House GOP tucks pro-gun measure inside energy appropriations bill

Army Corps projects seen as last stand for gun-free federal lands.

Army Corps of Engineers park rangers, who do not carry guns, prepare to greet visitors at an Army Corps project in Connecticut. CREDIT: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Army Corps of Engineers park rangers, who do not carry guns, prepare to greet visitors at an Army Corps project in Connecticut. CREDIT: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Deep in an energy and water appropriations bill is a provision that would lift a prohibition of guns on federal property controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

For years, the powerful gun lobby has been aggressively pushing to allow gun-carrying in buildings and areas owned or operated by local, state, and federal governments. At the federal level, gun advocates succeeded in getting the National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuges to allow loaded guns onto their lands. The laws opening both national parks and wildlife refuges to guns took effect in February 2010.

Now, Army Corps lands are one of the few remaining pieces of federally controlled lands that have not been opened up to gun-carrying. The Army Corps, which controls 12 million acres of land around lakes and rivers, has banned carrying loaded guns on its lands since the 1970s.

The proposed fiscal year 2018 energy and water appropriations bill — that a House Democrat says would do “real violence” to the federal government’s efficiency and renewable programs — states “the secretary of the Army shall not promulgate or enforce any regulation that prohibits an individual from possessing a firearm, including an assembled or functional firearm, at a water resources development project” overseen by the Army Corps.

As part of its water resources mission, the Army Corps is responsible for 11.7 million acres of land and waters at 422 lake and river projects with recreation, 95,000 campsites, 6,500 miles of trails, and 3,522 boat launches. The agency’s water resources development projects include deep water ports and inland waterways, flood and storm damage reduction, hydroelectric generation, and water supply for irrigation and municipal and industrial purposes.

In past years, the Army Corps stated it wanted to keep the ban in place because the areas the agency oversees, including hydroelectric dams, have security risks.

Last week, the House Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee advanced the appropriations bill that includes the gun-carrying rider. Much of the focus has been on how the bill would slash funding for renewable energy and efficiency programs and completely eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

“This measure fits right in with the gun lobby’s deranged mantra that Americans face constant threats to our personal safety and therefore need to arm ourselves at all times and in all places to be ready to fend off the next impending attack,” Chelsea Parsons, vice president of guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress.

Allowing individuals to carry loaded guns on Army Corps land outside of the context of hunting and target shooting, which is already permitted, “would create substantial challenges for law enforcement officials tasked with ensuring the safety of all visitors to these facilities,” Parsons said. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

This is not the first time Republicans have sought to include pro-gun riders in appropriations bills. Previous bills that sought to allow guns on Army Corps lands were rejected before they reached a final vote.

The Army Corps campaign is part of the gun lobby’s overall agenda to get guns into as many places as possible. Last week, Pennsylvania’s state Senate passed a bill that would allow teachers with concealed-carry licenses to bring guns on school grounds. On July 1, Georgia joined nine other states with legislation that permits concealed gun-carrying on college campuses.

Republicans also have proposed stand-alone legislation that would mandate the Army Corps recognize concealed-carry permits at their water resource development projects. Army Corps projects include some of the most popular federal recreation areas, such as the Fern Ridge Lake in Oregon and the Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania, and receive more than 370 million visits per year, making the projects the most-visited of any single federal agency’s sites.

In 2015, Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH) proposed legislation to allow gun-carrying on Army Corps land. The bill was eventually added to the larger Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act, but that legislation failed to pass the full Congress. Gibbs introduced a similar freestanding bill earlier this year.

Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) argued in a 2013 debate over a stand-alone bill that allowing guns onto Army Corps property “endangers people” and would jeopardize the security of dams and flood control projects.

A 2015 Congressional Research Service report said the Army Corps and the Department of Homeland Security regard some Army Corps infrastructure as critical to homeland security and the economy. These structures include multipurpose dams and major navigation locks. Many of these facilities require additional protection measures in times of heightened homeland security concerns. Currently, public access and recreation is allowed at or near many of these structures, according to the CRS report.

Gun advocates have filed lawsuits seeking to end the prohibition. In a case involving two Idaho residents, the Obama administration defended the anti-gun rule on appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th circuit. The court was prepared to hear oral arguments in the case in March, but on March 2, the Army Corps filed a request to remove the oral argument from the calendar and to put the case into mediation. The Army Corps stated it is “reconsidering the firearms policy challenged in this case, as well as plaintiffs’ requests for permission to carry firearms on Army Corps property.”

A similar case, this one involving a Georgia couple who objected to the gun ban, is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, the Army Corps has said it is considering dropping its gun ban.

The Trump administration could make the legislation and litigation unnecessary simply by changing the policy administratively.