Americans' love affair with guns begins at an early age. Sometimes we set aside our childish fascinations and fears as we grow. Sometimes our connections with hunting, shooting, surviving, or protecting, evolve into a more nuanced and mature relationship with firearms.
Often those stories feed into our personal politics as we seek to sort through some of the most challenging issues of modern America — gun rights and gun regulations, gun safety and gun violence.
Our April SDPB spotlight on guns in South Dakota began with a simple question: What is one of your earliest memories that relates to guns?
As we recap the multiple viewpoints of the project, we begin with a few of those stories. First, you'll hear the voice of SDPBs Larry Rohrer. He was one of several staff members who shared personal stories. Then you'll hear from two listeners who each called in with stories of their own. And finally, you'll hear from NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, Matt Schlueter. All of them share one of their earliest memories about guns.
"I've been hunting for a long time, first with my father riding along, and then it drifted away from my life and came back with my wife, Marilyn, and her family, and a long tradition of hunting and caring for land and made a part of it. And then a puppy came into my life. Oh my gosh. You know, and it was a puppy that taught me how to hunt. And you may have heard me talk from time to time about when I... I like to hear when I get a chance to travel around the state and talk to people, what is... What would be your perfect day? You know, if you could design a day in South Dakota, what would be the thing you do? And I want to take, oh, spend time with my kids or whatever out of it and just say, 'No, this is for you.'
"And I asked that question because mine involves a hunting for the state game bird later in the season, when the out-of-state people are gone middle of the week, when it's quiet, being out there with the dog and that's the perfect day. And it involves a gun, but the gun is not the centerpiece. It's being out there to do that and the gun is part of it.
South Dakotan 2:
"And my first memory would probably have been my Bat Masterson outfit, with the six shooters, and the vest, and hat, and the business card that said, 'Have Gun – Will Travel'."
South Dakotan 3:
"My first real memory of guns is when my third grade classmate was shot and killed by his babysitter using my classmate's mother's handgun that she kept in her bedside table. We had guns in our house, but I had never really thought about them. And later when my sister took hunter safety and went out hunting with some friends and my dad, I just never showed an interest. And it hasn't been until I became an adult that I've connected my disinterest in guns and my current dislike of guns to that classmate being shot and killed. And now, it makes me, as a parent, concerned about my children, spending time in people's homes who have guns, which is almost just an assumption in South Dakota. Thanks."
"I was seven."
"Yeah. Welcome to America. My dad made me go to the city dump with him to help unload his F-100 pick up. And we get done unloading and we're at the city dump, I grew up in a really small town, and he looks at me and he goes, "Oh, look the city bar dumped all their bottles." And I was like, "Oh." And he goes, "Go pick up those bottles and put them on that tree stop." And by the time I get done, I mean, I'm seven years old. I really didn't realize what he had planned. He had pulled out a single action Ruger 22 caliber pistol. And he goes, 'Well, it's probably time you learn how to shoot.'"
"And you had no idea that was coming."
"No. We didn't use eye protection. We didn't use ear protection. I mean, my dad had his own way of teaching, probably not to the ... What everyone would consider the NRA standard for instruction, but it was all there. Keep your finger off the trigger. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. This is how it works. Guns are dangerous. And, of course, he demonstrated that by then sending me out to fill bottles full of water. So, you could watch them explode."
"But, to a little kid, these things are important, but you don't see a lot of that today."
Lori Walsh: Every story has a beginning. Those early memories of contemporary South Dakotans intersect with the intentions of America's founders. Here is the text of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." We asked longtime congressional staffer Chuck Parkinson to help us unpack the early scholarship on the Second Amendment.
"One sentence has caused lots of conversation over the last 200 plus years. After independence was gained and the constitutional convention set up, there was a great fear that existed about the tyranny, which had led up to this particular point, because in the past monarchs in Europe had used their armies to force the populace to do certain things. And so, as things evolved, when the constitutional convention came together, the Federalists wanted a strong central authority and the Anti-Federalists were very strong about keeping the authority at the states. There isn't much actually written about the second amendment debate during the constitutional convention in 1787.
"In fact, James Madison kept really deliberate notes on the convention, and he didn't write a single word about the individual's rights to a firearm. The main focus was on a well-regulated militia. The discussion that took place really was based a lot upon writings of Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in the Federalist papers 29 and 49, that the right to bear arms really referred to military activities of a well-regulated militia, and the fear being that if the states had the militias, they would be able to act to protect those particular states."
Lori Walsh: Centuries have passed since Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist papers defending the new U.S. Constitution. SDPB Seth Tupper joined the program with a little history of the culture and conversation of carrying guns in Dakota territory.
"When I went back and did the research on this a couple of years ago, I found out that basically for 155 years, the carrying of concealed weapons in Dakota territory, and then South Dakota, was either banned or allowed only with a permit. We just got rid of that permit requirement a couple of years ago. The history of this all goes back to the winter of 1864-65. That was the year when the territorial legislature passed an outright ban on concealed weapons, meaning you were forbidden to carry concealed weapons at all. And that was part of a nationwide trend in response to gun violence, where all but a handful of U.S. states had outlawed concealed weapons by about 1900. There was a widely held opinion that carrying a concealed weapon rather than an open weapon was inherently suspicious.
