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Sen. John Thune, pictured here, was protected by two Mitchell police officers when he spoke at a Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Business Roundtable at the Highland Conference Center on Wednesday afternoon. (Tom Lawrence/Republic)

Armed officers watch Thune event

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Sen. John Thune said he enjoys the culture and tradition in South Dakota politics, where people feel free to walk right up to their elected representatives.

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That was the case Tuesday, as Thune held a meeting with local economic development leaders at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell and chatted with many of the two dozen people who attended.

But in the wake of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., there was something different: Two armed Mitchell police officers attended the event.

Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg was inside the conference room while Detective Lt. Don Everson patrolled outside the room.

Overweg said he decided to step up security after the shooting in Tucson, in which six people were killed and 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., were wounded. When top political figures come to Mitchell, police will decide how to cover the event, he said.

"We will be notified anytime they are in the area," Overweg said.

The chief said he does not know if officers will be sent to every event held in Mitchell by a prominent political figure. "We'll evaluate it as it comes along," he said.

Thune's state director, Ryan Nelson, said the senator's staff did not request anything different than normal from local law enforcement.

Nelson said law enforcement, like the media, is always advised of an upcoming appearance by Thune.

The Republican senator was surprised when told two armed officers were at his event. He said he hopes it doesn't become the norm.

"I don't think it will be that way in the future," Thune said.

He said he has a concealed carry permit -- "My entire family does" -- and sometimes carries a weapon, although he wasn't armed Wednesday.

Thune said when he is in the Black Hills, he sometimes carries a weapon, but only if he may encounter a dangerous wild animal, not because of a threat from a human.

However, he has carried a weapon when he travels to another state, while making sure those states have a reciprocity agreement with South Dakota to honor its concealed carry law. No handguns are allowed in the District of Columbia, Thune noted.

He said he doesn't feel in danger when he makes appearances around South Dakota.

"I think after you're in public life, you're going to be exposed to a lot of people," Thune said. "Some are just not going to be 'all there.' "

But he feels South Dakota politicians are able to have spirited debates and contests and do so in a "civil and respectful" way.

There has been discussion this week about allowing senators and representatives to carry weapons in D.C., but Thune laughed when asked about that. It's an "over-reaction" to what happened in Tucson, he said.

"I don't think that's necessary," Thune said.

The danger to public figures is from "random, deranged" people who become "obsessed with a political figure," he said.

Thune learned of the shooting while attending Gov. Dennis Daugaard's inauguration. He and Rep. Kristi Noem were both told of the event, he said.

Early reports were that Giffords had been killed, Thune said, so learning she had survived was a bit of good news on a tragic day.

"It was a tragic, tragic story for the six who lost their lives and their families," he said.

He said he doesn't know her but believes they have met at least once. Thune said she is popular with both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C.

Thune is making some political stops out of state this weekend, as the Senate is out of session until late January.

He said he will attend some private events on behalf of other candidates. Some may be fundraisers, Thune said.

He has yet to form a political action committee and is still undecided if he will run for president in 2012.

Whether he does or not, Thune said the Tucson shooting will not be a factor.

He said he will not let it deter him from what he decides, and his family has not asked him to reconsider any political plans because of the shooting.

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