Commission sticks to its guns on guns

Jason Ferguson

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
“Don’t let them bully you. You have the power to stop it.”
“If you’re brave enough to do it, we can get our country back.”
These were just some of the comments from the audience at the Nov. 30 special meeting of the Custer County Commission, where the commission decided to—no pun intended—stick  to its guns when it comes to a recently-passed county ordinance that allows both employees and the public to carry firearms in the courthouse and on county property.
It was the “in the courthouse” aspect of the ordinance that was most broadly discussed Monday.
The commission room of the courthouse was full of people in favor of the ordinance as it was passed, with some expressing the belief it is the first step in taking a stand against the erosion of rights in the country.
“No matter what the rule is, the threat is there,” said Patrick Baumann, who encouraged the commission to keep the ordinance as it was passed. He said the protection of the courthouse and its employees is better off with well-intentioned people carrying firearms inside the courthouse. He argued short of “bars on the windows” and law enforcement ready to check people at every entrance, a person intent on causing harm won’t be stopped from entering the courthouse with a weapon, anyway.
County auditor Terri Cornelison said the county’s insurance provider said it would not drop the county’s insurance over the ordinance, but did have myriad questions regarding both the employees and general public carrying into the courthouse. Among those questions are whether the employees would be required to have training prior to carrying into the building (it is not required) and if they will be on the person at all times.
“There are just a lot of unknowns,” she said, stressing the insurance provider wants to secure a safe work environment for employees. “That is something that needs to be handled through our employee handbook.”
Custer County state’s attorney Tracy Kelley told the commission, although the county’s insurance provider can’t make blanket statements as to what it will cover and what it won’t cover, it’s likely 90 percent of any incidents that could take place due to firearms in the courthouse will not be covered, putting tax dollars at risk. She said it’s also likely the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court will decline to hold court in Custer County if the ordinance stands, which could end up costing the county a great deal of money.
At the previous meeting of the commission, Seventh Circuit Court judges Craig Pfeifle and Matt Brown spoke out against allowing the public to carry into the building, saying while they had no problem with employees carrying (which is now allowed under state law in areas not being used by the court system), they were opposed to the general public being allowed to carry, citing safety and liability concerns.
Pfeifle hinted there were things he could do as presiding judge to “protect court personnel” should Custer County continue with the ordinance to allow the public to carry in the courthouse, and had previously told the commission refusing to have court in the county is an option he has under state statute.
Should the court system go that route, Kelley said costs to the county will increase, and it will create a “logistical nightmare” for the state’s attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, the court services’ office and the clerk of courts’ office.
Kelley said it will also create issues for some county defendants in court who have trouble getting to court in Custer County, let alone in Pennington County, should that be where Custer County court is held.
“We have a lot of local defendants who have a really difficult time getting to court in Custer County,” she said. “They don’t have reliable transportation. There are going to be a lot of them that it’s going to be very difficult for them to get to court in Rapid City.”
Kelley said defendants and the state are entitled to have court in a county’s jurisdiction, which means a defendant who is accused of a crime in Custer County could potentially refuse to have their case heard in Pennington County.
“There are a lot of little nuances that we haven’t looked at,” she said.
Added expenses would include billable hours for travel time for the sheriff’s office and attorneys for every court appearance.
Commissioner Mark Hartman, who has long been a proponent of letting the public carry in the courthouse, was unmoved, saying he believes county attorney Susan Anderson did a good job in the ordinance describing the areas of the courthouse firearms aren’t allowed (the court system does not allow firearms in the courtroom or areas of the courthouse it is using on court days) and that he doesn’t believe the court system will refuse to have court in Custer County.
“I think that’s a ‘what if,’” he said. “If they did, we could revisit it down the road.”
“It sounds to me like they are blackmailing us,” said someone in the crowd.
Another man in the audience spoke about how the judicial branch is separate from the executive and legislative branches of government and should not be using its influence to influence public policy. He likened it to a child “taking their toys and going home.”
“They are putting a weight on you that shouldn’t be there,” he said.
Another who spoke said there was a cost to both sides of the argument, but the costs were monetary versus freedom.
“The cost of freedom is already paid in blood,” he said, adding he wouldn’t think it very brave of the county to walk back its ordinance.
Mike Sand, who said he has a history in law enforcement, said it’s an illusion that a member of the general public is going to stop an active shooter, as 95 percent of people wouldn’t be able to respond in a proper way due to lack of training. However, he said, “as long as the illusion is in the shooter’s mind,” it could deter a shooter from entering the building.
“What you want to put in the mind of a potential suspect is there is a cost associated (with an attack) and he doesn’t know what that cost is,” he said.
County attorney Susan Anderson said the state allows its employees to conceal carry a pistol at work, but employees who do so must have their own insurance, must know applicable state and federal laws and understand the state is not liable for wrongful or negligent acts caused by employees. The pistol must also be completely concealed and in the immediate control of the employee at all times. There is no enhanced carry course requirement.
In Fall River County, employees may carry a firearm, but they must have an enhanced permit card and must register with the sheriff. There is an insurance requirement as well, and employees who carry must sign a liability waiver. The public is not allowed to carry in the Fall River County Courthouse and firearms are prohibited on the second floor, as that is where court takes place.
Lintz said the initial intent of the ordinance was to make employees safer by letting it be known the courthouse is not firearm-free and there would be a deterrent for a bad actor who would come to the courthouse with ill intent. He said allowing the general public to carry will create a “needless” cost to the county and it won’t enhance the safety of county employees.
“If it enhanced the safety of our personnel who work here, I’d say ‘have at her,’” he said. “Our goal of making it safe for employees is met by allowing them to carry. You’re going to have to decide and we will have to determine what the cost is going to be and are the people of Custer County willing to foot that cost and the inconvenience of not having court in Custer County. I think it’s a major decision to make.”
Hartman said he has not seem a single document, fact or study that shows the resolution is a bad idea or dangerous.
“My stand stays the same,” he said.
Because there was no motion made to alter the previously passed resolution in any way, it will stand and went into effect yesterday. Changes will be made to address issues in the county employee handbook, including having those who choose to carry sign a waiver and verbiage saying carrying a firearm is not a job requirement, nor is taking action with the firearm during incidents  should a person decide to bring the firearm to work.
The commission will investigate organizing a group enhanced carry permit class for its employees who chose to enroll, with the county footing the bill.
In other action from the Nov. 30 meeting, the commission unanimously voted to shuffle the location of some of its offices. The veterans service office will move to the Custer County Courthouse Annex and will take over the county Extension office. Extension will move into the county’s old weed and pest building south of town, while Anderson will move her office into what is now the veterans service office. The commission is in the process of finding a new veterans service officer following the resignation of Jana Virtue.

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