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Cawthorn defies law on school property

Rep. Madison Cawthorn speakes Oct. 5 at Western Carolina University. David Wheeler photo Rep. Madison Cawthorn speakes Oct. 5 at Western Carolina University. David Wheeler photo

By Tom Fiedler • Asheville Watchdog | 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.  


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“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 Association, which says North Carolina knife laws  are “vague,” “ambiguous,” and “confusing.”

But state law is very clear in outlawing the carrying 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. 

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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  • Additionally all of you saying Cullowhee/WCU are peaceful, are lying. The rape cases, drug crime, assault, and violence is high. The University just covers it all up. Being a current student, among other things, myself, I can assure you all that the University is not safe, and a good portion of the “peaceful” student body participated in dangerous illegal activity including giving drugs and alcohol to minors, date-rape drugging underage females from the local schools, and selling opioids to the local drug addict population because its easy money at the expense of caring for humans.

    It is dangerous here, and it is advised you carry a blade or pepper spray because you have a high chance of being a victim of a crime on WCU Campus or anywhere in the vicinity of this unsafe drug den and rape friendly campus. Football team also are a bunch of scumbags who are above the rules and get out of cases because the University only cares about money.

    posted by Anonymous

    Sunday, 10/31/2021

  • Number one, you clearly do not have any idea what you are talking about Mr. Wheeler. Actually you are able to carry a knife on campus concealed or openly. Myself and many other students, teachers, staff, and others carry knives on WCU Campus. It isn’t against any policy or law to do so, and said law applies specifically to fixed blade knives per Lillard/Hall and other Law Enforcement Officer’s I myself know personally. Get your facts squared away instead of ignoring legitimate facts and truth. Only reason why you care is because you don’t like Cawthorn. Dems and Republicans are just a bunch of partisan hacks.

    posted by Anonymous

    Sunday, 10/31/2021

  • I don't like the fact that Madison Cawthorn voted for Red Flag laws.

    posted by Lucille Josephs

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

  • It's not like he can say that he didn't realize he had it. He obviously believes that he is above the law and when our officials blow it off as he has no malicious intent, does not explain why he is always carrying an illegal weapon.

    posted by Dorothy

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

  • Can you blame him? Good for him.

    posted by bob

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

  • The young man, this Us Congressman is basically defenseless as he sits in a wheelchair. He does not have a security detail as does other members of Congress. Question how many threats has this Member of Congress gotten via social media? text? phone email mail? Do you know? If he is not able to defend himself as a person in a wheelchair would you be willing to foot the bill for a security detail for him? Perhaps he should have a security detail. How dangerous is a person in a wheelchair with a knife? How fast can he wheel his chair one handed ?

    posted by Bill Bixby

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

  • He needs to pay the price of thumbing his nose at NC laws. Apparently he has gone without punishment two times all ready and this will probably be the third time. He is nothing but a disgrace to our state and country.

    posted by Louise B Williams

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

  • Poor Cawthorn. Like his followers, he's afraid of so many people that even at a peaceful university campus, he thinks he has to carry a lethal weapon. Instead of showing bravery, what he and his followers are displaying in billboard-sized illustrations, is their unfounded fear.
    My husband and I have lived in large cities, never with weapons, and managed never to be robbed or attacked. In the 1980s I taught at Birmingham inner city schools. Some of our robbery/assault-free life was luck, for sure, but a lot was taking sensible precautions.
    WCU and Cullhowee are not at all dangerous places, nor is the drive from there to the representative's office, wherever in WNC it may be.
    The representative's massive WMD collection--all those high-power guns he likes to be photographed with--are a testament to his fearf but also to his pandering to the basest human emotions, stoked by fascist would-be dictators like his orange hero and his predecessor "Der Fuhrer" (the honorific Cawthorn gave him when posing at his villa in Germany).
    North Carolina citizens deserve a brave, competent representative. I pray we get one in 2022.

    posted by Mary Curry

    Wednesday, 10/13/2021

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