful because it was issued without any analysis of the rule’s impacts on the environment and park visitors’ safe use of the parks, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws.

“These documents show that the Bush Administration ignored the procedural concerns and safety warnings of two federal agencies in pushing for a last-minute rule to allow concealed weapons in national parks. The Bush Administration apparently cared more about pleasing the gun lobby than following the law in making this post-election rule change,” said Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke.

According to the Interior Department documents, the National Park Service’s Chief of its Environmental Quality Division, Jacob Hoogland, warned in an April 3, 2008, e-mail that the rule “required additional NEPA analysis” and that “at minimum an Environmental Assessment should be prepared on the proposed revision to the existing firearms regulation.” Similarly, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chief of its Division of Policy and Directives Management, Michael Schwartz, warned in a May 14, 2008, e-mail, “The rule was published before they did any NEPA analysis. Last week, I pointed out that this is a procedural flaw.” The documents are available here.

Then-Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne responded with a memo on August 22, 2008, stating that the rule is “one of my top priorities,” and the rule was then issued without the environmental analysis required by law.

The documents also show that the rule was strongly opposed by the National Park Service, whose Bush-appointed Director, Mary Bomar, wrote in a July 31, 2007, letter, “We believe that the [previous] regulations [restricting guns in parks] provide necessary and consistent enforcement parameters throughout the National Park System.” The new rule allows guns in rural and urban national park areas around the country, from Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park and California’s Yosemite National Park to Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, home of the Liberty Bell. The suit was filed on behalf of the Brady Campaign and its members, including a school teacher in New York who said she was canceling school trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty now that guns are allowed in these national park areas. 

The suit charges that the Bush Administration violated several federal laws in its rush to implement the new rule before President Bush left office, including failing to conduct any environmental review of the harm that the new rule will cause, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit also points out that the new rule was adopted in violation of the National Park Service Organic Act and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, which created the parks and wildlife refuges as protected lands for safe enjoyment of all visitors.

Rules in place since the Reagan Administration have allowed visitors to transport guns in national parks and wildlife refuges if they are unloaded and stored or dismantled.  These restrictions have helped make these areas some of the safest places to visit in the country. At the behest of the gun lobby, however, the Interior Department announced last year that it planned to allow concealed firearms in national parks and wildlife refuges. The last-minute Bush rule allows the carrying of concealed weapons even in states that specifically ban the practice in state parks.

The Brady Campaign filed its lawsuit challenging the rule on December 30, 2008.  The National Parks Conservation Association and Coalition of National Park Service Retirees filed a similar suit on January 6, 2009.



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