ST. PAUL -- Dakota’s dad put a gun in her hand when she was 3 years old.
It was a .22 rifle, “and I thought I scared her. She shot and she was very very quiet,” Todd Overland said. “And about a half an hour later she came up to me and said, ‘Dad, can I do that again?’” She tagged along on his hunting trips that same year.
Perhaps that helps explain why the 14-year-old Forest Lake native is a rising star in the nation’s “action shooting” competitions. It’s a sport that stemmed from military-only, “Soldier of Fortune” matches, with some claiming roots back to World War II bull’s-eye competitions.
Two weeks ago, Dakota Jo Overland took the “High Lady” title at a major match in Missouri — widely seen as the kickoff event for the “three-gun” season. Those three guns being a semi-automatic rifle (an AR-15 platform, in Dakota’s case), a tactical 12-gauge shotgun and a tactical pistol. They are used as she maneuvers among trees, hits targets and tries to miss others while racing against a stopwatch timing the silence between her shots.
Being “High Lady” means the young teen beat all women of all ages — many military vets, many in law enforcement — and a lot of men, too. The competition was split between a series of events, each with roughly 175 competitors of all ages and genders. Dakota placed sixth in two of them. This, in an overwhelmingly male-dominated sport where roughly 1 in 10 competitors are women, and 1 in 20 are minors.
It wasn’t the first time. In a major match in Texas the month before — this time shotguns only — Dakota was dubbed “High Lady” as well. Come June, she’ll travel to France for another shotgun match.
Her Forest Lake high school won’t let her compete on their trapshooting team. As a professional shooter — one with both gun and ammo manufacturers, as well as a local gun store, sponsoring her — state league rules prevent her.
Many of her classmates know nothing of this. When the school shooting happened in Parkland, Fla., nobody asked her what she thought about it. And she’s fine with that.
As for those aware of her extracurricular activities, “They don’t have a huge reaction to it. I mean, a lot of them are probably pretty anti-gun, but it’s not like they have any hatred toward me.”
But she has her opinions – and has traveled as far as Washington, D.C. to offer them, in front of like-minded crowds and skeptical legislative aides.
“It seems like the Second Amendment, in order to actually protect it, I actually have to do something about it,” she says.
An economy of movement
As Dakota’s parents sit to one side of their kitchen table, they let her speak without goading. She never glances at them for affirmation. It wasn’t always that way.
“Two years ago, if someone asked me almost anything, I probably would stare at them silently for about five seconds and then look to my parents for the answer,” she said in a speech last year before a small crowd on the Capitol West Lawn in Washington, D.C. — a speech her parents say she wrote herself.
“The shooting community is by far the most supportive community that I have ever been in. One I would like to stay in, and have the right to stay in.”
She’s not giddy when talking about guns. She’s calm and speaks with respect. It’s also obvious in the way she moves with them: always aware where they’re pointed, how many rounds are loaded. The safety is unconsciously on.
There was a point at the local range last week when her father timed her changing a pistol magazine in 3.06 seconds.
Dakota seems disappointed.
“Was that with shots included?” she asks.
“I stand corrected,” her father replies.
While her mother, Tiffany Overland, notes, “Our kids don’t get participation awards. They recognize the world isn’t fair.” The support surrounding Dakota is obviously strong.
“Despite her small size, she went right for the 12-gauge,” said Kate Arnzen, owner of Arnzen Arms, an Eden Prairie gun shop, one of Dakota’s first sponsors. “Some kids are more intimidated doing the rifle and shotgun. Not her.”
The sponsorship obviously works both ways. Last year someone walked into Arnzen’s shop wondering if a 12-gauge had too much kick.
“I told them, ‘I know this 110-pound, 13-year-old’ …”
After two years in the sport, Dakota’s sponsors now include Federal Premium Ammunition, in Anoka; JP Enterprises, a rifle company; Gunfighter Targets, a steel target manufacturer; and vortex optics, which does scopes.
