The amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to the credit card legislation, to permit guns in national parks, has passed and has been signed by President Obama. It's been hotly debated here and elsewhere (full disclosure: I like national parks, which is why this diary series focuses on national parks, and I don't think guns belong in national parks). There's no use crying over spilt milk, but what has been learned? What can Democrats, environmentalists, Congressional strategists, and others learn from this?
If you've read my diary series (formerly under the name indigoblueskies), you know that it's only mildly political, and might even slide into the "community" diaries realm. No pootie pix, but I've explored the effect of federal stimulus money on Mt. Hood, OR; I've discussed emulating John F. Kennedy and taking a 50 mile walk; but mostly, I've talked about how wild places nourish both the soul and the body, encouraging you to explore a vernal pond, hike in Yosemite, or just get your body moving outdoors. This law struck close to my themes, and it needs to be discussed on a website whose mission is electing more and better Democrats. Next week I'll go back to the usual pictures and musings.
For those who haven't been paying attention: Guns have been outlawed in national parks since the Reagan years. One of Bush's midnight regulations, opposed by national parks superintendents but favored by the National Rifle Association, permitted people to carry concealed weapons in national parks to the same extent that they could carry concealed weapons in their own state parks. In March 2009, a judge threw out the regulation, holding that it was "astoundingly flawed," particularly focusing on the environmental impact of shooting guns. Obama's Department of the Interior decided not to appeal. Earlier this month, Coburn attached an amendment to the credit card legislation that permitted people to carry guns if "the possession of the firearm is in compliance with the law of the State in which the unit of the National Park System or the National Wildlife Refuge System is located."
27 Senate Democrats voted for the amendment along with all of the Republicans, official details here. The House took the unusual step of voting on the original credit card legislation and the amendment separately. 174 out of the 178 Republicans voted yes, while the Dems split 105 yeas and 175 noes, official details here.
Lesson no. 1 hasn't been fully written yet. Did Coburn add the amendment as a poison pill to derail the credit card legislation, but failed because everyone wanted the credit card legislation so badly; or did he attach his amendment to a popular bill because he wanted the amendment to pass? Pro-gun advocates in the Democratic party are Blue Dogs and Westerners...or are they all afraid of the NRA? They voted cynically, expecting that it'll get worked out in committee...or did they honestly believe that permitting tourists and hunters to carry guns in national parks would really increase the safety of innocent Americans?
Lesson no. 2, on political strategy and tactics, possibly premature, but we Democrats were pwned! I accuse both President Obama and the Senate Democratic leadership for this. Harry Reid voted FOR the amendment! Some news stories reported that Obama just didn't care:
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., an unabashed admirer of the president...said, "I don't think he put a lot of energy into it." Issues such as national security and the distressed economy deserve greater attention, at least for now, he said, adding that the president "picks his fights very carefully."
However, I have a different theory. Obama let it be known that he wanted the credit card legislation signed by Memorial Day. Normally, competing House and Senate versions of a bill would go to a conference committee, where amendments can be removed without public votes. However, the House voted on Wednesday, May 20, and Obama signed it on Friday, May 22 -- this bill didn't have time to go to committee. Many Democrats voted "yes" on the amendment because they're afraid of the NRA, believing that the amendment would be taken out in committee and their vote would simply be symbolic. Instead, they were outmaneuvered by the Republicans.
I'm no expert in Congressional procedure, and if I'm wrong, someone will surely tell me in the comments, but I do know how to time a motion so as to ruin my opposing counsel's three day weekend, and I think that a variation on this occurred. Similarly, if Obama had simply been willing to wait one week, the bill could have gone to committee without Obama needing to pick a fight with the NRA. Instead, we -- as Democrats -- got pwned.
Or, as the Boston Globe noted today:
Now that Congress and Obama have shown that guns in our parks are more important than the men and women we employ to protect us in them, there is no telling what next critical aspect of the environment they will cave in on. When they elevate guns to the status of eagles, bears, and our vistas, there is no guarantee for preservation of the real thing.
Lesson no. 3: Gee, so now maybe we can get single payer health care passed by adding a guns-in-hospitals amendment?
Lesson no. 4: There is quite a bit of confusion among Kossacks, and presumably elsewhere, regarding the scope of the Coburn amendment. It is substantially broader than the original draft Bush rule. The original draft rule permitted people to carry concealed and loaded guns in their national parks if they could do so in their state park; this one permits people to carry guns -- not necessarily concealed -- if permitted in their state. If you're wondering where you shall be issued a gun permit, where you may be issued a gun permit, or otherwise:
Lesson no. 5: I classified the pro-gun arguments on DKos (and I hadn't realized how many Kossacks are also NRA members!) into three separate groups: those concerned with animal vs human aggression, those concerned with human vs human aggression, and those concerned with philosophy (the Second Amendment and general civil libertarians). The first two arguments are largely factually unsupported; for example, a handgun probably won't do much good to stop an enraged grizzly bear, and the incidence of crime in the national parks is extraordinarily low, and quite probably both arguments serve as cover for the third. As for philosophy, maybe there's just a genuine difference of opinion: those who can only focus on their absolute and unfettered right to take their guns everywhere, no matter how inappropriate, vs. those who appreciate that we're talking about national parks, dammit! Just as your right to swing your fist ends at my face, your right to bear arms (and drive a snowmobile, and drive a 18 wheeler truck, and many other rights/privileges) ends at the boundaries of the Grand Canyon.
This photo of Grand Teton National Park (credit NPS), located in Wyoming, a shall-issue-gun-permit state, perhaps explains, better than my words can, why our wilderness needs reverence and awe, not hunters and poachers.
Lesson no. 6 (forthcoming): The NRA will push the envelope of the new law beginning February 22, 2010 (when it goes into effect). Federal regulations probably already prohibit bringing guns into the White House. However, many national historical sites and national monuments are arguably covered by the Coburn amendment. Just in shall-issue-permit Pennsylvania alone, the Independence National Historical Park (the Liberty Bell) and the Flight 93 Memorial site make my long list of Dumb Places to Carry Guns.
Lesson no. 7: This law is largely symbolic -- I hope. I hope that it won't have a big impact on the national park experience. I hope people will still feel free to hike, ride horses, climb rocks, kayak, spot deer, marvel at elk, and experience wilderness. I hope that responsible gun owners will leave their guns at home when they go on vacation. I hope existing laws against poaching will deter responsible gun owners from taking potshots at grizzly bears just because they can. I hope this law won't hasten the gray wolf's long slow slide toward extinction.
Lesson no. 8: This law will stay in effect until the first black bear is killed by a poacher...and then nothing will change, because those who care about black bears will get shouted down by the pro-gun lobby. Further, this law will stay in effect until the first Boy Scout is killed by a hunter...and then, who knows?
Lesson no. 9: Look to Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains, or the Blue Ridge Parkway to see Lesson no. 8 play out. These have healthy black bear populations; black bears are very popular with poachers; Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are shall-issue-gun-permit states; these parks are easily accessible to much of the East Coast; and they're relatively small compared to Yellowstone or other great Western parks, meaning that armed human-animal interactions are more likely. (photo credit NPS)
Lesson no. 10: What about the environmental impact? The Bush era regulation was struck down because it was rushed through without any pretense of an environmental impact study. Lead poisoning from bullets harms endangered animals. I'm no expert on environmental law, but the Coburn amendment shouldn't trump well established laws requiring detailed environmental impact studies. The DailyKos rhetoric last week focused on gun law rhetoric, not national park laws. The next round will be at the local level, as environmental impact studies are done for each park.
In the meantime, hike on (safely)!