Over the Fourth of July weekend, Glenn Martin was sitting with his grandchildren around a campfire in Colorado’s Pike National Forest, preparing to roast marshmallows. “Ow,” his daughter reported him saying as he suddenly slumped over, blood pouring from his mouth. The 60-year-old had been fatally hit with a stray bullet that had come tearing through the surrounding trees.
Martin’s death has sparked renewed interest in the use of firearms in much of America’s vast wilderness: two newspaper reports published in the weeks after the incident found that United States Forest Service Officers have dealt with 8,500 shooting incidents in national forests in the last five years. In Colorado alone, “citations, warnings and reports of people shooting guns improperly…more than tripled” from 2010 to 2014, according to USA Today.
The use and possession of firearms in national forests has always been generally permitted. But a few years ago, gun rights advocates fought a battle to change the policy for the forests’ more-protected cousins, National Parks. While the two types of wilderness preserves are often located adjacent to one another — Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, lies next to the Cherokee, Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests — National Parks largely forbid the possession of firearms. That changed in 2010, when a small, last-minute amendment to a consumer protection law significantly changed the rules for bringing firearms into millions of acres of federally protected land.
The first firearm regulations on National Park grounds were put in place in 1936, when the Department of the Interior restricted gun possession and use to prevent poaching. The policy was enhanced in 1983 to prohibit possessing, carrying, or using a firearm outside of certain approved areas and hunting seasons, with an exception for firearms kept in a car or mobile home “when such implements are rendered inoperable or packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.” The revision effectively mandated that visitors store their guns, unloaded, in a car trunk or equivalent while in a national park. After four months of public comment, President Ronald Reagan approved it.
It’s a policy that remained for a quarter century, until its demise six years under unexpected circumstances. Elizabeth Warren — not yet the junior senator from Massachusetts — played a prominent role in securing the passage of the Credit CARD Act of 2009. The bill’s proponents sought to put a stop to what they deemed predatory practices on the part of credit card companies. The House passed the original bill, introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York in 2008, but the Senate refused to vote on it. It was reintroduced in the next session of Congress, again passed the House, and again went to the Senate, where it sat until May 2009.
The second time around, President Obama joined Warren in an aggressive lobbying campaign, holding town halls and publicizing consumers’ credit card horror stories. There was significant pressure on the Senate to act before Memorial Day, and leaders of both parties going back and forth before eventually reaching a deal the week of May 10.
Soon after the compromise announcement, an amendment to the bill was introduced, quickly voted on, and passed. This new measure had nothing to do with borrowers or lenders. Instead, Section 512 carried the title “Protecting Americans from Violent Crimes,” and it dismantled all existing federal restrictions on firearm possession for visitors to the national park system outside Alaska. State laws — including concealed carry statutes — would govern national forest areas instead.
Behind the maneuver was a group of Republicans led by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who teamed up with a small group of red state Democrats who had surfed the Obama wave into office — and were now looking ahead to tough reelection fights — to get the amendment attached during the final negotiating process. Coburn, a wily senate veteran and master of parliamentary procedure, insisted at the time that it wasn’t “a ‘gotcha’ amendment,” but some assumed it was a poison pill meant to kill the larger bill. In reality, it was a more standard rider, taking advantage of the time crunch and the bill’s groundswell of support to gain passage when it likely would have failed on its own. “Timing is everything in politics,” Coburn told the Times. “I don’t like guns necessarily. What I want is those constitutional rights to be protected.”
The timing was indeed important. Just two months earlier, on March 20, a federal judge had blocked an eleventh-hour George W. Bush administration rule change that allowed visitors to national parks to carry loaded, concealed weapons if local state law permitted it. A lawsuit brought by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and another conservation group, alleged that the action violated several federal laws. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly agreed, finding officials “abdicated their Congressionally-mandated obligation” to evaluate the rule change’s environmental impacts.
That ruling remained in place through May 2009, when Coburn and his allies slipped the rider into the Credit CARD Act. When the bill passed on May 22 — the day before Memorial Day weekend — the legislation superseded the judge’s injunction. And for the first time in more than 25 years, visitors to national parks were again allowed to carry loaded weapons along with their picnic provisions.
[Photo: Flickr user Tom Bricker]