President Obama last week signed a much-discussed credit card reform bill, after Congress attached an utterly nongermane provision having more to do with reloading than refinancing. An amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) forces a reckless about-face on a Reagan-era rule which had, for a quarter-century, barred national park visitors from carrying loaded weapons. The original policy was enacted in 1983 as a way to combat poaching in these few remaining safe havens for wildlife, where rangers are few, miles of roads and trails are many, and animals are accustomed to the presence of people.
The rhetoric favoring the guns-in-parks amendment often verged on the absurd, and Erich Pratt, director of communications at Gun Owners of America, offered the most startling of arguments: "People have been raped, murdered, attacked by wild animals," Pratt told Congressional Quarterly. "Whether you're in national parks or Washington, D.C., it's just not right to tell people that you can't protect yourself and we will punish you if you try to."
The data show that national parks are some of the safest places in the United States. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, there were 1.65 violent crimes per 100,000 national park visitors in 2006, compared to 473.5 victims per 100,000 citizens that same year. In other words, you're about 287 times more likely to be murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted if you're outside a national park.
And what about those vicious wild animal attacks? Hunter and author Ted Kerasote, who lives in Wyoming within Grand Teton National Park, suggests that "pepper spray is a far better deterrent than a .44 magnum, especially in the hands of the inexperienced. I've now used it to turn a charging moose, dissuade a cantankerous bison and send a bear scurrying. The animals had a coughing fit, and I a scare, a far better outcome than guns often produce."
In fact, the new rule is likely to make national park visitors less safe around wildlife. Packing heat could give some people a false sense of security and make them more likely to approach bison, elk, moose, and grizzly bears, rather than keep a safe distance which is better for both people and animals.
But the most certain outcome of this congressional action is that it will promote poaching. The National Park Service warned in its fiscal 2006 budget submission to Congress that "the poaching of wildlife from national parks has been steadily increasing each year for the past several years ... The data suggests that there is a significant domestic as well as international trade for illegally taken plant and animal parts." Poaching, the agency said, "is suspected to be a factor in the decline of at least 29 species of wildlife and could cause the extirpation of 19 species from the parks."
Rather than listen to the very agency charged with stopping poachers and safeguarding wildlife in our national parks, Congress listened to the bombast and balderdash of the gun lobby. The shot will be heard for generations, and our wildlife will pay the high interest on this credit card bill.