Is protecting the public from white supremacists with a semi-automatic rifle illegal?
Dwayne Dixon’s decision to bring a semi-automatic rifle and extra ammunition to downtown Durham was a deliberate one, he said.
It was a gun he was comfortable with. It would be visible to law enforcement. And, after hearing white supremacists were on their way, he said, he wanted to be able to defend himself.
“There was a real concern, like real vivid. A kind of tone that I had never heard by citizens of this city,” Dixon, 45, said. “I am no savior. I never went down there to play Rambo.”
As Dixon walked around downtown Aug. 18, he kept his trigger finger on the stock of the rifle and the muzzle to the ground.
The sight of a man with a rifle on Main Street surprised some and concerned others.
Dixon was just as shocked as everyone else, he said
“I was asking myself on Main Street, ‘What world am I living in that I am having to carry, or I feel compelled to exercise my Second Amendment rights to carry a rifle for my own self protection,’” he said.
The Durham County Sheriff’s Office disputes that Dixon had a right to bring a gun that day.
The warrant says Dixon – who says he stood on a car to warn people about the dangers of walking in the street – assisted in organizing and blocking public roadways “while armed with a semi-automatic weapon rifle capable of firing multiple shots within seconds, which upon observance by members of the public caused alarm and concerns for safety.”
He and at least two others are charged with two misdemeanors: going armed to the terror of the people and bringing a weapon to a demonstration. Dixon made his first appearance in court on Wednesday. His next court date is Oct. 11.
The charges, according to one expert, raise interesting legal questions.
Jeff Welty, an associate professor and expert in firearms laws at the UNC School of Government, said going armed to the terror of the people is a common law, meaning it comes from English law instead of a state statute, and is tricky to prove.
“The complicated part of it is that in North Carolina, very generally, it is lawful for a person to engage in open carry, that is a person who is legally entitled to own a firearm or possess a firearm, can walk around carrying a firearm,” he said.
“In order to prove that offense, you need show that the person has gone beyond merely exercising their open right to carry into this somewhat difficult to define territory of promoting terror,” he said.
Details such as the kind of weapon, how a person carried it and what was happening around them could be key, he said.
In 2016, there were 344 charges of going armed to the terror of the people, according to statewide information, Welty said.
The other misdemeanor stems from a 1981 law that prohibits weapons at parades, funeral processions, picket lines or demonstrations at any public place. The law doesn’t apply to people with a valid concealed carry permit and a handgun at a parades or funerals.
Welty said statewide court data indicates the offense was charged “rarely, if ever,” in 2016, and the statute has never been cited in an appellate court opinion.
The law doesn’t provide an extensive definition of parade, such as whether it needs to be permitted or not, or demonstration, he said.
There also could also be questions about whether the statute impedes on the right to bear arms.
“You could imagine the argument, at least, that somebody would say ‘I have a right to bear arms for self protection and other lawful purposes, that it’s a right protected by the U.S. Constitution and the state Constitution,” and that this statute unreasonably impairs my ability to protect myself and carry the weapons in circumstances in which I might need to defend myself, he said.
Dixon, a UNC-Chapel Hill anthropology lecturer who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Duke University, disagrees he was at a demonstration. He went downtown after getting texts about white supremacists coming and learning that county offices had closed.
“The frequency and the volume together told me that a range of people in different walks of life and professions were getting information that was causing alarm,” said Dixon, the son of a career Army infantry office.
The texts turned into requests to come to a meeting at the Pinhook club, where activists concerned about a rumored Ku Klux Klan rally were gathering.
When Dixon arrived, he saw deputies blocking East Main Street in front of the old courthouse, he said, and two deputies escorting someone to a parking lot.
“It tells me there is some serious danger in so far as armed personnel from the county are being dispatched to protect this county worker,” Dixon said. “But it tells me that everyone else is wide open.”
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tamara Gibbs declined to comment on tactical or operational details, saying it could compromise the handling of future events.
“We can tell you that there was adequate staffing to ensure everyone’s safety and security,” Gibbs said.
The Sheriff’s Office says it warned community leaders that a white supremacist group might march downtown based on information it had received. Some shared the information, resulting in hundreds of people coming downtown throughout the day. When the white supremacist rally never materialized, it turned into an hours-long anti-racism event.
Dixon, who was downtown for about an hour, said he saw a motorcyclist wearing a Confederate flag on his leather vest swerve toward a few standing on the Main Street. He also saw a man standing across the intersection from Pinhook with his arm in his pocket, appearing to be pointing a handgun at people.
The Police Department said it didn’t hear any reports of people pointing weapons at people. Sheriff Mike Andrews said there were no verified reports of KKK members in Durham.
Less than a week before, Dixon had been in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a member of the Redneck Revolt, a leftist organization that promotes community self-defense in the struggle against racism.
Dixon was among roughly 20 members, some armed, that provided security for counterprotesters when white supremacists and nationalists marched against the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a local park.
“I have never seen this kind of chaotic, indeterminate, violent haze that just lingered over a city,” Dixon said.
At the Durham event, Dixon said he walked away when people started to march. He put the gun in his trunk, observed traffic from a parking lot behind the Pinhook, and then went home.