"Along with cameras, coolers and camping gear, visitors to Biscayne and Everglades national parks sometimes pack something else: Guns.
Bonnie Foist, chief ranger at Everglades for a decade, said rangers encounter enough illegal firearms -- they wrote 132 violations last year -- that it's the first thing they ask about when stopping someone.
' `Do you have a weapon aboard or in your car?' It's the standard question,'' Foist said. ``We want to know what we're facing.''
What they may soon face is a lot more visitors with weapons -- and a new right to keep them loaded. Under pressure from 50 U.S. senators and the National Rifle Association, the Bush administration is considering dropping a 25-year-old federal restriction on loaded weapons in parks.
National Park Service rules already allow guns -- but only unloaded and stored so they are not ''readily accessible.'' Gun-rights advocates argue that restriction infringes on their ability to defend themselves.
''Having a firearm loaded puts you in a better position to protect yourself,'' said Barbara Jean Powell, spokeswoman for the Everglades Coordinating Council, a coalition of hunting and outdoors groups. 'Every time I read about some woman walking in a park who gets abducted and murdered, I think, `If she had a firearm, she might have had a chance.' ''
The change is opposed by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees -- which sometimes speaks for rangers on charged issues -- gun-control advocates and environmental groups. They say it will only make parks more dangerous.
Sara Fain, program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association in South Florida, called the push ``an election-year ploy by the NRA.''
''You take a holiday weekend in Biscayne National Park. It's extremely crowded. You have plenty of alcohol around. You mix that with guns and you have a lethal combination,'' she said. ``The parks have been safe for 25 years. Why are we looking to change the rule?''
If they've been safe, Soccer-Mom-Sara, then why does law enforcement carry there? Better yet, are you personally ready to guarantee that no harm will ever come to anyone in one of our Parks? I mean, since you're so SURE and all, will you make things right if something terrible goes down?
n 2006, state lawmakers lifted a weapons ban in national forests and state parks, facing virtually no opposition. A few months ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission followed up by making the same change in wildlife management areas, which includes the Big Cypress National Preserve and many state forests, where only hunting weapons were previously allowed in season.
CHANGE COMING JULY 1
That change, which goes into effect on July 1, also passed without protest or media attention. It was included in a long list of hunting changes, but Don Coyner, the FWC's section leader for public hunting, said the ''liberalization'' of gun rules was outlined on the agency website and in presentations to the commission.
''There just was not a lot of concern on either side of the fence,'' he said, although some state wildlife officers had questioned the move. Coyner said FWC staff proposed the change to address complaints from the public and to resolve conflicts with state statutes, he said. The original reason for the decades-old restrictions -- to limit poaching -- also has changed, he said.
''Our deer herds were plummeting [then]. We don't feel that's a valid concern now,'' Coyner said. `We just felt it was the right and proper thing to do. It's about freedom.''
"Powell, who had long urged the FWC move, dismissed critics' suggestions of outbreaks of gunplay as a scare tactic. ``There are tens of millions of Americans carrying guns every day for self-protection and we aren't shooting each other.''
YAY X 2!
"Under the changes, no one would be allowed to openly display weapons, but people with concealed weapons permits could carry loaded guns. Others could possess them in parks if they are secured in a case or container inaccessible to minors.
Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said the parks push was part of an NRA strategy to put ''more guns in more places.'' Advocates for restrictions were already struggling to stave off a push to allow weapons in work places, an effort that has re-emerged in Tallahassee this year.
''It's one of those [issues] we felt we couldn't win, and we have other issues we had to concentrate on,'' Hayhoe said.
"Marion Hammer, executive director of the Unifed Sportsmen of Florida and the NRA's chief lobbyist in Tallahassee, said the old rules were unconstitutional and confusing and changes were ''common sense.'' For instance, she said, a gun owner who had to drive through a wildlife management area, such as the Big Cypress, to get home would be in technical violation.
Hammer, citing two hikers murdered in 2006 in the Ocala National Forest, said wilderness area also had become increasingly dangerous, targeted by serial killers who knew victims would be unarmed.
''In addition to defense from two-legged predators, there are also four-legged predators,'' she said. ``A law-abiding person ought to be able to carry any legal firearm anywhere they go.''
You GO, Girl!
"National Park Service statistics show parks have actually become safer places, with major criminal offenses declining by 25 percent from 1995 to 2006, dropping from 6,009 to 4,485.
With urban Miami on the borders, rangers in South Florida's national parks and preserves aren't surprised when a Glock shows up in a glovebox or boat console -- but they don't particularly want to see more of them.
''Any time there is a possibility of increasing or enhancing the number of firearms you have around people,'' Foist said, ``there is a concern for law enforcement.''
Didier Carod, acting chief ranger at Biscayne National Park, said he knows many owners of expensive yachts and boats carry weapons. ''In this environment, I wouldn't necessarily think it's a bad thing,'' he said.
In 2003, Biscayne landed at No. 6 on The Fraternal Order of Police list of ''most dangerous national parks'' because of its small ranger force (now four, with two in training) and long list of risks -- drug and migrant smugglers, lobster and fish poachers, drunken boaters and holiday weekend partyers, all topped by a nuclear power plant on its isolated border.
''I'm kind of biased because I'm always armed,'' Carod said. ``I take a gun everywhere, just to drop my child off at school.''
But he still thinks the existing rules work well, allowing weapons but with the safety margin of keeping it locked up and unloaded. ``I have seem many times where emotions take over and if they had a firearm on their person, they would have done the stupid thing.''
Good to see that you can read minds, Carod, and absolutely KNOW that those beneath you, the little people, would do "the stupid thing."
And there you have it.
The sick, lame, and lazy, the elitists, the frenzied nanny's, the tree-huggers, law enforcement. People in positions of authority who worry about THEIR safety over yours. Those in charge who just do not believe that the average American can be trusted.
Thanks to everyone who DOES trust us and fought hard to return a basic Right.
To all the others, ESAD.
The positive side to all of this, aside from the fact that we've won an important victory, is that our enemies have identified themselves. They're the ones scared of us. As they should be.