“She’s an amazing competitor, and I’ve been in this sport 10 years,” said Charles Sole, a retired law enforcement officer who co-owns Strategic Match Design LLC out of Atlanta. His firm puts on 10 major action shooting matches a year — including the one in Texas where Dakota took High Lady shotgun honors.
“Just look at the sheer movement, the economy of how she moves, and those abilities. If you are able to get into a position faster and more efficiently, you’re going to excel.”
Matt Loganbill, one of two brothers who ran this month’s Missouri Three-Gun Championship out of Versailles, Mo., agreed: “We noticed her a few years ago, that she was going to be an up-and-coming contender, and she’s definitely proved to be true.”
Dianna Muller, a 23-year veteran of the Tulsa, Okla., Police Department, came in second behind Dakota in the Missouri match.
“It was a pretty good feat,” Muller said, noting she herself had some “equipment failures.”
Muller also runs The DC Project, a grassroots lobbying effort that includes one female Second Amendment advocate from each state. Though it’s dubbed bipartisan, Muller admits it’s mostly conservative, with a handful of “staunch Dems.”
For the past two years, Dakota has represented Minnesota.
“I would put our kids up against the best kids of any ‘anti’s.’ They just don’t know that we are good people,” Muller said.
The current debate
After a training shoot, Dakota agrees to talk about gun control. She knows the questions are coming.
“Truly a tragedy,” Dakota says of Parkland.
The most frustrating unfairness, say many in “NRA land” — as some legislators have dubbed it — is the idea that they don’t care. Or that they just want their guns, your safety be damned.
Dakota sees safety with a gun: It’s that simple. Not just for her, but for everyone.
“The only thing that would probably scare me is that there really … we don’t have a resource officer,” she says of her school — the Lakes International Language Academy, a charter school in Forest Lake — as she gets more comfortable talking.
Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Dakota’s school had a drill. They pulled the fire alarm, and announced an “active shooter” over the loudspeaker. Her class locked their door, closed curtains and huddled in the corner.
“Police officers to come are gonna take a few minutes, so the only thing we’re taught to be able to do is either leave the school or hide.
“If there was a shooter to come into the school, they go in there knowing that there’s nobody that can stop them. … They aren’t going to have any hesitation. … and the fact that I can’t have anybody that’ll protect me or that my safety won’t be in my hands is kinda scary.”
When asked about solutions, the first thing out of Dakota’s mouth is arming teachers.
“Even if it’s an optional thing, it doesn’t have to be required. But police response time … they’re not going to be there right away.”
She also backs more anti-bullying efforts.
“A lot of these kids that become school shooters are more lonely kids or bullied or have their own issues … it’s really hard on some kids. … They feel they need to hurt somebody back, they feel that’s the only solution. Just having somebody there … could help, because those people wouldn’t feel that that’s the solution.”
Critics of those ideas have pointed out that many teachers are uncomfortable with armed co-workers — particularly the possibility of an unstable or unsafe teacher having a gun in school. More firearms — and potential access to them — would lead only to more potential for tragedy, they argue.
And last week, one of the Parkland students, Isabelle Robinson, wrote a column in the New York Times saying she’d tried to befriend the teen charged with the killings, Nikolas Cruz — but he’d repeatedly harassed her instead.
“No amount of kindness or compassion alone would have changed the person that Nikolas Cruz is and was, or the horrendous actions he perpetrated,” Robinson wrote. “That is a weak excuse for the failures of our school system, our government and our gun laws.”
As the discussion at the Overlands’ kitchen table broadened, Dakota’s dad was eventually drawn in: have the district approve or not approve teachers, and require training, he proposed. And yes, there were failures in Parkland — but he points primarily at authorities’ inability to counter Cruz, despite many red flags.
“I’d give up my gun in a heartbeat if I thought there was never going to be another shooting,” Todd Overland said. “I don’t think, in the next 10 generations, there’s ever going to be a point where there’s not bad people trying to do bad things.”
During her speech last year in Washington, Dakota made a try for common ground.
“As a kid, I believe learning the safety aspects of shooting and gun handling is beneficial and very important as a part of growing up,” she said. “Whether you’re pro- or anti-gun, everybody can believe in safety.”