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Politics

Era Of Wide-Open, Gun-Less Capitol Ends In South Dakota

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Seth Tupper/SDPB
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For decades, security at South Dakota’s Capitol in Pierre operated largely on the honor system. 

 

Guns were banned from the building, but nobody was checked at the door; in fact, during the Capitol’s first 110 years, the doors were basically open to everyone.  

 

Jim Stalzer, a Republican state senator from Sioux Falls, said South Dakotans liked it that way. 

 

“We were pretty proud of the fact that you could walk right into our Capitol,” Stalzer said. “We trusted our citizens.” 

 

That era is now over. 

 

On Monday, the Capitol Security Office implemented new security measures. All the Capitol entrances except for one have been closed to visitors. At that one entrance – on the north side of the building – visitors must pass through a new security screening room, which is outfitted with a walk-through metal detector and an X-ray machine. 

 

The heightened security came three months after a new state law took effect allowing holders of enhanced concealed-carry permits to bring concealed pistols into the Capitol, if they provide 24 hours’ notice to Capitol Security. 

 

Multiple state officials told SDPB that the new security measures were not a reaction to the concealed-carry law; in other words, they said, the decision to build a security room was not predicated on the new reality that some people are carrying guns in the Capitol. 

 

Craig Price, secretary of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said “there’s been nothing that’s triggered” the new security, other than an awareness of the modern threat of mass shootings. 

 

“We have to be aware of what’s going on around the country,” Price said. “I think most people that are in tune with the news see a lot of those tragedies and things that can happen in a split-second notice, and people are oftentimes left saying, ‘There’s no way I would’ve ever thought that would’ve happened to us in our town,’ and it does.” 

 

New security 

 

After the security screening room began operating Monday, the room got its first real test Tuesday, the opening day of the 2020 legislative session. A counter on the metal detector said 307 people passed through it.  

 

The count does not include legislators or state employees, who have key cards for other entrances, or the roughly 300 people who have already obtained a Capital Access Pass. Anyone who makes it through a background check can obtain one of the passes, which allow frequent Capitol visitors to walk through the security screening room without being subjected to the metal detector or X-ray machine. 

 

The security screening room is located immediately to a visitor’s right after entering the Capitol’s north doors. 

 

Visitors are directed into a long, wide hallway that was formerly an office for the state Bureau of Human Resources. The Department of Public Safety spent $60,000 remodeling the office into a spacious security screening room. 

 

Tuesday, when SDPB visited, several people were overheard remarking that the screening process was quicker and easier than they expected. 

 

Amy Wagner, of Rapid City, came to the legislative session’s first day to represent the National Day of Prayer, an organization she serves as state director. She has a unique perspective on state capitols, having visited many while participating in Franklin Graham’s Decision America Tour, which has held rallies at capitols across the nation. 

 

Wagner, like many visitors, was resigned to the need for better security in South Dakota’s Capitol, in light of the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States. 

 

“It was sad for me, because we were the only capitol that I was in that didn’t have this,” Wagner said. “So it was sad that it had to be, but I certainly understand why, and I think that’s the saddest part, and the unfortunate part.” 

 

Col. Rick Miller, of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, contended that although visitors are limited to one entrance and must pass through security, the Capitol remains as accessible to the public as ever. 

 

“I would argue that the Capitol’s still just as open as it was last year, or last week,” Miller said. “You can still come into the Capitol. It's just that you’re coming into a safer environment, because we’re here.”  
 

How we got here

 

The recent changes at the Capitol have roots back to 1993. That’s when legislators and then-Gov. George Mickelson enacted a ban on guns in the Capitol. At the time, the ban had bipartisan support. 

 

By 2014, Americans were growing increasingly worried about mass shootings, following such tragedies as the near-fatal 2011 shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, of Arizona, and the shooting that killed 26 people – many of them students – at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. 

 

Popular calls for new gun restrictions arose following those and other shootings. Conservative South Dakota lawmakers pushed back with multiple bills to protect gun rights.  

 

One of those bills was a measure to allow guns in the Capitol, filed in 2014 by Betty Olson, who was a Republican legislator from Prairie City. 

 

This week, she spoke to SDPB by phone and said the bill was about self-defense. 

 

“If you’re a legislator, and you’re sitting down there on the floor, you’re an open target for anybody that’s up on the third floor walking around,” Olson said. “They can just go right ahead and shoot you. And there were no weapons allowed in the Capitol building back then.” 

 

She was not successful, but others re-introduced the bill until it passed the Legislature in 2017, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard. In his veto message, Daugaard said the presence of people with guns in the Capitol would make the job of the Capitol Security Office more dangerous and difficult if an active-shooter situation arose. 

 

Daugaard was term-limited the next year and was succeeded by Gov. Kristi Noem. The Legislature passed the Capitol gun bill again in 2019, and Noem signed it. 

 

The law allows anyone with an enhanced concealed-carry permit to bring a concealed pistol into the Capitol, if they provide 24 hours’ notice to Capitol security (permits to carry concealed weapons most other places in South Dakota are no longer needed, because the Legislature and Noem repealed that requirement in 2019). 

 

To obtain an enhanced concealed-carry permit, applicants must pay a $100 fee, submit to a $43.25 background check and complete a course in handgun training. 

 

People who have the license and provide the notice can carry their concealed pistols into the Capitol. Those who try to bring an unauthorized gun into the Capitol will be denied and could be asked to store their gun safely in their vehicle, said Price, of the Department of Public Safety. 

 

“We would certainly make sure that things are safe and that things are handled before we just disengage with that particular person that was trying to get into the Capitol with an unauthorized firearm,” Price said.  

 

The public will apparently not be allowed to know who is carrying a pistol in the Capitol. When SDPB asked for a list, the Department of Public Safety denied it based on a state law that dates to 2005-2006. That law says, “No state agency, political subdivision, official, agent, or employee of any state agency or political subdivision may knowingly keep or cause to be kept any list, record, or registry of privately owned firearms or any list, record, or registry of the owners of those firearms, or any list, record, or registry of holders of permits to carry a concealed pistol.” 

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