South Dakota became the first state in the nation to enact a law explicitly authorizing school employees to carry guns on the job, under a measure signed into law Friday by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Passage of the law comes amid a passionate nationwide debate over arming teachers, stoked after 20 first-graders died in an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.
Shortly afterward, the National Rifle Association proposed a plan for armed security officers in every school, and legislation to allow school personnel to carry guns was introduced in about two dozen states. All those measures had stalled until now.
Several other states already have provisions in their laws or no legal restrictions that make it possible for teachers to possess guns in the classroom. In fact, a handful of school districts nationwide have teachers who carry firearms. But South Dakota is the only state known to have a statute that specifically authorizes teachers to possess a firearm in a K-12 school, according to Lauren Heintz, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rep. Scott Craig, a freshman Republican in the South Dakota House who sponsored the bill, said he hoped the measure would shift the country's discourse on school safety.
"Given the national attention to safety in schools, specifically in response to tragedies like in Connecticut, this is huge," he said. He added that, hopefully, "dominoes will start to fall, people will see it's reasonable, it's safer than they think, it's proactive and it's preventive."
The law leaves it up to school districts to decide whether to allow armed teachers. It remains to be seen whether many schools will permit guns in classrooms and whether the measure will reverberate nationwide. Daugaard, a Republican, said he did not think that many schools would take advantage of the option, but that it was important for them to have the choice.
While many gun control advocates are horrified by the notion of guns in schools, Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff lawyer with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the new law would not spark a trend.
"For South Dakota to do this is less of a concern than if we saw it in Colorado or somewhere else like that, which we consider a more reasonable state as far as gun laws go," she said.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the group supported the bill and lobbied for it in the South Dakota Legislature.
"There's certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to keeping our children safe in schools," he said. "It's incumbent upon state and local governments to formulate and implement a plan to keep students safe."
The law says that school districts may choose to allow a school employee, a hired security officer or a volunteer to serve as a "sentinel" who can carry a firearm in the school. The school district must receive the permission of its local law enforcement agency before implementing the program. The law requires the sentinels to undergo training similar to what law enforcement officers receive.
"I think it does provide the same safety precautions that a citizen expects when a law enforcement officer enters onto a premises," Daugaard said in an interview. He added that this law was more restrictive than those in other states that permit guns in schools.
South Dakota is a state with deep roots in hunting, where children start learning how to shoot BB guns when they are 8, skeet shoot with shotguns by age 14 and enter target shooting contests with .22-caliber semi-automatic rifles.
"Our kids start hunting here when they're preteens," said Kevin Jensen, who supports the bill and is the vice president of the Canton School Board in South Dakota. "We know guns. We respect guns."
Opponents, which included state associations representing school boards and teachers, said the bill ignored other approaches to safety.
Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, called the law "premature" and said he believed more discussion was necessary before the bill passed.