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According to Yellowstones official website:

Hunting is strictly forbidden in Yellowstone, as is target practice. And visitors should not use guns as self-defense against large wildlife, but rather carry bear spray and take other safety precautions.

They don't quote any regulations or court cases which raises the question: is it actually illegal to use a gun in self-defense within a National Park? Are there any court cases discussing this, if the question is ambiguous?

P.S. Lets avoid discussing whether or not guns are superior to bear spray for self-defense purposes. See this answer on Outdoors.SE for a good overview of the subject.

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    That does not say it is illegal to use a gun in self-defense. It says visitors 'should not' use against wildlife, not 'shall not'.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 22:49
  • Are you only interested in self-defense vs wildlife, or also against humans who may be after my picnic basket? Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:19
  • @Studoku both cases. Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:23
  • This comment isn't substantial enough for an answer, but I have heard of several cases in which felons, who cannot legally own guns, have shot and killed people in self-defense, and the killing was ruled as justified. They usually (maybe always?) still get stuck with the weapons violation, but they do still have the right to self-defense. I would imagine something similar would happen in this case.
    – Ryan_L
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 4:51
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    @gnasher729 You're not wrong. Grizzlies are surprisingly resiliant animals and can tank shots from several hunting guns. And now you have pissed off by the pain grizzly (A subspecies of the globally known Brown Bear (Ursus Actos) which has earned itself the subspecies latin name of U. Actos Horribilis which speaks volumes about just how much people did not want to piss off the Grizzly). Native Americans considered them sacred healers because they would not die easy deaths.
    – hszmv
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 16:27

3 Answers 3

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Yellowstone is part of the National Park Service. Parts of it are located in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The rules concerning firearms on National Park Service properties are set forth at the National Park Service website. Some key excerpts from this are as follows:

In areas administered by the National Park Service, an individual can possess a firearm if that individual is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing the firearm and if the possession of the firearm complies with the laws of the state where the park area is located. 54 U.S.C. 104906. . . .

Unless expressly authorized, Federal law prohibits the possession of a firearm or other dangerous weapon in NPS facilities. These buildings include, but are not limited to, government offices, visitor centers, ranger stations, fee collection buildings, and maintenance facilities. 18 U.S.C. 930. . . .

Unless authorized, the use or discharge of a firearm within a park area is prohibited. 36 CFR 2.4(b) and 13.30(c).

In parks where hunting is specifically mandated or authorized by federal statute, firearms may be used to hunt in accordance with NPS regulations and state laws. 36 CFR 2.2.

The referenced statutes state (emphasis added):

18 U.S. Code § 930 - Possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in Federal facilities

(a)Except as provided in subsection (d), whoever knowingly possesses or causes to be present a firearm or other dangerous weapon in a Federal facility (other than a Federal court facility), or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both.

(b)Whoever, with intent that a firearm or other dangerous weapon be used in the commission of a crime, knowingly possesses or causes to be present such firearm or dangerous weapon in a Federal facility, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

(c)A person who kills any person in the course of a violation of subsection (a) or (b), or in the course of an attack on a Federal facility involving the use of a firearm or other dangerous weapon, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be punished as provided in sections 1111, 1112, 1113, and 1117.

(d)Subsection (a) shall not apply to—

(1)the lawful performance of official duties by an officer, agent, or employee of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision thereof, who is authorized by law to engage in or supervise the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of any violation of law;

(2)the possession of a firearm or other dangerous weapon by a Federal official or a member of the Armed Forces if such possession is authorized by law; or

(3)the lawful carrying of firearms or other dangerous weapons in a Federal facility incident to hunting or other lawful purposes.

(e)(1)Except as provided in paragraph (2), whoever knowingly possesses or causes to be present a firearm or other dangerous weapon in a Federal court facility, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.

(2)Paragraph (1) shall not apply to conduct which is described in paragraph (1) or (2) of subsection (d).

