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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

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. Areas behind and below 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 sites. Currently, 36 C.F.R. Section 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—H.R. 2046, the Recreational Lands Self-Defense Act; Section 113 of H.R. 2609, the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of FY2014 (which are all substantively similar); Section 103 of S. 1335, the Sportsmen’s Act; and an amendment proposed, but not adopted, during Senate floor consideration of S. 601, the Water Resources Development Act—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 proposed language would require firearms possession to comply with state law. Supporters see it as addressing a patchwork of regulations restricting firearms on federal lands, as providing consistency for open and concealed firearms possession within a state, and as facilitating recreational shooting and self-defense. They argue that enactment would result in Corps policies consistent with Section 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 legislation as proposed may produce unintended public safety and infrastructure security issues.

The issue for Congress is not only possession and use of loaded firearms but also maintaining public safety and infrastructure security at Corps projects.

  • Critical facilities security: Proposed legislation does not explicitly provide authority to restrict firearms at Corps facilities (e.g., dams) or in specifically designated areas. 
  • Public safety and law enforcement: No armed federal law enforcement officers are commissioned for public safety and security purposes at Corps projects. Corps rangers issue citations for regulatory violations and are not allowed to carry firearms. Most law enforcement is provided by local and state personnel. 
A safety, security, and cost and benefit assessment related to altering firearms possession and use at 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; hunting is similarly allowed unless an area has been closed for public use or has been designated as a special use area. Firearms are restricted at Reclamation facilities (e.g., dams and buildings). DOI and Reclamation use multiple authorities and mechanisms to provide for armed and unarmed law enforcement and public safety and security.

Date of Report: October 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: R42602
Price: $29.95

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