PIERRE | South Dakota public universities and technical schools would be barred from restricting people's ability to carry guns on campus under a bill approved Tuesday by a state Senate panel.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 to advance the bill to the floor despite opposition from student officials, the Board of Regents and the Board of Technical Education. Jordan Mason, political director at South Dakota Gun Owners, said the bill would give students a "fighting chance to defend themselves."
But University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring said she's worried freely allowing guns on campus would hurt the campus climate and the community's safety. Regents' policy prohibits firearms on campus with some exceptions.
"Not only could allowing guns on campus make our students, staff and faculty fearful of coming to campus to learn and to work, but it could also result in injuries and deaths for our campus community," Gestring said. "Allowing guns in an environment where depression and drinking are common could have unintended consequences."
The move could also hurt the university's ability to draw high-profile events such as NCAA Championships, Gestring said.
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South Dakota State University Students' Association Government Affairs Chair Cole McDougall said students overwhelmingly believe firearms have no place in a higher education setting. Paul Beran, chief executive officer and executive director of the Board of Regents, said university campuses are "incredibly safe," a situation that wouldn't be improved by the addition of guns.
"This is an idea borne of a really good intention, of an intention to want to make campus safer, to give students autonomy in their own safety," Beran said. "A lot of really well-intentioned ideas are bad ideas, and this particular idea is a bad idea."
Such legislation has failed previously at the Capitol. But Republican Sen. Stace Nelson, a bill co-sponsor, said gun-free zones don't work.
"The right to bear arms is a right. It's not a theory," he said. "You don't have a right to disarm your fellow South Dakotans."
State lawmakers have approved gun-rights legislation this year. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem last month signed into law a measure allowing people to carry concealed pistols without a permit in South Dakota.