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Published: 2/28/2008

Do the people's business

REPUBLICANS and Democrats in Congress are at it again, stalling a fairly innocuous land bill while they take pot shots at each other. In Washington, "doing the people's business," as they are so fond of saying, and giving each other the business often are remarkably similar.

Sen. Tom Coburn has for months blocked a bill to expand wilderness protection in a number of states in the West and create heritage areas in Illinois and New York. In an effort to move the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) recently allowed Mr. Coburn to offer five amendments for debate but withdrew the measure when the Oklahoma Republican proposed allowing visitors to national parks to openly carry weapons.

Mr. Coburn says park visitors need to be able to protect themselves and that Interior Department rules to the contrary stomp on everyone's Second Amendment rights. Coburn aides also claim the majority leader is protecting Democratic presidential candidates from having to take a stand on an issue that might alienate rural voters.

For their part, Democrats claim Mr. Coburn is just trying to stir the pot, introducing the gun issue now while his previous objections to the bill were all based on the bill's cost.

The assertion that Mr. Reid is providing cover for Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could well be correct. Voting against the gun amendment would leave whichever of them is the eventual Democratic nominee open to GOP charges of being soft on crime and anti-Second Amendment.

And that's exactly the outcome Mr. Coburn is seeking. His own Web site acknowledges that there are few violent crimes committed in national parks, noting that in 2006 there were 11 homicides, 35 rapes, 61 robberies, 16 kidnappings, 261 aggravated assaults, and 320 other assaults. What is not mentioned is that these statistics were out of more than 272 million recreation visits, making violent crime in the parks not just rare, but nearly nonexistent.

In addition, over the last 30 years the number of homicides in the parks, while sometimes fluctuating widely, has ranged from a low of nine in 1989, six years after gun restrictions were first enacted by the Interior Department, to a high of 30 in 1982, the year before the Reagan-era rules were put in place. Rapes, aggravated assaults, and robberies, meanwhile, have for years consistently run at half the pre-regulation rates.

Mr. Coburn's amendment suggests - somewhat disingenuously - that current rules ban the possession of firearms in federal parks. To most of us, that means the feds are saying: Leave the guns at home. Closer inspection of the amendment reveals, however, that current regulations only require that firearms be inaccessible during park visits - in the trunk, for example, rather than on the car seat or in a shoulder holster.

If neither runaway crime nor Second Amendment rights are at stake, however, it becomes likely that Mr. Coburn is guilty of playing politics on your dime. We know that it's too much to ask that congressmen leave politics at the door when they undertake the serious business of governing, but such transparent election-year gamesmanship should be kept outside the halls of Congress.



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