- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Saying they were afraid of being attacked while on the job, members of a South Dakota legislative committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would allow elected officials to carry guns in the Capitol and county courthouses.

State law currently permits only law enforcement officials and judges to carry guns in those public buildings. The bill would expand the law to legislators and other elected officials, as long as they have state permits to carry concealed weapons.

Supporters on the House Local Government Committee, which voted 8-5 to endorse the plan, said lawmakers have been particularly worried about security since former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011. GIffords, 43, is still recovering from a brain injury she suffered when a mentally ill man short her in the head as she met with constituents outside an Arizona shopping center. Six people were killed in the attack.

Rep. Stace Nelson, R-Fulton, said the measure would give lawmakers and other elected officials the ability to protect themselves.

“Criminals do hurt law-abiding people,” said Nelson, a retired federal law enforcement official. “The thing criminals fear is law-abiding people who have the ability to protect themselves.”

But representatives of law enforcement agencies, lawyers, local governments and the courts said they want the law to remain in its current form. They testified that law officers would have a tough time identifying public officials or others who might be allowed to be armed in those public buildings.

Opponents also said armed legislators would not make the Capitol any safer.

“I do not think it makes us safer to have more guns carried among us,” said Rep. Karen Soli, D-Sioux Falls, who voted against the measure.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City. She originally proposed allowing anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry guns in the Capitol and county courthouses.

She sought to change it during the committee hearing to cover just elected officials and public employees, but the committee eventually changed the bill so it only applies to state and local officials with concealed weapons permits.

Rep. Anne Hajek, R-Sioux Falls, said she opposed the bill partly because no one knows how many local elected government officials would be covered. She said she has no idea how many township supervisors exist in South Dakota.

Hajek also said the Legislature should not grant itself a right the general public does not have.

“I do not want to be part of a South Dakota Legislature that would say the rules are different for us,” Hajek said.

Law enforcement groups, the court system and the State Bar of South Dakota opposed the early version of the bill, which would have allowed all public employees to carry guns in courthouses and the Capitol. They had no chance to testify on the final version of the bill after the committee made changes, though said they don’t want current law changed.

Law enforcement officers and other opponents said allowing more armed people in such buildings would not necessarily improve safety.

Dana Svendsen of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, which provides security in the Capitol, said officers would have a tough time identifying elected officials who had permits to carry concealed guns.

Tom Barnett of the State Bar said allowing more armed people in courtrooms could lead to violence if someone disagreed with a judge or a jury or had a grudge against someone involved in a case.

“Firemen don’t take gas to fires,” he said.

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