Starting July 1, South Dakota schools can appoint a trained person to carry a gun on campus now that Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the first-of-its-kind “sentinel bill” on March 8.
General concern over the bill when first proposed gave way to widespread acceptance in the legislature after several key elements were added during the crafting process, said Ron Williamson, president of the Great Plains Public Policy Institute. The measure had strong support in rural counties and from law enforcement because it requires police to train every person appointed as a sentinel, he said.
“The large cities don’t want it; they don’t need it with law enforcement [close by],” said bill sponsor Rep. Scott Craig (R-Rapid City). “The school districts that are 20-45 minutes away from the nearest sheriff, those folks feel vulnerable.”
Craig began working on the bill two weeks before a school shooting in Connecticut catalyzed similar bills across the country. At least five other states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Forty-two states prohibit gun-carrying in schools by anyone but police. At least four other school shootings have occurred since the Connecticut tragedy.
Mike Calhoon, president of the Winner School District school board, is one of several school administrators supporting the bill.
“Many small towns have no city police force at all, but instead rely upon the county sheriffs and their deputies,” Calhoon said. “Some of these schools have a response time of as much as 45 minutes. So many things could happen in a defenseless school building in that amount of time. Having an appointed sentinel bearing a firearm would at least give those remote schools a chance to defend themselves.”
Winner School District probably won’t appoint a sentinel soon, thanks to nearby law enforcement and security measures already in place, Calhoon said.
“I do want to have the option available if I feel the need [for a sentinel] at a later date,” Calhoon said. “As with any decision in any school district in South Dakota, that decision would be made by the local school board, with input from our administrators, staff, and patrons.”
Crafting the Bill
Craig’s interest in the bill came from knowing public schools throughout the nation are potential targets for violence, he said. Police directed Craig toward a local-control amendment that would place the decision of having armed personnel on campus within the hands of school districts and communities.
“The bill then began to take the shape to allow school districts to define who they want to be armed if they want somebody to be armed,” Craig said. “It’s completely permissive legislation—take it or leave it.”
Any school employee or volunteer may be appointed sentinel.
Support and Pushback
The South Dakota Education Association, Association of School Boards of South Dakota (ASBSD_, and Superintendents’ Association of South Dakota lobbied against the bill. Each said during testimony on the bill that they spoke for the state’s school districts and teachers, Craig noted.
But that wasn’t entirely true. A member of Winner School District’s is also on the ASBSD board, Calhoon said, and he voted to support the bill.
“I received many e-mails in which board presidents from around the state voiced their support of the sentinel bill,” he said. “Our superintendent supports the bill.”
Most of South Dakota is rural. In response to groups lobbying against the bill, Craig polled teachers and superintendents. He found a growing number favored it.
Accidental Injury Worries
Opponents’ main criticism has been that more guns on campus could increase accidental injuries.
However, “Permit holders tend to be extremely law-abiding,” said John Lott Jr. , an internationally known economist and gun violence researcher. “Firearms-related violations are at hundreds of thousandths of one percentage point [of permit holders].”
Before the federal government established more gun-free zones, many states allowed concealed weapons on campus without ill effects, he said.
“I expect some really contentious debate about the implementation of this wherever it is tried,” Calhoon said. “But that is the beauty of the bill. It is designed to give each district local control to decide … if it is something they need to do.”
Image by KOMU News.