I spent some of the Christmas holidays in Flamingo, the southernmost point in Everglades National Park. There are not many other ways I would rather spend my time.
Naturalist John Muir captured the wonder and value of the parks more than a century ago: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest … in our magnificent national parks — nature's sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world."
The beauty that inspired Muir inspires today's visitors to our national parks as well. But a lethal alien has invaded our parks, and it is destroying our expectations of tranquility.
The lethal alien is the gun.
Before Ronald Reagan's presidency, guns were not permitted in our national parks. Reagan signed a law, the beginning of mission creep, that let gun owners carry unloaded firearms or store them inside while visiting national parks.
George W. Bush overhauled the Reagan ban, allowing people to carry loaded guns in 373 of the nation's 392 sites where the National Park Service has jurisdiction. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and other groups filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge put Bush's measure on hold. Following more litigation in 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation that restored Bush's rule. Again, licensed gun owners could bring firearms into our national parks and wildlife refuges if weapons are allowed by state law.
I saw an ugly side of the law in Flamingo on Christmas Day when two fishermen stashed handguns in the glove compartments of their pickups before taking their boat into Florida Bay. An hour earlier, coincidentally, I had spoken with a law enforcement ranger about his career. He carried a high-caliber handgun. The weapon seemed out of place strapped to the hip of this helpful and jovial young man wearing that iconic Smokey Bear hat and drab uniform.
I thought of this ranger and the thousands of visitors he must protect as I listened on New Year's Day to reports of the shooting death of Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old law enforcement ranger in Mount Rainier National Park.
Anderson, who was married with two young daughters, had attempted to stop the car of Benjamin Barnes, who had driven into the park to escape police seeking to arrest him in connection with four shootings in Seattle. Anderson's main goal was to prevent the heavily armed Barnes from harming park visitors and personnel.
Granted, no law would have prevented Barnes from bringing guns into Mount Rainier. But the tragic event shows that firearms, especially in the hands of a dangerous fugitive, are alien to pristine places where families and individuals come for peace and quiet and the enjoyment of spectacular scenery and wildlife.
While we worry about the safety of visitors to our parks, we should be equally concerned about the safety of our law enforcement rangers who may have to risk their lives on a moment's notice. According to the Environment News Service, the park service's 1,000 law enforcement rangers face the highest number of felony assaults and the highest number of homicides of all federal law enforcement officers. Anderson is the latest to be killed. In 2002, a ranger pursuing drug cartel hit men was killed at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The National Rifle Association and its elected sycophants in Congress are wrong. And Obama was wrong to relent and sign the law allowing people to openly carry semiautomatic weapons, shotguns and rifles in our national parks.
"This law is a very bad idea," wrote Bill Wade, chairman of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "It is not in the best interests of the visitors to national parks, the resources to be protected in national parks, nor the employees in national parks. … Employees, especially law enforcement rangers, will be more at risk. And visitors will not only be more at risk, but will now see national parks as places where they need to be more suspicious and wary of others carrying guns, rather than safe and at peace in the solitude and sanctuary that parks have always provided. It is a sad chapter in the history of America's premier heritage area system."
National parks remain "America's Best Idea." Allowing guns in our parks is one of our dumbest ideas.