Gun owners who have historically been able to use public lands for target practice would be barred from potentially millions of acres under new rules drafted by the Interior Department, the first major move by the Obama administration to impose limits on firearms.
Officials say the administration is concerned about the potential clash between gun owners and encroaching urban populations who like to use same land for hiking and dog walking.
"It's not so much a safety issue. It's a social conflict issue," said Frank Jenks, a natural resource specialist with Interior's Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 245 million acres. He adds that urbanites "freak out" when they hear shooting on public lands. [Read about the subpoena issued as a result of Operation Fast and Furious.]
If the draft policy is finally approved, some public access to Bureau lands to hunters would also be limited, potentially reducing areas deer, elk, and bear hunters can use in the West.
Conservationists and hunting groups, however, are mounting a fight. One elite group of conservationists that advises Interior and Agriculture is already pushing BLM to junk the regulations, claiming that shooters are being held to a much higher safety standard than other users of public lands, such as ATV riders.
"They are just trying to make it so difficult for recreational shooters," said Gary Kania, vice president of the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation. His group is one of several, including the National Wildlife Foundation, Cabela's and Ducks Unlimited, on the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council fighting the new rules. During a two-day meeting ending this afternoon, they are drafting their own changes to the BLM rules.
"What we probably are going to be looking forward to is a reversal," said Kania. Asked about how to handle people who freak out when they hear shots on public lands, Kania said, "I don't know how to quanitify 'freaking out,'" and noted that he's seen people panicing when fly fishing in float tubes but nobody wants to ban then from rivers.
BLM actually invited the fight, seeking the council's comments. But officials suggested to Whispers that no changes are being planned to the draft regulations.
Over five pages, the draft BLM regulations raise concerns about how shooting can cause a "public disturbance." They also raise worries about how shooting and shooters can hurt plants and litter public lands.
This is the key paragraph foes say could lead to shooters being kicked off public lands:
"When the authorized officer determines that a site or area on BLM-managed lands used on a regular basis for recreational shooting is creating public disturbance, or is creating risk to other persons on public lands; is contributing to the defacement, removal or destruction of natural features, native plants, cultural resources, historic structures or government and/or private property; is facilitating or creating a condition of littering, refuse accumulation and abandoned personal property is violating existing use restrictions, closure and restriction orders, or supplementary rules notices, and reasonable attempts to reduce or eliminate the violations by the BLM have been unsuccessful, the authorized officer will close the affected area to recreational shooting." [Check out new Debate Club about whether Congress needs to overhaul gun trafficking laws.]
Squeezing out shooters, says the draft policy, is needed because, "As the West has become more populated, recreational shooters now often find themselves in conflict with other public lands users, and the BLM is frequently called on to mediate these conflicts."
At yesterday's meeting at Interior, the council balked at the BLM draft regulations, adding that the Obama administration was not being fair to shooters on the issue of safety.
In a draft retort to BLM, the council said other users of public land aren't required to be as safe as shooters. They note that shooters have a much lower injury rate than others, like ATV users. "The policy fails to recognize that recreational shooting has one of the lowest incidences of death and injury compared to virtually any other outdoor recreational activity. The policy is prejudicial and discriminatory to target shooters as compared to other recreationists," said the council's draft response, expected to be finalized today.
What's more, the group charged that the BLM is acting in a contradictory fashion, encouraging the shooting sports while limiting shooting areas.