(f)Nothing in this section limits the power of a court of the United States to punish for contempt or to promulgate rules or orders regulating, restricting, or prohibiting the possession of weapons within any building housing such court or any of its proceedings, or upon any grounds appurtenant to such building. (g)As used in this section:

(1)The term “Federal facility” means a building or part thereof owned or leased by the Federal Government, where Federal employees are regularly present for the purpose of performing their official duties.

(2)The term “dangerous weapon” means a weapon, device, instrument, material, or substance, animate or inanimate, that is used for, or is readily capable of, causing death or serious bodily injury, except that such term does not include a pocket knife with a blade of less than 2½ inches in length.

(3)The term “Federal court facility” means the courtroom, judges’ chambers, witness rooms, jury deliberation rooms, attorney conference rooms, prisoner holding cells, offices of the court clerks, the United States attorney, and the United States marshal, probation and parole offices, and adjoining corridors of any court of the United States.

(h)Notice of the provisions of subsections (a) and (b) shall be posted conspicuously at each public entrance to each Federal facility, and notice of subsection (e) shall be posted conspicuously at each public entrance to each Federal court facility, and no person shall be convicted of an offense under subsection (a) or (e) with respect to a Federal facility if such notice is not so posted at such facility, unless such person had actual notice of subsection (a) or (e), as the case may be. . . .

54 U.S. Code § 104906. Protection of right of individuals to bear arms

(a)Findings.—Congress finds the following:

(1)The 2d amendment to the Constitution provides that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”.

(2)Section 2.4(a)(1) of title 36, Code of Federal Regulations, provides that “except as otherwise provided in this section and parts 7 (special regulations) and 13 (Alaska regulations), the following are prohibited: (i) Possessing a weapon, trap or net (ii) Carrying a weapon, trap or net (iii) Using a weapon, trap or net”.

(3)The regulations described in paragraph (2) prevent individuals complying with Federal and State laws from exercising the 2d amendment rights of the individuals while at System units.

(4)The existence of different laws relating to the transportation and possession of firearms at different System units entrapped law-abiding gun owners while at System units.

(5)Although the Bush administration issued new regulations relating to the 2d amendment rights of law-abiding citizens in System units that went into effect on January 9, 2009—

(A)on March 19, 2009, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted a preliminary injunction with respect to the implementation and enforcement of the new regulations; and

(B)the new regulations—

(i)are under review by the Obama administration; and

(ii)may be altered.

(6)Congress needs to weigh in on the new regulations to ensure that unelected bureaucrats and judges cannot again override the 2d amendment rights of law-abiding citizens on 83,600,000 acres of System land.

(7)Federal laws should make it clear that the 2d amendment rights of an individual at a System unit should not be infringed.

(b)Protection of Right of Individuals To Bear Arms in System Units.—The Secretary shall not promulgate or enforce any regulation that prohibits an individual from possessing a firearm, including an assembled or functional firearm, in any System unit if—

(1)the individual is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing the firearm; and

(2)the possession of the firearm is in compliance with the law of the State in which the System unit is located.

The references regulations in Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations state (emphasis added):

§ 2.2 Wildlife protection.

(a) **The following are prohibited:

(1) The taking of wildlife, except by authorized hunting and trapping activities conducted in accordance with paragraph (b) of this section.

(2) The feeding, touching, teasing, frightening or intentional disturbing of wildlife nesting, breeding or other activities.**

(3) Possessing unlawfully taken wildlife or portions thereof.

(b) Hunting and trapping.

(1) Hunting shall be allowed in park areas where such activity is specifically mandated by Federal statutory law.

(2) Hunting may be allowed in park areas where such activity is specifically authorized as a discretionary activity under Federal statutory law if the superintendent determines that such activity is consistent with public safety and enjoyment, and sound resource management principles. Such hunting shall be allowed pursuant to special regulations.

(3) Trapping shall be allowed in park areas where such activity is specifically mandated by Federal statutory law.

(4) Where hunting or trapping or both are authorized, such activities shall be conducted in accordance with Federal law and the laws of the State within whose exterior boundaries a park area or a portion thereof is located. Nonconflicting State laws are adopted as a part of these regulations.

