Why legal guns can’t be banned from state parks

DOVER — After several decades of prohibition firearms can now be brought into state parks due to a recent Delaware Supreme Court ruling.

By a 3-2 vote, a state ban on weapons carried into forests was rescinded on Dec. 7.

Gun advocates had appealed an earlier Superior Court affirmation of state agency policies disallowing legally-owned firearms on Delaware-managed land.
The constitutional right to carry arms for self protection should not end upon entrance into state parks and forests, the majority determined.

Justice Karen L. Valihura wrote the 46-page reversal of Superior Court’s determination, joined by James T. Vaughn Jr. and Gary F. Traynor while Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. and Collins J. Seitz Jr. dissented in a 95-page explanation.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Department of Agriculture were named as defendants in an appeal lodged by the Bridgeville Rifle & Pistol Club and Delaware State Sportsmen’s Association, along with some of their members.

The state agencies declined comment last week on the ruling, which was effective immediately.

The Superior Court earlier upheld the ban based on the “important governmental objective of keeping the public safe from the potential harm of firearms in state parks and forests,” The Court did not believe the regulations violated any constitutional rights.

“But that conclusion is based on the questionable notion — unsupported by reference to any evidence – that outlawing possession of firearms in an area makes law-abiding citizens safer because criminals will, for some reason, obey the regulations,” the Supreme Court majority found.

Allowing a hunting rifle or shotgun on a state owned park or forest land during a controlled hunt “does not fulfill — and cannot substitute for — the people’s right to have a firearm for defense of self and family while camping overnight at a state park or hiking in the more remote acres of state forests (assuming compliance with all other laws governing guns),” according to Justice Valihura.

“The regulations not only unduly burden that constitutional right, but eviscerate it altogether.”

A firearms restriction in state parks was first indicated on April 10, 1962 at a Delaware commission meeting, the order noted.

The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service banned discharge of firearms except for hunting from approximately 1979 to 1981. In 2006, it determined firearms are “allowed for legal hunting only and are otherwise prohibited on state forest lands.”

According to the minority dissent, “When people come together in Parks and Forests for games and recreation, emotions can run high.

“When folks camp, they sometimes drink, including at events within the Parks like beer and wine festivals. When folks drink and carouse, they sometimes get jealous and angry.

“When folks play or attend sporting events, spirits run high and sometimes out of control. When folks get emotional around guns, things can get dangerous fast.

“When folks camp, there are no gun lockers, and they are near other visitors. There are no natural boundaries in parks where goers can find safety from gunfire or natural barriers that stop flying bullets or arrows.

“These and other common sense reasons support the decisions of generations of governors and cabinet secretaries that the regulations advance the public purposes served by our parks and forests, and facilitate the safe enjoyment of these public spaces by families and children.”

DNREC’s Division of Parks and Recreation oversees more than 23,000 acres of state-owned property, while the Agriculture Department handles 18,000 acres of forest.

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