Lawmakers vote to let officials carry concealed weapons in public buildings

Elected officials should be able to carry guns into courthouses and the state Capitol, a South Dakota legislative committee voted Tuesday.

The bill, HB1066, was a scaled down version of Rep. Betty Olson’s original proposal. Olson, a Prairie City Republican, originally suggested letting anyone with a concealed weapons permit bring their arms into public buildings. She then suggested limiting it to just elected officials and public employees. Finally, Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, proposed applying the exception only to elected officials.

"This bill was brought to defend those of us in this room and those county officials in the courtrooms," said Olson.

The measure must pass the full House, a Senate committee and the full Senate in order to become law.

She said she began to worry about legislators’ safety after the 2011 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords at an event in an Arizona parking lot.

Currently, the state Capitol and all courthouses in the state bar firearms except by authorized law enforcement personnel and judges.

Several members of the committee said they thought Olson’s original bill was too broad, but that they could sign on to the narrowed down version.

"This does deserve a bit of discussion," said Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre. "I would have voted no against the original bill."

An earlier attempt to defeat the bill failed by a single vote, 7-6, after a parade of groups testified against it. The state Department of Public Safety, the state Unified Judicial System, associations representing the state’s sheriffs, police chiefs, cities and towns, and county officials, and the State Bar of South Dakota were all among the opponents.

"Firemen don’t take gasoline to fires. Firearms in the courtroom are just a terrible idea, unless they’re law enforcement," said Tom Barnett, executive director of the State Bar.

On the committee, Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, said exempting elected officials was mistake.

"This would be another example of elected officials trying to make an exception just for them," Hajek said. "I do not want to be part of a South Dakota Legislature that would say the rules are different for us."

Rep. Karen Soli, D-Sioux Falls, pointed out a philosophical division on the committee between those who believe “we’re safer in a room of people, many of whom are carrying concealed weapons” and those who “feel safer if they’re prohibited from doing so.”

After an 8-5 vote on final passage, HB1066 now heads to the full House of Representatives.

Earlier on Tuesday, the same committee rejected another gun bill from Olson. She had proposed eliminating the $10 fee charged to applicants for a concealed weapons permit.

"I find it wrong that we are charging people to enjoy one of their constitutional rights," said Nelson, a supporter of Olson’s bill.

But a majority of the committee disagreed. Of the $10 fee, $3 goes to pay for conducting the background checks required for concealed weapons applicants, while the rest goes to the state’s general fund.

This year, the fee produced $193,000 for the state, and $83,000 for counties.

"Somebody’s going to pay for the background check," said Rounds, suggesting a small fee on applicants was better than taking it out of taxes.

The committee voted 8-5 to kill that bill, after also rejecting an alternative from Hajek to double the fee to $20. Hajek made her proposal after testimony that South Dakota’s neighbors all charge between $50 and $110 for concealed weapons permits.