(c) Except in emergencies or in areas under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, the superintendent shall consult with appropriate State agencies before invoking the authority of § 1.5 for the purpose of restricting hunting and trapping or closing park areas to the taking of wildlife where such activities are mandated or authorized by Federal statutory law.

(d) The superintendent may establish conditions and procedures for transporting lawfully taken wildlife through the park area. Violation of these conditions and procedures is prohibited.

(e) The Superintendent may designate all or portions of a park area as closed to the viewing of wildlife with an artificial light. Use of an artificial light for purposes of viewing wildlife in closed areas is prohibited.

(f) Authorized persons may check hunting and trapping licenses and permits; inspect weapons, traps and hunting and trapping gear for compliance with equipment restrictions; and inspect wildlife that has been taken for compliance with species, size and other taking restrictions.

(g) The regulations contained in this section apply, regardless of land ownership, on all lands and waters within a park area that are under the legislative jurisdiction of the United States. . . .

§ 2.4 Weapons, traps and nets.

(a) None of the provisions in this section or any regulation in this chapter may be enforced to prohibit an individual from possessing a firearm, including an assembled or functional firearm, in any National Park System unit if:

(1) The individual is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing the firearm; and

(2) The possession of the firearm is in compliance with the law of the State in which the National Park System unit is located.

(b)

(1) Except as otherwise provided in this section and parts 7 (special regulations) and 13 (Alaska regulations), the following are prohibited:

(i) Possessing a weapon, trap or net

(ii) Carrying a weapon, trap or net

(iii) Using a weapon, trap or net

(2) Weapons, traps or nets may be carried, possessed or used:

(i) At designated times and locations in park areas where:

(A) The taking of wildlife is authorized by law in accordance with § 2.2 of this chapter;

(B) The taking of fish is authorized by law in accordance with § 2.3 of this part.

(ii) When used for target practice at designated times and at facilities or locations designed and constructed specifically for this purpose and designated pursuant to special regulations.

(iii) Within a residential dwelling. For purposes of this subparagraph only, the term “residential dwelling” means a fixed housing structure which is either the principal residence of its occupants, or is occupied on a regular and recurring basis by its occupants as an alternate residence or vacation home.

(3)(i) Traps, nets and unloaded weapons may be possessed within a temporary lodging or mechanical mode of conveyance when such implements are rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.

(ii) An individual may carry or possess an unloaded bow or crossbow when accessing otherwise inaccessible lands or waters contiguous to a park area when other means of access are otherwise impracticable or impossible if:

(A) The individual is not otherwise prohibited by law from possessing the bow or crossbow; and

(B) The possession of the bow or crossbow is in compliance with the law of the State in which the park area is located.

(c) Carrying or possessing a loaded weapon in a motor vehicle, vessel or other mode of transportation is prohibited, except that carrying or possessing a loaded weapon in a vessel is allowed when such vessel is not being propelled by machinery and is used as a shooting platform in accordance with Federal and State law.

(d) The use of a weapon, trap or net in a manner that endangers persons or property is prohibited.

(e) The superintendent may issue a permit to carry or possess a weapon that is not otherwise authorized, a trap, or a net under the following circumstances:

(1) When necessary to support research activities conducted in accordance with § 2.5.

(2) To carry firearms for persons in charge of pack trains or saddle horses for emergency use.

(3) For employees, agents or cooperating officials in the performance of their official duties.

(4) To provide access to otherwise inaccessible lands or waters contiguous to a park area when other means of access are otherwise impracticable or impossible.

Violation of the terms and conditions of a permit issued pursuant to this paragraph is prohibited and may result in the suspension or revocation of the permit.

(f) Authorized Federal, State and local law enforcement officers may carry firearms in the performance of their official duties.

(g) The carrying or possessing of a weapon, trap or net in violation of applicable Federal and State laws is prohibited.

(h) The regulations contained in this section apply, regardless of land ownership, on all lands and waters within a park area that are under the legislative jurisdiction of the United States. . . .

