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Violent Deaths in the National Parks


With the latest debate over whether the National Park Service should allow visitors to carry live weapons in the national park system, much has been made over whether parks are safe. While even one murder is too many, the crime statistics for a park system that last year attracted some 277 million visitors would seem to indicate parks are relatively safe havens from violent crime.

During 2006, when 273 million visitors toured the parks, 11 deaths were investigated across the system. Two involved women who had been pushed off cliffs (one at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and one at Lake Mead National Recreation Area), one was a suicide (at Golden Gate National Recreation Area), and one was the victim of a DUI accident (in Yellowstone National Park).

National Park Service records also show that one of the 11 deaths, reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, involved a stabbing that was spawned by an alcohol-fueled altercation. Great Smoky also was the setting of a fatal shooting of another woman with three others arrested for the crime.

The suicide at Golden Gate involved a man who "began shooting at hang gliders. He did not hit any of the hang gliders, but then he shot a stranger. Then he turned the gun on himself."

At the Blue Ridge Parkway, a woman parked at an overlook and wearing headphones while studying for final exams "was killed by a handgun by a suspect on a killing spree," the Park Service said. In another case involving the parkway, the body of an individual shot and killed outside the parkway was dumped there.

At Amistad National Recreation Area, a woman was found floating in a reservoir in about 5 feet of water. "She appeared to have blunt force trauma to the head and was possibly stabbed," the agency said.

The last two murders were reported in Washington, D.C., area park units. In one case a victim died from a gunshot wound to the head, in the other U.S. Park Police found a partial human skull, with an apparent gunshot wound, on the shoreline of the Anacostia River, a crime that didn't necessarily occur in the park system.

Most folks, I think, would agree that the suicide, two pushing victims, and the DUI victim couldn't have been prevented if guns were allowed to be carried in the parks. And, of course, there was the victim who was murdered outside the Blue Ridge Parkway. That lowers to six the number of violent deaths investigated in the parks, one of which involved a stabbing in a drunken brawl, an outcome that could have turned out just the same -- or worse-- if either individual was carrying a gun.

During 2006 there also were 320 assaults without weapons, 1,950 weapons offenses, 843 public intoxication cases, and 5,752 liquor law violations. How many of those might have turned deadly were concealed carry allowed in the park system?

I think much of the concern over this move by the National Rifle Association to see visitors allowed to carry loaded weapons does not center on the majority of the "law-abiding" gun owners in the country, but rather around the accidents waiting to happen involving folks who either aren't so law-abiding or so careful.


I remember the murders in DC and a spree of muggings a couple years ago on the Mall. They eventually caught the people involved with the muggings. It was surprising for DC residents because the Mall is considered one of the safest places in a city - a small city with a huge amount of park land, that averages nearly 200 murders a year, not many of them in park units. You occasionally hear of rapists in Rock Creek Park, but even that is rare. So, in one of the most dangerous cities in the entire country, where class differences are extremely wide and racial tensions huge, parks are usually considered among the safest places to be. A few murders and muggings in park units in DC seems like nothing when you consider the sheer scope of the problem in Washington and the fact that most people I know have been mugged at some time or other.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court may throw out DC's very strict gun laws. Most people in DC don't think that adding more guns to the streets would help the problem but only exacerbate it. When I was mugged for instance, it was by two people who did so before I could act. They would have had my gun in an instant. One reason people think that murders are actually lower than they otherwise might be is because a lot of the people who commit crimes here actually don't have guns.

For me, it's absurd to look at violence by simply looking at people as "criminals", which is not what people are. People commit crimes, but unless they are part of organized crime, they generally aren't inborn as criminals. Crime results from a lot of factors; one reason it occurs so infrequently in the parks is because those factors don't come into play much in parks.

On the other hand, as people know who read me, I have far larger systemic problems with the way that society is formed. I just question the premises that have produced this discussion.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

The key observation here would be that Women tend to be the victims of these crimes and as a woman who travels alone or with my college age daughter I would feel more comfortable with my gun then without. I remember the 3 women (mom, daughter and daughter's freind) who were killed outside of Yosemite a number of years ago. Had any of them had a gun they might not have been raped and killed. The article does not show how often women are victims of other violent crimes in the park that do not result in murder. Urban parks are troubling for women since the parks have easy access by criminals from the city and seeing a woman alone or a group of women sleeping in tents it an opportunity for them.

