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Concealed firearm carry in school settings advances to Senate floor

Brent Duerre

South Dakota lawmakers are well known for opposing gun control laws. Now, a proposal aiming to relax policies for firearms in school settings is advancing in the legislature.

Eleven states allow for concealed carry of firearms on school grounds, and Senate Bill 203 aims to add South Dakota to that list.

Prime sponsor, Hartford Republican Sen. Brent Hoffman, said this bill simply regulates something that already happens – people illegally bringing their guns to schools.

“It allows an individual who is 21 years of age or older, holds an enhanced permit to carry a pistol, and to have written permission from the principal of school or other person that has general control of that facility," Hoffman said. "I’d like the committee to consider this policy as a last-chance, reactive measure for an armed response to a violent threat.”

The state’s education community questions just how effective this bill would be though. Doug Wermedal is executive director of the state Associated School Boards. He said SB203 only means more guns in schools.

“If bad actors are able to gain control of a law enforcement officers gun in a confrontational situation, then certainly it’s possible the control of a weapon could be lost to a bad actor," Wermedal said. "That will certainly present itself in our schools at some point and become more likely under this bill. What problems are we solving that is worth the additional risk?”

To qualify for an enhanced permit, holders must submit to a fingerprint background check, take an NRA-sponsored handgun course, and display an understanding of the state’s self-defense laws.

However, there is no regulation requiring a current mental health screening for this permit. Instead, applicants found to be a danger to themself or others within the last decade are eligible for rejection. One proponent, Canton Republican Rep. Kevin Jensen, said mental health rejections are rare.

“I have had well over 2,000 people come through my classes," Jensen said. "I have denied only one person their permit.”

According to statistics from Mental Health America about five percent of the population is categorized as suffering “severe mental illness.” One rejection in 2,000 applications is a denial rate of .05 percent.

Despite these concerns, the bill was advanced unanimously with a do pass recommendation.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture