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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Firearms at Army Corps Water Resources Projects: Proposed Legislation and Issues for Congress

Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

As part of its civil works mission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages water resource projects. Reservoirs lying behind Corps dams, and Corps navigation locks and their pools, are popular recreation sites, attracting 370 million visits annually. Corps projects include some of the most densely used federal recreation lands. Currently, 36 C.F.R. §327 sets out the regulations for public use of Corps projects. Section 327.13 generally prohibits possession of loaded firearms by private (i.e., non-law enforcement) individuals at Corps-administered projects unless they are being used for hunting at designated sites (with devices required to be unloaded while transported to and from the sites) or at authorized shooting ranges. The regulation applies at projects regardless of their location in states allowing open or concealed carry of loaded firearms.

Proposed legislation—the Recreational Lands Self-Defense Act (H.R. 1865, S. 1588), and §111 of H.R. 5325, the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of FY2013 (which are all substantively similar)—would bar the Secretary of the Army from promulgating or enforcing regulations that prohibit individuals from possessing firearms (including assembled or functional firearms) at Corps projects. The bills would require that firearms possession comply with state law. Supporters of the proposed legislation see it as a partial remedy to a current patchwork of regulations restricting firearms on federally managed lands, as a means to provide consistency for open and concealed firearms possession within a state, and as facilitating self-defense. They argue that enactment would establish Corps policies consistent with §512 of P.L. 111-24, which made it legal for individuals to possess firearms at National Park Service (NPS) and National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) units of the Department of the Interior (DOI). Other stakeholders are concerned that the proposed legislation may produce unintended public safety and infrastructure security issues at Corps projects.

The issue for Congress is not only possession of loaded firearms by private individuals but also how to maintain public safety and infrastructure security at Corps projects.

  • Critical facilities security: Proposed legislation does not explicitly provide the Corps with authority to restrict firearms at Corps facilities (e.g., dams) or in specifically designated areas. 
  • Public safety and law enforcement: There are no armed federal law enforcement officers commissioned for public safety and security purposes at Corps projects. Unlike DOI, the Corps does not have authority to perform most law enforcement functions at its projects. Corps rangers are limited to issuing citations for regulatory violations and are not allowed to carry firearms. Most law enforcement is provided by local and state law enforcement personnel; the Corps’ authority to contract for this assistance is $10 million annually. 
A safety and security assessment of the proposed legislation for Corps projects has not been performed. DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation is faced with similar safety and security issues at its water resource projects. It allows possession of firearms on Reclamation lands and waterbodies (e.g., reservoirs behind dams) when such possession complies with federal, state, and local law. The regulations restrict firearms at Reclamation facilities (e.g; dams, buildings). DOI and Reclamation also use multiple authorities and mechanisms to provide for armed and unarmed law enforcement and public safety and security. Whether the Corps, given its current authorities, could similarly provide for safety and security at its projects if the proposed legislation is enacted has not been assessed.

Date of Report: July 12, 2012
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: R42602
Price: $29.95

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