[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include yet another complaint, at end of story.]
For the second time in as many months, Rep. Madison Cawthorn faces a potential criminal complaint for carrying a weapon — in the latest incident, a “combat” automatic knife similar to a switchblade — in a public school building.
The 26-year-old freshman Congressman was photographed Tuesday night at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee with the knife handle protruding from his pants pocket.
It appeared to be a different knife than the one he was seen carrying three weeks ago during an appearance before the Henderson County Board of Education. That also prompted a citizen complaint to be filed with Henderson County Sheriff Lowell Griffin.
Griffin, a Republican, subsequently declined to charge Cawthorn for the misdemeanor offense. In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Griffin said he based that decision on “officer discretion” in misdemeanor cases where “the intent of the person” can be taken into account and a “verbal warning” is the appropriate action. It wasn’t clear, however, that such a warning was delivered to the congressman.
Cawthorn was invited to the WCU campus by the university’s chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization. About 200 people, all but a few of them unmasked, attended his hour-long speech in a conference hall.
“Are You Packing Heat?”
During a question-and-answer session following his opening remarks, in which he emphasized his support for the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, an audience member asked, “Are you packing heat now?”
Cawthorn replied: “I am not. Not right now. Not on campus.”
But he made no mention of the knife, which North Carolina law classifies along with firearms as a “deadly weapon” and prohibits anyone from carrying on “educational property.”
Following his speech, while Cawthorn posed for selfies with members of the audience, he was photographed by David B. Wheeler, a political activist who directs a website devoted to preventing Cawthorn’s reelection in 2022. Wheeler’s photographs appear to show the knife’s handle and clip protruding from Cawthorn’s pants pocket.
The knife appears similar to a stiletto-style “Combat Troodon Frag Off Green Apocalyptic” automatic knife made by Microtech Knives Inc. of Fletcher, N.C. (Troodon was a prehistoric, bird-like dinosaur with a scientific name that translates to “wounding tooth.”)
The knife, which has a retail price of $1,500, automatically projects its 3.75-inch serrated double-edge dagger blade out the front of the handle when the user presses a thumb-slide button, making it, under North Carolina statute, a “switchblade.” It is illegal in many states for civilians other than law enforcement or active military users to own or carry such knives.
At the school board meeting last month, Cawthorn appeared to have a Microtech SBD fixed-blade double-edged dagger partly concealed in his wheelchair.
A person answering the phone Friday at Microtech Knives, asked if it was legal for civilians to own automatic knives in North Carolina, said, “We don’t offer legal advice,” and referred Asheville Watchdog to the website of the American Knife & Tool Institute, which says North Carolina knife laws are “vague,” “ambiguous,” and “confusing.”
But state law is very clear in outlawing the carrying of any kind of weapon, including knives, “whether openly or concealed,” on any kind of school property, including campus buildings. Violations are a Class 1 misdemeanor, carrying up to 120 days in jail and a discretionary fine.
The knives that Cawthorn is believed to have carried onto school properties are also illegal for anyone to possess in any parade, funeral procession, picket line, or demonstration on public property, presumably including political rallies.
Wheeler sent an email Friday with attached photos to Jackson County Sheriff Chip Hall and to WCU Police Chief Steven Lillard, calling for an investigation into what Wheeler called “a serious criminal matter.” Wheeler’s complaint also asserted that WCU policy explicitly prohibits concealed weapons on campus.
Neither Hall nor Lillard have responded to Asheville Watchdog’s requests for comment about whether they will pursue a complaint. Hall was elected as a Democrat in 2018 and has announced plans to retire at the end of his term next year.
Guns and Knives
Wheeler wrote that this alleged violation of the law and the WCU policy was especially egregious because it came despite the warning Cawthorn had been given by Henderson County Sheriff Griffin three weeks earlier.
Cawthorn “may be a powerful politician and believe [sic] he is untouchable, but he is an habitual offender and clearly has no respect for the rule of law,” Wheeler wrote.
In February Cawthorn was stopped by Transportation Security Administration as he attempted to board a plane carrying an unloaded semiautomatic pistol in his carry-on bag, along with a loaded magazine, according to airport officials. The congressman said he had “erroneously” put the handgun in the bag and no charges were brought.
On Jan. 6, as pro-Trump rioters roamed the halls of Congress, Cawthorn called a conservative radio program and said he had carried loaded weapons into the Capitol.
Cawthorn refused to take questions from reporters after his talk at WCU and his congressional office didn’t immediately respond to The Watchdog’s request for comment about the latest complaint.
UPDATE: For the third time in barely three weeks the 26-year-old weapon-loving lawmaker was caught on camera with the handle of a combat-style knife visible in a pants pocket on school property. The photo, posted on the congressman’s official Twitter account online, shows Cawthorn visiting young students in a classroom Oct. 5 at the Veritas Christian Academy in Fletcher, a suburb of Asheville just across the Henderson County line. A few hours after that classroom visit, Cawthorn spoke at Western Carolina University, where he again was photographed with what appeared to be the same switchblade-style weapon in his pocket.
The possession of any weapon while on the property of an educational facility is against North Carolina law. The visit at Veritas Christian Academy in Henderson County is especially problematic because it came less than three weeks after Cawthorn was warned by Henderson County Sheriff Lowell S. Griffin of the law’s existence.
That came after Cawthorn carried a knife in his wheelchair while addressing the Henderson County Board of Education. Sheriff Griffin, a Republican like Cawthorn, dismissed a citizen’s complaint about that incident, but issued a public statement afterward: “Congressman Cawthorn is now aware that the administrative offices of the school system is considered educational property and NO WEAPONS are allowed.”
Griffin hasn’t as yet responded to The Watchdog’s request for comment about the latest incident, nor has Cawthorn’s office, but told the complainant, Wheeler, that the Veritas Christian Academy was the jurisdiction of the Fletcher Police Department. Dan Terry, Fletcher’s chief of police, told Wheeler, “We do not plan to open an investigation regarding this matter. Based on the circumstances, information obtained, or lack thereof, we will not be pursuing an investigation and have no additional comment at this time.”
Veritas Christian Academy Headmaster Robert M. Woods told The Watchdog in an email that the private school complies fully with state law regarding weapons. He said none of the staff who interacted with Cawthorn during his visit saw “what looked like a knife.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald, now living in Asheville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.