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In a victory for gun rights advocates, the federal government is preparing to relax a decades-old ban on bringing loaded firearms into national parks.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said Friday that his department would suggest new regulations by the end of April that could bring federal rules into line with state laws concerning guns in parks and public lands. His announcement came in a letter to 51 senators who have written to him about the issue.

A near majority of the Senate, including Democrats and Republicans from Western states, has backed a drive to repeal the ban, which has been in place in some parks for at least 100 years.

The proposed rule change might let visitors carry loaded weapons into national parks in states with few gun restrictions, such as Montana.

Gun rights advocates, notably the National Rifle Association, have said the ban infringes on their Second Amendment rights to bear arms and their ability to defend themselves from predators, human and animal.

"Here in Montana, we are very used to being able to provide for our own personal protection," said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

Kempthorne's decision to review the ban was hailed by the NRA. "This is an important step in the right direction," said the organization's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox.

The National Parks Conservation Association called Kempthorne's action alarming. Tom Kiernan, the group's president, said a loosening of the ban would be "a blow to the national parks and the 300-million visitors who enjoy them every year."

His view is echoed by gun control advocates and some rangers who say permitting firearms would be dangerous for visitors and wildlife and would alter the national park experience.

"Parks have long been sanctuaries for both animals and people," said Butch Farabee, a former acting superintendent at Montana's Glacier National Park. "There need to be places in this country where people can feel secure without guns and know that the guy in the campground across the way does not have one."