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Differing opinions on gun control

John Gruber, a consultant for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence speaks during a panel about gun violence on Wednesday evening at the Sherman Center on the Dakota Wesleyan University Campus. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

South Dakota has remained largely out of the national limelight regarding mass shootings.

But the mostly rural state isn't immune to gun violence, officials said Wednesday night during a forum at Dakota Wesleyan University, sparking a passionate conversation about how to keep children and adults safe as shootings plague the United States.

On the same day thousands of students across the country walked out of classes to honor the 17 lives lost in the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, DWU students hosted a forum to discuss the implications of mental health on gun violence.

The discussion was highlighted by presentations by John Gruber, a consultant for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence; Glen Caroline, director of the NRA-ILA Grassroots Division, who joined via livestream; and Matt Christiansen, clinical psychologist with Avera Medical Group and expert in teen and community mental health.

The three shared unique perspectives about gun violence and its relationship to mental health, but all agreed on one facet: mass shootings must end.

"I do think it is important to note, everybody agrees on the ends, everybody wants to reduce gun violence and mass shootings," Caroline said. "The debate comes down to differences in what public policies it takes to get there."

Where the panelists disagreed, however, was how to achieve the feat.

Gruber advocated for additional gun laws nationally, which would limit gun access to people with mental illness. He proposed banning people experiencing a "mental health crisis" from possessing or buying guns, until they receive assistance and the crisis is de-escalated.

"There are things that cause public safety concerns that we need to take into account when designing laws and determining what makes sense when keeping people safe," Gruber said. "We're asking for common sense, middle of the road approaches that meet in the middle without infringing on your rights."

Caroline countered, saying there are already thousands of gun laws that regulate who can purchase and possess guns, and the solution to halting mass shootings lies in enforcing those established laws.

Panelists touched on topics about raising the age of purchasing firearms, improving access to gun safes and other protective measures and improving background checks prior to firearm purchases.

Debate spiked when Gruber and Caroline discussed an issue that has recently gained traction nationally: arming teachers.

For schools in rural areas, like many in South Dakota, Caroline said having some school staff armed with firearms could save lives in an emergency situation.

"No one solution that's going to solve every problem. I think this has to be a multi-faceted approach," Caroline said. "We've seen what's happened with grave consequences up to this point of putting a sticker in the window saying it's a gun-free zone."

Christiansen, a mental health expert, said there has been an increase in teen mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, in recent years, and advocated for more mental health services in South Dakota.

But, he said, pinning America's gun violence issues on people with mental health is an "easy out."

"People with mental illness account for 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes. Mental health gets a bad rap, but if we want to look at what's more predictive, look at substance abuse," Christiansen said. "People with a history of criminal behavior are at highest risk. Mental illness, by and large, most people with a mental illness are never going to commit a violent crime."

While much of the purpose of Wednesday's event was to discuss critical issues facing society, DWU students also hoped to facilitate a forum during which differing opinions — that sometimes could be very strong opinions — could be heard in an accepting, professional atmosphere, which they felt was successful, event organizers said.

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