Family Matters

Mt. Rainier Shooting: Why Guns and National Parks Don’t Mix

National Parks are havens for nature-lovers and those seeking some peace. But after the tragic shooting death of a Mt. Rainier ranger, many continue to question whether guns belong in the parks

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Greg Vaughn / Perspectives / Getty Images

The Seattle skyline, with Mt. Rainier in the background

If I had to draw a picture of heaven, it would look like Mt. Rainier. On the rare and treasured clear days that puncture the Pacific Northwest gloom, I can see its lofty peak from the top floor of my house. It stands sentinel over the city of Seattle, snow frosting its 14,410-foot peak and cascading down its sides.

When my family moved here a year ago, my three kids and I spent the better part of two hours driving around town, asking people where the best vantage point was. Nearly 18 months later, we are still adding to our list of favorite spots to ogle the snowy summit.

All that is a long way of saying that if you had to work on New Year’s Day, I could think of no better place to while away eight hours on the job than Mt. Rainier National Park. Except that’s not how it turned out at all. Tragically, on Jan. 1, a park ranger — a 34-year-old mother of 1- and 3-year-old girls who was married to another Rainier ranger — was gunned down inside the park. She had blocked a road with her patrol vehicle, trying to stop a visitor who’d evaded a traffic checkpoint designed to make sure that drivers had snow chains to stay safe on the park’s wintry roads.

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Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran and the alleged gunman, didn’t have anything personal against Margaret Anderson. He’d headed to Mt. Rainier, where he’d often camped and fished, after apparently shooting four people at a New Year’s Eve party outside Seattle. He was seeking an escape route; Anderson simply stood in his way. He had a gun, so he won their face-off, then fled. On Monday, he was found dead in a creek, a victim of drowning and hypothermia. A handgun and rifle lay nearby.

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Much has been written in recent days about the pros and cons of allowing people to pack heat in national parks. Critics charge that a 2010 law that overturned a prohibition on loaded weapons in national parks was to blame for Sunday’s tragedy. It must be said, of course, that the law probably didn’t influence Barnes; it’s likely he didn’t even know about it and wouldn’t have cared if he had.

But the debate raises a valid issue: why do we need guns in national parks in the first place? Our 392 national parks are supposed to be a sanctuary for the nation, a place to forget cell phones and emails and the mortgage check that has to be written. They’re oases of serenity where Americans can unwind. Guns do not beget serenity; they beget violence and they have no place in national parks.

Breathtaking as it may be, many dangers lurk in Mt. Rainier National Park. The Seattle Times routinely carries stories about people who’ve died on a summit attempt. The weather is unpredictable and can turn stormy at a moment’s notice. And there’s no shortage of wild animals.

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Last summer, my family and I asked a ranger — might it have been Anderson? — for advice on which trails to hike. We were told that there had been a rash of bear sightings on one particular wildflower route, down to a lake. A little warily, we set off. We saw that bear, and it saw us, an exhilarating and scary moment that resulted in a speedy retreat and some inadvertent cursing on my part that my kids still haven’t forgotten.

But as it turns out, bears are not the greatest danger at Mt. Rainier. Rangers told us they largely ignore humans unless they’re provoked. It’s unfortunate that the same can’t be said for some people.