DAY 52: A Perspective from South Dakota

We continue our reflection on God’s call to us through the ELCA’s “60-Day Journey Toward Justice in a Culture of Gun Violence.”

DAY 52: A Perspective from South Dakota

When you talk to Rev. David Zellmer, you can’t help but be reminded of just how complex and diverse the ELCA is in its mix of people, life experiences, contexts, cultures, and perspectives. And yet, as church, we believe that we journey forward in Christ together—with all our human commonalities and differences.

“I live in a state [South Dakota] where 60 percent of the homes have a firearm in them, maybe it’s a little higher than that even,” said Zellmer. “I know there’s more firearms than there are people in South Dakota. It’s a complicated issue.

“We have a new governor and new attorney general … and the first bill the governor proposed at the legislative session was to allow universal concealed permit without a permit to carry. So, universal carry—concealed carry—without a background check, which was widely and wildly opposed, was passed and signed. She ran for office with significant support from the sheriffs, and they did not support it. There was good polling among firearm owners, and we came in at 84
percent to keep the existing system we had in place.

“We’ve not had much issue with open concealed carry in South Dakota, that’s just not been a real topic of concern. But truthfully, I was shocked. … That’s kind of the playing field we’ve got right now.”

Because of their synod’s context and their anticipation of responses that might be negative or divisive, many congregations and pastors are not actively discussing gun violence prevention right now, or the role of the ELCA in addressing this social issue, but they have had to address and wrestle with other complex aspects of the issue with their members and communities.

“There have been significant debates about having armed teachers or administrators in our schools,” said Zellmer. “There are schools doing that, particularly in a number of our rural ones where if you had an issue, if you had an active shooter incident, it could be a solid half hour to get someone there to respond and, more than likely, it would be one deputy sheriff. Some of our schools are very remote and isolated.

“The bigger issue around this for us is mental health treatment and access to it. We are a state that doesn’t have very good access to mental health treatment, protocols, or programs. … To me, having access to quality mental health treatment and pharmacology treatment protocols is important, but it’s tough in this state. I’ve worked extensively on suicide prevention for 21 years. I helped write South Dakota’s state suicide prevention plan, and it comes back to firearms—we have a lot of access.
… Almost every one of the suicides I’ve worked with has been firearm-related.”

Change involves listening to and caring for each other
So where and how do you start to get at the issue of gun violence in a state where sport hunting is popular and there are more guns than people? Where do you start anywhere? Zellmer firmly believes “it still goes back to how we treat each person.

“I think it really does matter in those daily one to two opportunities to interact with folks—I think those matter. I’m a firm believer that we choose life or death with our words and our actions as we move through the day. I think the church gets confused that we think we can use the law to change people, when, in fact, our principle teaching is that the gospel is what changes people.

“So, the question for me is, how do we preach the gospel in a way that changes the behavior of individuals and how we interact with each other at a community level, and changes how we look out for one another.

“The principle thing is how we treat one another and the ability to listen and respond in ways that are helpful as you move through the day. I’m well aware that I interact with hundreds of people in the course of a day. What was that experience like for them? Was it one that made their day better or worse? Truthfully, I believe those things matter—from the young woman behind the Starbucks counter to the old guy at the gas station, take your pick.”

Rural, urban, suburban, or a mix of all three, Bishop Zellmer’s conviction is that what we do and say every day and the quality of our interactions with each other—friend and stranger alike—have a definite impact and influence on gun violence, the behavior of people we encounter, and the well-being of our communities as a whole—even if we don’t see it. Our public witness and interactions do make a difference.