Firearm owners with a license to carry a handgun may soon be able to wear their pistols at Lewisville Lake, Lake Ray Roberts and a number of other popular Texas reservoirs that currently prohibit those weapons.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns those lakes, has proposed a rule change to allow “properly licensed individuals to bring firearms” onto the agency’s vast recreational properties in the U.S., so long as those gun owners follow the applicable laws of the state in question.
In Texas, that means the state’s more than 1.4 million holders of a license to carry would be able to do so – concealed or open – at those locations.
The change would mark a notable win for gun rights advocates and conservative policy makers, who’ve long argued that it makes no sense that licensees can carry their handguns at state and national parks but not at park property owned by the corps.
Adding to the confusion has been the fact that some state facilities, such as Lake Ray Roberts State Park, sit on property leased out by the corps, subjecting them to the federal agency’s rules.
“We’ve had issues with this for a real long time,” said Mike Cox, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, adding that questions about corps properties in the state are among the most frequently asked by his group’s members.
But gun control groups balk at the proposal, which has not yet been finalized.
Ed Scruggs, board president of Texas Gun Sense, questioned if there’s really an “overwhelming need to have guns on a lake” owned by the corps, in terms of personal safety or security. He said the push instead just reflects gun rights groups’ desire to get more firearms into more places.
“It’s an attempt to extend the reach of firearms into everyday life,” he said, referring to organizations like the National Rifle Association and others that have been clamoring for the rule change. “That’s the mantra of the movement.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is perhaps best known for its flood control projects, in addition to building infrastructure for the military. But the federal agency’s work with dams and canals has also made it one of the foremost managers of outdoor recreational space in the U.S.
The corps is responsible for 11.7 million acres of land and waters in the U.S. – including more than 400 lake and river projects with recreational access; 95,000 campsites; 6,500 miles of trails; and more than 3,500 boat launches, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report.
Those sites account for more than 370 million visits each year, per the CRS report.
The corps’ Fort Worth district – which covers a huge swath from Texarkana to Laredo – maintains some 25 reservoirs. Among them are Dallas-area lakes like Ray Roberts, Lewisville, Lavon, Joe Pool, Benbrook, Bardwell and Grapevine.
Whether boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts have known it or not, those lakes have served for years as low-key battlegrounds over gun rights.
The corps has long barred firearms on those properties, including those it leases out to agencies like the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Violators can be subject to a misdemeanor citation, which can be given out by park rangers and others on patrol.
Exceptions exist only for shooting ranges or hunting reserves, or if a gun owner seeks written permission from a district commander. In the corps’ Fort Worth district, about 30 such approvals have been granted since August, said Clay Church, a corps spokesman.
Those restrictions stand in contrast to the policies at many other park areas, especially in a gun-friendly state like Texas. State and local parks in the Lone Star State are generally required to allow those with a license to carry a handgun to bring along their holstered pistols or revolvers.
National parks and reserves also provide similar access to licensees on their grounds, thanks to a compromise signed into law under President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Gun rights push
So gun rights advocates have been pushing for the corps to align its firearms rules with those other entities, if for no other reason than to eliminate confusion about properties that might not seem all that different to an average park-goer.
“We have a working model that’s been very successful,” Cox, the state rifle association official, said in reference to the policies at national parks and elsewhere.
There have been some legislative efforts to enact a change. The focus has turned of late to getting a regulatory tweak through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has said the proposed rule would help clarify the policies across federal parkland.
The rule change would also allow a site like Lake Ray Roberts State Park to have a firearms policy that conforms with other Texas state parks, officials said.
Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans, have been among those pushing for the measure, Cox said. Cornyn, in a conference call with Texas reporters, said the proposal to eliminate the corps’ prohibition was a “no-brainer.”
“Legitimate gun owners carrying a gun and using their license to carry is something I support,” said Cornyn, who has a license to carry.
The corps is seeking input from the public on the proposed change through mid-June. Those interested can send an email to [email protected] or register an opinion through regulations.gov at the docket number COE-2018-0008.
Feedback sent to the feds from Texas and elsewhere has so far tilted in favor of the rule change.
One North Texan pointed out that many of the lakes in the area are corps projects. The commenter called the current rules “outdated,” explaining that they do “not reflect the current way of life for many people … who lawfully carry a firearm for self-protection.”
But there has been some push back.
A Texan who lives near Canyon Lake outside of New Braunfels called the proposal a “mistake.” While it’s illegal in Texas to carry a handgun while intoxicated, the commenter worried that boaters and others drinking on the lake would now also be able to bring along their handguns.
“This would … endanger the lives of families trying to enjoy the park,” he said.
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