§ 13.30 Weapons, traps and nets.

(a) Irritant chemical devices, including bear spray, may be carried, possessed, and used in accordance with applicable Federal and non-conflicting State laws, except when prohibited or restricted under § 13.50.

(b) Paragraphs (d) through (g) of this section apply to all park areas in Alaska except Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Sitka National Historical Park and the former Mt. McKinley National Park, Glacier Bay National Monument and Katmai National Monument.

(c) Except as provided in this section and § 2.4 of this chapter, the following are prohibited -

(1) Possessing a weapon, trap, or net;

(2) Carrying a weapon, trap, or net;

(3) Using a weapon, trap, or net.

(d) Firearms may be carried, possessed, and used within park areas in accordance with applicable State and Federal laws, except where such carrying, possession, or use is prohibited or otherwise restricted under § 13.50.

(e) Traps, bows and other implements (other than firearms) authorized by applicable State and Federal law for the taking of fish and wildlife may be carried, possessed, and used within park areas only during those times when the taking of fish and wildlife is authorized by applicable law or regulation.

(f) In addition to the authorities provided in paragraphs (d) and (e) of this section, weapons (other than firearms), traps, and nets may be possessed within park areas provided such weapons, traps, or nets are within or upon a device or animal used for transportation and are unloaded and cased or otherwise packed in such a manner as to prevent their ready use while in a park area.

(g) Notwithstanding the provisions of this section, local rural residents who are authorized to engage in subsistence uses, including the taking of wildlife under § 13.480, may use, possess, or carry traps, nets and other weapons in accordance with applicable State and Federal laws. . . .

§ 13.50 Closure and restriction procedures.

(a) Applicability and authority. The Superintendent will follow the provisions of this section to close an area or restrict an activity, or terminate or relax a closure or restriction, in NPS areas in Alaska.

(b) Factors. In determining whether to close an area or restrict an activity, or whether to terminate or relax a closure or restriction, the Superintendent must ensure that the activity or area is managed in a manner compatible with the purposes for which the park area was established. The Superintendent's decision under this paragraph must therefore be guided by factors such as public health and safety, resource protection, protection of cultural or scientific values, subsistence uses, conservation of endangered or threatened species, and other management considerations.

(c) Rulemaking requirements. This paragraph applies only to a closure or restriction, or the termination or relaxation of such, which is of a nature, magnitude and duration that will result in a significant alteration in the public use pattern of the area; adversely affect the area's natural, aesthetic, scenic, or cultural values; or require a long-term modification in the resource management objectives of the area. Except in emergency situations, the closure or restriction, or the termination or relaxation of such, must be published as a rulemaking in the Federal Register.

(d) Written determination. Except in emergency situations, prior to implementing or terminating a closure or restriction, the superintendent shall prepare a written determination justifying the action. That determination shall set forth the reasons the closure or restriction authorized by paragraph (a) of this section has been established. This determination will be posted on the NPS Web site at www.nps.gov.

(e) Restrictions on taking fish or wildlife.

(1) Except in emergencies, the NPS will consult with the State agency having responsibility over fishing, hunting, or trapping and provide an opportunity for public comment, including one or more public meetings near the affected NPS unit, prior to implementing a closure or restriction on taking fish or wildlife.

(2) Emergency closures or restrictions may not exceed a period of 60 days and may not be extended without following the nonemergency procedures of this section.

(f) Notice. A list of closures and restrictions will be compiled in writing and updated annually. The list will be posted on the NPS Web site at www.nps.gov and made available at park headquarters. Additional means of notice reasonably likely to inform residents in the affected vicinity will also be provided where available, such as:

(1) Publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the State or in local newspapers;

(2) Use of electronic media, such as the internet and email lists;

(3) Radio broadcast; or

(4) Posting of signs in the local vicinity.

(g) Violating a closure or restriction is prohibited.