"There was plenty of evidence of that in the newspapers of the day. You think about Deadwood, for example, in 1879, guns were the cause of a lot of violence. And that year, the 'Black Hills Daily Times' editorialized that carrying concealed weapons was a 'barbarous and unlawful practice.' The 'Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times' said, 'The carrying of concealed weapons is not suited to an enlightened people and promotes neither good order in the community nor courage in the individual.' The 'Black Hills Daily Times' had another editorial that said, 'Let the strong social condemnation of our people make this practice infamous. Let education quicken the public conscience. Let the pulpit do its duty against this un-Christian habit. Let the press fearlessly speak it's powerful reprobation that our officers shall feel justified in suppressing this uncivilized and ferocious custom.'"
Lori Walsh: The year 2020 saw increased gun violence in America; 2021 dawned with several high profile mass shootings in states across the country. In South Dakota, gun deaths can be less obvious. In 2019, for example, 113 gun deaths were reported, and 87 percent of those were suicide by gun. The state has the seventh highest firearm suicide rate in the nation. Here's where we're at legislatively: Open carry and permitless concealed carry are legal for residents old enough to purchase a firearm. (That's legislation from 2019.)
In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers grappled with a revamping of the state's self-defense laws as they debated House Bill 1212. The bill failed, was smoked out of committee, and eventually passed. Proponents say it shores up Second Amendment protections. It's what is commonly called a "Stand Your Ground Bill." Opponents argued that the new law returned South Dakota to a Wild West mentality where residents can shoot first and ask questions later. In a debate that has become politically polarizing, is there room for common ground? Here's political science Professor Pam Carriveau from Black Hills State University.
"I think there is room, and even the U.S. Supreme Court would say that there's room. District of Columbia versus Heller in 2008, and then McDonald versus Chicago two years later basically recognize that there is an individual right to possess arms. It's no longer associated with a militia right. But those cases both said that this is not an unlimited right. We can regulate unusual firearms. We can prohibit felons and people who are mentally ill from possessing them. We can prohibit possession in sensitive places like schools or government buildings. The essence of both those decisions is that guns are an individual right. And people can have them in their homes for personal protection. But once we start talking about activity outside of the confines of the home, that can be regulated.
"And ultimately what we're seeing is an increase in people who are single issue pro gun control voters, and that's their top issue. That's what they're going to vote on when they vote for candidates. That's what they're looking for. I think ultimately that's the key. We're going to need more political mobilization around pro gun control in order to change the debate, move the debate from this all or nothing conversation."
Lori Walsh: Just like there are single issue voters for gun control laws, there are single issue voters for the protection of gun rights. Matt Schlueter is a certified NRA firearms instructor, and he has seen a significant increase in South Dakotans seeking training and certification for enhanced gun permits. He says more and more South Dakotans are exercising their Second Amendment rights, thoughtfully and responsively.
"I grew up around guns. I used guns. I hunt with guns. My favorite type of hunting, believe it or not, is black powder hunting for deer with a muzzle loader in our state. They give me a really long season to do it with. And it's more challenging because you only get one shot typically. That being said, I have hunted deer with an AR-15. I like shooting them. They're fun to shoot. They have a place. My wife hunts. When we rifle hunt with our rifle tags in South Dakota, we both use an AR-15 based rifle, so I don't think you can classify a tool as being bad.
"You really have to concentrate on the actions by the person using it. If a criminal used a rock to kill somebody, we're not going to ban all rocks. And if the criminal went out and got drunk and drove through a crowd of people in an open-air event like a spring or summer concert venue, we're not going to ban all the cars, because obviously these people have issues. To be in the frame of mind to commit a violent act against other people, whether it be with your hands feet or a weapon of some type, I don't know how you get there. We've got to hold those people responsible for how they made that choice and for making that choice."
Lori Walsh: The South Dakota State Legislature has spent years now examining and rethinking how the state responds to mental health crises. Remember those 113 gun deaths in 2019 and how 87 percent of them were death by suicide? Karen Pettigrew, from Rapid City, leads a local gathering of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. I asked her how she leads people to think more deeply about saving lives in South Dakota in a time when refusal to find common ground can be the default.
"I think we approach it by emphasizing gun safety and a culture of gun safety, being aware of the incredible responsibility that it is to be a gun owner. From there we talk about the need to protect others from easy access to guns when harm will result — that would be children, children in homes, children who are visiting grandparents, children who have play dates. It involves emphasizing the importance of securing locked and unloaded guns in motor vehicles because theft of guns is a very common occurrence, and stolen guns are used in criminal activity. I think the emphasis on safety is something that people can agree on. This is an awesome responsibility, and there are ways to protect and reduce the incidents of gun violence by being a responsible gun owner."
Lori Walsh: Today, we have offered you a recap of our SDPB Spotlight on Guns and South Dakota. You can find full interviews and more coverage on the April Spotlight topic on our website SDPB.org/spotlight. And no, we have not answered all the questions you might have about guns in the state. There are plenty of stones left unturned. But we have offered multiple perspectives. When you talk about guns, gun violence, and gun rights, we hope those multiple perspectives will help you find a little common ground to move the conversation forward for us all.