Starting in early January, some kayakers in the Okefenokee Swamp, campers on Cumberland Island, and hikers on national Chattahoochee River trails can start packing more than their lunch.
The U.S. Department of Interior on Friday announced a new firearms regulation that allows visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to carry concealed weapons, as long as they have a permit from the state they are in.
The new rule should take effect on or about Jan. 8, he said.
Paolino said the parks service decided to defer to the states, “where the decisions about carrying firearms in most cases reside already.”
State laws already determine the firearms policies on federal forest service lands, including the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests in north and middle Georgia. Georgia issues permits for concealed weapons.
The new national parks rule will only apply outdoors. As with every other federal building, weapons will not be allowed in visitor centers, restrooms and other structures on park property, Paolino said.
Visitors also will still be subject to all the laws regulating firearms. That means it’s still illegal to openly carry or brandish a weapon and to discharge it, Paolino said.
But the final regulation is broader than the original proposal. Earlier this year, the department proposed a rule that would only apply to states that allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons in their own parks — or half the states. Georgia joined those ranks earlier this year when the Legislature passed a gun-rights law that allows people to carry concealed weapons in state parks, on MARTA buses and trains and buses and in restaurants.
The final rule extends the right to all 48 states that issue any type of permit for concealed weapons. Illinois and Wisconsin are the only two states that do not, according to Scot McElveen, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, which opposed the new rule.
That means permitted concealed weapons will be allowed in California’s national parks — including Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Point Reyes — even though they are not allowed in state parks. In some cases, the new rule repeals a century-old ban on guns in national parks.
The measure was backed by the National Rifle Association and 51 senators, including Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
It was opposed by the National Parks Conservation Association, former national park directors and retired park superintendents.
McElveen, a 25-year veteran of the ranger service who spent time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said park rangers are most concerned about the safety of wildlife, from black bears to coyote.
“Whether it’s a varmint in their mind or a trophy animal, and they’ve got this loaded weapon immediately available to them… you react to it,” he said.