While the website notes that "Visitors should not consider firearms as protection from wildlife," this is advice, rather than a prohibition on using firearms in that fashion. It is a warning that firearms are a poor choice rather than a prohibition on using them for self-defense purposes. Also, if a use of firearms as self-defense against wildlife is determined to be unjustified, the park visitor might be charged with hunting without a permit.

The state gun control laws in the pertinent states are summarized as follows (by the High County News newspaper) (apologies for the small print):

enter image description here

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As was pointed out, should/should not has a legal meaning of "we advise" and if the situation of using a gun to defend against wild life was in fact illegal, the phrase "May Not" or "Shall Not" which in legal matters, parse a lot stronger as to the illegal nature of the action than "Should Not", which tends to parse as "we would prefer it if you did not do this, but you're not acting criminally if you do".

In effect the highlighted portion and all parts following that are advisory notices from the park about best practices for avoiding animal attacks. However, if you got to shoot the bear to protect your family and the pick-a-nick basket, you can... but the park rangers will greet you with a frowny face. The preceding line about hunting is actually a legal ban and probably the advisory is placed close to it to show that a self-defense situation may look like "poaching" when the ranger catches you, and letting you know you're essentially in the same scenario Tony Stark was in when Pepper walked in on him trying to get the suit off. It won't look good.

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  • I once heard a legal expert in Germany explain the meaning of must/should/can phrasings in legal texts in a way which could be literally translated as "Should means Must if you Can". So according of that principle you are in violation of a "should" rule if you disregard it even though following it would have been feasible in that situation. Doesn't the same apply in the US? Or perhaps they / I misunderstood that altogether?
    – Philipp
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 14:26
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    @Philipp The Common Law legal equivelent (which would be typically standard in most nations that were formerly part of the British Empire or former U.S. Colonies) is the word "Shall" rather than "Should". "Shall/Shall Not" would be that the thing must be done when it can. Should is advisory but not required.
    – hszmv
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 16:20
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The key to interpreting that sentence is "against large wildlife". Any regulations regarding the use of weapons (like the ones outlined by ohwilleke) would apply regardless of what you're shooting at. In that particular sentence, they're calling out large wildlife to indicate that legality aside, defending yourself with a firearm in those circumstances is generally a bad idea.

As several people mentioned in the comments, shooting the sort of large wildlife that lives in Yellowstone (moose, bear, bison, etc) requires specialized weapons. The type of weapon most people carry for self-defense would not be sufficient to end the threat, and the legal consequences of any such attempt would be nothing compared to the natural consequences. Any weapon capable of defending against a megafauna attack would be a specialized hunting weapon and would fall afoul of the park system's blanket ban on hunting. Park rangers would see your possession of such a weapon as much more likely an intent to hunt than an attempt at self-defense.

The most dangerous large Yellowstone resident for humans is the buffalo. To summarize what a park ranger told us a couple of years ago, buffalo will not hesitate to attack if provoked (and it takes very little to provoke them). The males protect a herd of females, so if you attempted to shoot one the male would charge you to counterattack while the rest of the herd would get spooked by the noise and flee. You would likely not survive a buffalo charge but more importantly, the rest of the herd escaping is called a stampede. A stampeding buffalo herd will not stop for anything, and can trample and kill groups of people. The buffalo live in a part of the park that's wide open space with nowhere for bystanders to take cover (you're not even safe in your car). Attempting to save yourself not only didn't work, but it put hundreds of bystanders in harm's way unnecessarily. I'm not aware of any precedent (thankfully) regarding whether this technically classifies as reckless endangerment, but should you miraculously survive I'm sure a case could be made (easy to label something "reckless" when park rangers specifically told you ahead of time not to do it).

Yellowstone is also home to a number of species that are endangered or otherwise protected by law. Most relevant to this question is the grizzly bear. In US v. Wallen (2017), the courts ruled that killing an endangered or protected species was legal in cases where the shooter has a "good faith belief" that they are in immediate danger. An archived version of the Yellowstone website from several months before the Wallen ruling includes essentially identical language, so it's possible that this is old content that hasn't been updated with changes in law.

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