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Buffalo paddlers could be armed under Lincoln bill.

click to enlarge NO GUNS: There's no confusion about current rules at Hot Springs National Park.
  • NO GUNS: There's no confusion about current rules at Hot Springs National Park.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln announced recently that she'll introduce a bill to let people carry guns in national parks. She said the move would “restore a 2nd Amendment right.”

Such a bill wouldn't restore anything, however, but would make it legal for the first time for that inebriated guy paddling past you on the Buffalo River to carry a loaded pistol. Or the guy camping next to you. Or the meth addict looting the woods for Indian artifacts to sell (a more common problem than one might think). Or anyone who, provoked, has a tendency to become spring-locked in the pissed-off position, as folks around here like to say.

The Bush administration implemented an 11th-hour rule in December to allow loaded, concealed guns in all parks that are part of the national system. In Arkansas, that includes Hot Springs National Park, the Buffalo National River, Central High School National Historic Site, Pea Ridge National Military Park, Arkansas Post National Memorial and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Ruling in a suit filed by retired National Park Service employees, a parks conservation group and the Brady gun-safety organization, a federal judge in March temporarily blocked implementation of the rule, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the government's rationale in imposing the rule was “astoundingly flawed.”

Buffalo National River Park Superintendent Kevin Cheri says it's a great thing that Sen. Lincoln is keen on the river and makes it a point to float the Buffalo at least once a year, sometimes camping or staying in a cabin. “We're proud of the fact that we've got a senator who knows where we are,” he said. “I can't speak more highly of her.”

But if the current rule survives the court challenge or Lincoln is successful at making a new law, Cheri predicts use of the Buffalo River is going to decline.

“It's going to affect visitation,” Cheri said. When some visitors to the park “see others with guns, they're not going to come back,” especially after the first person gets hurt.

Allowing firearms in the park presents a number of problems for rangers, Cheri noted. If anyone can carry a gun in, those who intend mischief won't be immediately recognizable. “They won't draw attention to themselves,” he said. Guns might lead to more taking of wildlife, by poachers or those who feel threatened by wildlife. 

But the biggest problem Cheri sees, perhaps, is that otherwise rational people might, after a few beers on the river, harm themselves or others. One recent weekend, Cheri noted, a fight among campers got out of hand at Rush and someone was stabbed. Had there been a gun among the brawlers, someone could have gotten killed, Cheri noted. “They weren't low lifes,” Cheri said. “They were intoxicated.”

The gun lobby's position is that people need to be able to protect themselves while camping and recreating. But Cheri says the presence of handguns — and, he added, if the rule holds “they'll be all over the place” — may create trouble where there was none previously.

Cheri said that no one had approached him or other park officials directly to complain that they couldn't bring in a sidearm. Historically, however, Cheri said, park visitors did complain when rangers started wearing sidearms. Previous to the 1970s, rangers were required to carry any weapon unloaded and out of sight, in a pack.

The Park Service hopes Congress will “consider the fact that that when it comes to federal reservations, people come to recreate and regulations aren't to take away people's rights but to protect those who do come there to relax and enjoy,” Cheri said.

Lincoln could not find time to talk to the Times, a spokesperson said. UPDATE: Sen. Lincoln did try to call the Times office, but it was after hours, spokesman Katie Laning Niebaum said Wednesday, and Niebaum sent an e-mail to that effect last week. There was no response to a follow-up e-mail from the Times. The Times regrets the confusion.

Hot Springs National Park is, at 5,000 acres, the state's second largest national park and includes an urban segment — downtown Hot Springs' Bathhouse Row. Its superintendent, Josie Fernandez, declined to comment on whether concealed weapons would present a problem in the park. Should the Bush rule go into effect, the bathhouses would not be affected; as federal buildings, guns are not allowed inside, just as they're prohibited in courthouses and post offices. Signs posted in front of the bathhouses remind visitors of that.

 

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