While NRA women are a diverse group of individuals with a diverse set of interests, I have found that most of us enjoy the great outdoors. We are engaged in hunting, fishing, camping and hiking, as well as a plethora of other outdoor activities. I recently took a trip to enjoy several of our National Parks. I was pleasantly surprised by how many women NRA members and Second Amendment advocates I met along the way. However, most didn’t fully understand how their Second Amendment rights apply on federal lands.
As I talked with my new friends, I asked them if they carried their firearms on their own property. Most people reply, “I don’t own any property.” What many people do not realize is, unique to being an American, we all own property in the form of public lands: state and federal. State parks and Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) are examples of state lands. Federal lands include National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges and Bureau of Land Management areas.
The right to carry a firearm on your own property is fully understood by most individuals. As a United States citizen, you are automatically a “landowner” and able to carry a firearm for protection on federal lands. The application of our Second Amendment rights on state lands varies from state to state. As such, it is your responsibility to know the laws regarding firearms in the state you are in.
As long as you meet the minimum criteria and are not disqualified under federal or state law, American citizens have the right to open carry handguns, shotguns and rifles on federal land. This constitutional right was guaranteed by the CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTABILITY RESPONSIBILITY AND DISCLOSURE ACT OF 2009, TITLE V MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS, Sec. 512: Protecting Americans from violent crime. This law was initially passed by the Bush administration, due to high profile crimes in National Parks. It was stopped from becoming law by an injunction by a D.C. Court in March of 2009 but became law later that year. Lawmakers wanted Americans to not only be able to protect themselves from animal predators, but human predators.
However, when researching the right to carry on federal land, there are many conflicting answers and interpretations. Phone calls to the National Parks Service and the Department of the Interior did not give me any straight answers. The individuals I talked to just referred me to the “Superintendent’s Compendium” of the park in question. The Superintendent’s Compendium is the set of rules governing each federal park, updated annually. I downloaded this document from two popular National Parks in the United States—Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park. To my surprise, neither park’s Superintendent’s Compendium addressed the issue of the right to open carry a firearm or the rules governing any type of carry within the parks. Both Superintendent’s Compendiums only stated that it is permissible to carry bear spray for protection.
I decided to go straight to the source to get answers. After interviewing multiple rangers, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement, in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park, I got the idea that exercising your right to bear arms in National Parks is strongly discouraged. When asked point blank if open carry is permitted, I was told, “Yes, but …” This does not mean you cannot open carry; it just means that the National Park Service does not openly endorse it.
When I asked a law enforcement ranger in Yellowstone National Park about the use of a firearm to protect yourself if being attacked by a grizzly bear, his response was that their main concern during an investigation would be why the individual did not use bear spray. The law does not require an individual to use one form of protection over another—it is up to the individual’s preference what to carry for protection. The ranger stated that it did not matter; this is what the investigators would look at. It was obvious, at least from this ranger’s answer, that the use of a firearm to protect yourself would be used against you in an investigation.
The thing to remember is that the intent of the CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTABILITY RESPONSIBILITY AND DISCLOSURE ACT OF 2009 was passed to give individuals that enter upon national lands the ability to protect oneself against human predators. Most National Parks have wildlife predators that can be a threat to humans. There are different laws that apply to human and wildlife encounters. It is your responsibility to know the laws that apply when encountering wildlife. For example, you are required to give way and keep at least 100 yards from any bear you encounter. In other words, you cannot claim a “stand your ground” defense if you were attacked while encroaching on the bear’s space. In areas with large carnivores, it is strongly encouraged that you carry bear spray as well as a firearm for defense.
Every ranger that I interviewed in both National Parks ultimately stated that U.S. citizens who meet the criteria and are not disqualified can openly carry their firearm. This means you are free to exercise your Second Amendment right to bear arms on federal lands if you follow the rules. Carry responsibly. Do not draw attention to yourself. You will be among all types of people, not just Second Amendment advocates. Remember, you represent all of us who fight everyday to make sure that everyone retains the right to bear arms.
Important Items Regarding Firearms in National Parks:
- This law applies to open carry.
- Keep this in mind if wearing a belt holster, so that you don’t accidentally conceal with a jacket if weather suddenly turns cold.
- Concealed carry is allowed if you have a concealed carry license from a reciprocal state and are not disqualified by that state.
- You cannot open or concealed carry in any building, including bathrooms, on federal property.
- Honorably retired state peace officers, even holding the federally approved I.D., are not exempt from restrictions.