New rules will allow visitors to Zion National Park to carry semiautomatic rifles as they hike Angel's Landing.
Shotguns can accompany campers' Coleman stoves on Dinosaur National Monument's Split Mountain beach. Want your pistol on your hip while pitching a tent at Bryce Canyon National Park's Sunset Campground? No problem, as long as you don't actually pull the trigger.
On Feb. 22, the long-standing ban on guns in national parks and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-administered wildlife refuges will lift, thanks to an amendment Congress attached last year to a credit-card reform bill. The add-on requires parks and refuges to conform to state gun-carry laws.
For the first time, the National Park Service won't have a unified regulation for its 391 parks covering more than 84 million acres in every state (except Delaware), the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakefronts, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, even the White House.
Rangers are trying to get a fix on how to cope with the new law.
"We're getting a lot of questions now from folks. Some folks are for it, some folks are against it," says Zion National Park Ranger Thérèse Picard. "It's a big shift in policy for the Park Service, and it's going to take a while for the public to get used to it. Guns are allowed, plain and simple. We just adapt."
Signs eventually will be posted, but, for now, armed visitors must learn and obey the laws, Picard said.
Visitors still won't be allowed to bring guns into federal buildings, including visitor centers, administration buildings and, of course, the White House. Some park-owned but outsourced concessions -- such as Zion Lodge or the park's shuttles -- will remain off-limits to firearms.
Also, visitors cannot pack guns in Everglades National Park or at the Statue of Liberty, because guns laws in Florida and New York don't allow it.
Other parks, such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, straddle two states whose laws are similar but not identical. In Yellowstone, armed visitors have to determine whether they are in Wyoming, Montana or Idaho to stay within the law.
Despite any ensuing confusion, those who favor lifting the firearms ban say little will change in the parks' daily operations.
"Other than maybe a few of the real die-hard Second Amendment folks who may go to one of these national parks on Feb. 22 to show their firearms, I think this is a lot of much ado about nothing," says Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. "If [park visitors] haven't seen anyone open-carry yet, they probably won't see anyone now. I'm not telling you I won't take a second look if I'm walking a trail in Zion and see an AR-15 [semiautomatic rifle]. However, it would be legal."
Ralph Schamel, vice president of Utah State Rifle and Pistol Association, says he wouldn't carry a weapon on a trail, but is never without one in a campground. "That's the only place I feel unsafe," he says. "The ones you've got to watch out for now are the people who carry a loaded weapon in their vehicle."
Aposhian says people who are jumpy around guns would do better to focus on an individual's behavior, not the firearm.
"Call the park ranger," he says, "if they're acting weird with or without a gun."
But the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees says guns and parks just don't mix -- because the atmosphere of a peaceful sanctuary in nature could be damaged, says Bill Wade, chairman of the group's executive council.
"Most American visitors somehow think of the parks as being very safe, very secure, where you don't have to worry about guns," Wade says. "Now you could see that guy with the rifle over his shoulder. The context is just wrong."
The deputy chief of Utah's state parks, no-nonsense lawman Bruce Hamilton, says he would rather no one be allowed to carry weapons except rangers. But that's not the law in Utah.
"Our rangers are always aware that anyone could be carrying," Hamilton says. "That's what every cop in the world would tell you."
Picard agrees. "We're law enforcement, and we deal with the same situations that small-town cops are dealing with," she says. "Those issues don't stop at the park boundary."
What the law says
"Protecting the right of individuals to bear arms in the units of the National Park System and the National Wildlife Refuge System -- the secretary of the Interior shall not promulgate or enforce any regulation that prohibits an individual from possessing a firearm ... in any unit of the National Park System or the National Wildlife Refuge System."