Since we are a country set on equality we could not make a law that says just women can carry guns and not men we have to have one that covers both. I support guns being allowed in parks and maybe the violence against women may decrease.


This link takes you to an article in the L.A. Times. According to the article, "The National Park Service says there were 116,588 offenses in national parks in 2006, including 11 killings, 35 rapes or attempted rapes, 61 robberies, 16 kidnappings and 261 aggravated assaults.",0,1267373,full.story

Maybe this is not a very large number. Maybe you don't think that this small number justifies my right to carry a concealed weapon. But, though the odds are pretty small, how would you feel about YOU or your WIFE or your DAUGHTER being one of those small numbers of victims listed here?

I'll keep on carrying my pistol, thanks for your concern.

Not to comment on the merits of the ethical argument regarding protection, I want to reiterate that relative to places where people live (and many are happy to live) with gun laws that are just as strict as they are in the national parks, the numbers are very small. The amount of random crime is much smaller still (though those numbers aren't reflected here), and the demographics of the crime depend on the type of park (for instance, most park units in Washington, DC are National Park Service units - you could be accosted in Dupont Circle (an area in DC with a high rate of robberies, though otherwise very popular) - nothing more than a fountain and a lawn filled with benches surrounded by a traffic circle - and it would go into these NPS stats presumably.

In Washington, DC, a city with just under 600,000 people - (perhaps, triple or quadruple if you count the people who actually work there, but still far, far less than the visitors to NPS units),

This is only through November 2007 (in fact, the number of homicides for instance in Washington were 181; this number does not count suicides or other forms of death in the NPS stats)

171 homicides
294 Sexual Assaults
3,534 Robberies
3,065 Assault with a Deadly Weapon
3,500 Burglary
Theft 6,816
Theft from Auto 6,530
Stolen Auto 5,534
Arson 16

Now, that's a per capita difference that's huge, the gun laws are similar, and yet the numbers are vastly different. Changing gun laws is a red herring argument when it comes to crime in a place. And, perhaps, also protection. On the ideology of gun laws, on protecting oneself and one's loved ones, and the means, those are interesting arguments. But, strictly on the merits of quantity of crime and a correlation to gun regulations, there simply isn't one.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Fred, I just hope that your a decent soul that uses good rational judgement if you have to use your (concealed) hand gun and not someone that is hot-headed with a quick temper. I see too many border-line misfits that are terribly hot headed (with the "outa my way" attitude) visiting the National parks today and basically should be in some kind of anger management class. Stresses in are society today are at the max: the economy, the housing crises, the medical care fiasco and the phony Bush war. How we cope with these issues on a daily basis as individuals is a matter how strong are thresh-hold for stress and pain is. Let's face it, some of us aren't going to make it (or just plain loose it mentally). In my estimation carrying a concealed weapon into the National Parks is NOT a good policy considering the stress mood of this nation. The National Parks are to unload and unpack are weak and weary minds and to leave the heavy metal at home. Who needs more NRA propaganda stress to buy more guns...and more guns...and more guns!!!

I like to think that I'm one of the level-headed guys you mentioned and not one of the stressed-out guys. I carry in case I encounter the one-in-a-million people who should be in that anger management class.

I repeat myself when I mention that these instances are incredibly small. But I wonder what you would say to YOUR daughter in the emergency room if she had been one of these victims; "Gee honey, there was only 35 rape victims in 2006, so I never carry a defensive weapon when we hike the back country". Sounds pretty thin to me.

I'm just trying to point out here that these aren't just numbers on a piece of paper. They represent people just like you and me. I just don't want to take that million-to-one chance that someone in my family might be a "number" on a piece of paper.

Fred, your taking more of chance of being wiped out in a major car crash then the "million-to-one" chance of being a crime statistic in the National Parks.
Personally, I think the NRA plays on the fears and minds of the common folk (and perhaps create a bit of paranoia) to enhance the profits of the gun industry...and besides it's good for business! I'm sure Fred your probably cool as a cucumber with even temperament but I wouldn't worry to much if you left your hand gun (or get rid of it for good) at home. The odds do give us some welcoming relief that the National Parks are still relatively safe to visit.

Fred, I hear what you're saying regarding the rapes. Still, I would be curious to know the details and locations of those crimes.

How many were in the D.C. metro area? How many were in the backcountry? How many were "date rapes." How many involved women hiking alone by themselves?

Without the full details, I'm not sure we can make a complete judgment on exactly how safe the parks are...but I'd venture they're a lot safer than most parts of the country.

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