It may seem inconceivable now, but there was a time in South Dakota when legislation restricting the possession of guns was approved with bipartisan support and comparatively little controversy.
It was 26 years ago, in 1993, when lawmakers banned guns in some county courthouses and the state Capitol.
Democrats held a majority of the seats in the state Senate that year, where the legislation passed 26-9, according to archives kept by the South Dakota State Library. But Republicans had a majority in the House, where the bill passed 49-21.
The bill’s introductory draft sought only to ban guns in county courthouses. It was a Republican, Michael Diedrich, of Rapid City — then a state senator, now a state representative — whose amendment to extend the ban to the Capitol was approved by a Senate committee, according to the memory of the committee's then-chairman.
In the House and Senate chambers, an array of Republican legislators voted in favor of the final version of the bill, including Mike Rounds, who later served as governor and is now in the U.S. Senate; Kristie Fiegen, who is now on the Public Utilities Commission; Rex Hagg, a prominent Rapid City attorney; Carole Hillard, who later served as lieutenant governor; Roger Hunt, who became a hero to social conservatives for his dogged pursuit of an abortion ban; Alice Kundert, who had previously served as state auditor and secretary of state; and David Munson, who went on to serve as mayor of Sioux Falls.
After the bill was approved by the Legislature, it was signed into law by Republican Gov. George Mickelson (who died in a plane crash a few months later).
In the current, Republican-dominated legislative session, the Capitol gun ban is up for repeal. Although one bill that would have allowed guns in the Capitol has been defeated in the Senate, a related piece of legislation, Senate Bill 115, is still under consideration. That bill would allow holders of special permits to carry concealed pistols in the Capitol after giving prior notice to the Highway Patrol.
Similar legislation was passed in 2017 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who completed his legal limit of two terms earlier this year. His successor and fellow Republican, Gov. Kristi Noem, is widely viewed as more receptive to allowing guns in the Capitol and has already signed a bill eliminating the state’s 84-year-old permitting system for concealed handguns.
The divergent gun views of Noem and Daugaard are reflective of the changing political winds that have swept through the Legislature since 1993.
Back then, the proposed ban on guns in courthouses was drafted by Peter Gregory, who was an assistant state’s attorney in Minnehaha County. After several violent courthouse incidents in Sioux Falls and elsewhere, Gregory researched security options and learned that a 1983 state law forbade counties from adopting any ordinances restricting gun possession. Only the Legislature could ban guns in county courthouses.
So, Gregory drafted a bill and started talking to legislators and lobbyists.
“It just made sense that in a place of heated exchanges and passionate beliefs and emotional tenor, it wasn’t a place to have firearms carried by unauthorized people,” recalled Gregory, who is now retired from a legal career that included a stint as a judge.
Gregory’s cause was taken up by Rep. Linda Barker, D-Sioux Falls, who filed the legislation as House Bill 1109. The bill sought to ban guns and other dangerous weapons from county courthouses, with exceptions for law enforcement officers, judges, members of the military, and any possession of firearms that was “incident to hunting.” In a House committee, another exception was added for gun safety courses.
On the House floor, then-Rep. Hagg, of Rapid City, made a successful motion to amend the bill so that any county commission could waive the gun ban for its own courthouse by a majority vote. That version of the bill passed the House 50-16 (it would return to the House later in modified form).
Including the Capitol
The bill was then assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by then-Sen. Denny Pierson, D-Sioux Falls. Pierson, who is now retired from careers in insurance and education, said last week that he remembers the day of the bill’s committee hearing because of something his fellow committee member, Diedrich, told him before the hearing started.
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“Mike was sitting next to me, and he leaned over and said, ‘Denny, did you notice the two guys in the back of the room who are packing pistols?’” Pierson said (Diedrich did not respond to messages this week from the Journal).
According to Pierson, Diedrich then asked for support to amend the Capitol into the bill, so guns would be banned there as well as in courthouses. Pierson said he pledged his support for the amendment, and the committee approved it, while the men with guns in the back of the room watched and said nothing.
The bill then went to the Senate floor, where it passed 26-9. The “yes” votes came from 18 Democrats and eight Republicans, and the “no” votes came from seven Republicans and two Democrats.
The House then considered the bill again, this time with the additional language banning guns in the Capitol, and approved the bill 49-21. The “yes” votes came from 28 Democrats and 21 Republicans, and the "no" votes came from 20 Republicans and one Democrat. Because Democrats were in the minority, the bill could not have passed through the House without the Republican support it received.
Media coverage at the time did not characterize the legislation as one of the major bills of the session, or as a particularly hot-button issue. Pierson said he remembers opponents speaking against the bill, but he does not recall any grandstanding by fellow legislators.
“I think most of them just thought it was common sense,” Pierson said. “Why would you want guns in a courthouse? Why would you want guns in the Capitol, for crying out loud?”
Rounds’ office initially expressed his willingness last week to be interviewed about the 1993 legislation but ultimately sent a written statement from spokeswoman Natalie Krings.
“In 1993, the determination was made by the legislature and Gov. Mickelson not to allow concealed weapons in the Capitol,” the statement said, in part. “The legislature most certainly has the right to review the 1993 law. Sen. Rounds trusts current legislators are well-versed on the issue and will handle it accordingly.”
Rounds’ evolution from voting for a gun-control bill in 1993 to saying through a spokeswoman 26 years later that it was passed “by the legislature and Gov. Mickelson” evinces a change in the political climate.
Pierson said the change is increased political pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights activists.
“Most Republicans are afraid of the NRA, in my opinion,” Pierson said. "They’ve got their tentacles in almost every state legislator. It’s a totally different environment than what we faced back then.”
Evidence of those tentacles shows up every two years in the Black Hills, when gun-themed political postcards sent by political action committees fill up the mailboxes of Republican legislative primary voters.
During the especially contentious 2014 primary season, some incumbent Republican legislators were targeted by postcards accusing them of leaving constituents “vulnerable to armed thugs and rapists” because of the legislators' allegedly insufficient commitment to repealing restrictive gun laws. One of the postcards showed a woman cowering in a corner while a man loomed over her with a knife in his hand.
Funding for such postcards has come from political action committees associated with groups including South Dakota Gun Owners, which describes itself as a “no compromise” organization. Tuesday in Pierre, its leaders attended Noem’s signing of the permitless concealed-carry legislation.
Partly because of the persistent political activism by South Dakota Gun Owners, and because of that activism’s success in toppling incumbent Republicans, the notion that 29 Republican legislators would vote to ban guns in courthouses and the Capitol — as they did in 1993 — seems unfathomable today.
Jon Schaff, a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen, said the evolution of gun politics in South Dakota is indicative of increasing polarization nationally in both major political parties. Just as gun rights have become a litmus test for Republicans, Schaff said, other issues such as abortion rights have become litmus tests for Democrats.
“This emboldens interest groups,” Schaff said. “They demand extremism and get it because one has to prove oneself more conservative or progressive than thou. Again, the slightest ideological wavering and you are toast.”
“Guns in South Dakota is an example,” Schaff continued. “The gun lobby can ask for virtually anything and they will get it because no Republican can be seen anything less than pure on gun rights. If you aren’t, they will ruin you and find someone else who will swear purity.”