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Congress votes to allow guns in national parks

Matthew Daly

In a stinging defeat for gun-control advocates, Congress has voted to allow people to carry loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.

The House approved the measure, 279-147, on Wednesday, one day after the Senate acted.

A total of 105 Democrats in the House joined 174 Republicans in supporting the gun measure, which essentially restores a Bush administration policy that briefly allowed loaded guns in national parks earlier this year. The measure, which is included in a bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies, allows licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges as long as they are allowed by state law.

The vote was a bitter disappointment for gun-control proponents, who watched as a Democratic-controlled Congress handed a victory to gun-rights advocates that they did not achieve under Republican rule. Many blamed the National Rifle Association, which pushed hard for the gun law.

"The NRA is basically taking over the House and Senate," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a leading gun-control supporter. "If the NRA wins, the American people are going to be the ones who lose."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said liberals might believe that, "but the American people won't buy it."

"The fact is American gun owners are simply citizens who want to exercise their Second Amendment rights without running into confusing red tape," Hastings said.

Hastings and other Republicans said the bill merely aligns national parks and wildlife refuges with regulations governing the national forests and property controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

The GOP called the current policy outdated and confusing to those who visit public lands, noting that merely traveling from state-owned parks to national parks meant some visitors were violating the law.

A majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate opposed the gun measure, but enough Democrats voted for the bill that the final tally in both chambers was not close.

Democratic leaders decided not to remove the gun provision after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was able to insert it into the popular credit card measure. Lawmakers and aides said there was not enough time to send the bill to a House-Senate conference committee — where it could be removed without a vote — and still get it to President Barack Obama by Memorial Day as he has requested.

"There's a lot of momentum to get this done," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz.

Grijalva, chairman of national parks subcommittee, opposed the gun measure, but said the "sense of urgency from the White House" to get the credit card bill approved, combined with the NRA's clout, were impossible to overcome.

Theresa Pierno, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, which has fought the gun rule in court, criticized Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer for allowing the vote.

"By not taking a stand to prevent this change, they have sacrificed public safety and national park resources in favor of the political agenda of the National Rifle Association," Pierno said, adding that the gun provision had no public hearing or other review.

In a statement after the vote, Pelosi called inclusion of the gun measure unfortunate and said it undermines the nation's gun safety laws.

"There is no compelling argument for replacing the Reagan administration's rules regarding guns in national parks, and certainly not as part of legislation designed to protect Americans during difficult economic times," Pelosi said.

Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said the group pushed for the gun measure but did not threaten anyone over the vote.

"Obviously this is an issue that affects our membership," Cox said. But to claim the NRA sets the agenda in Congress misrepresents the role that NRA plays in the process, he said.

Cox also disputed a claim by the Humane Society of the United States that the gun bill would lead to an increase in wildlife poaching in national parks.

"The NRA is opposed to poaching and always has been," he said. "We've supported enhanced penalties for illegal activities, including poaching. The Humane Society has zero credibility when it comes to Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners."

The Associated Press