Unconcealed gun causes stir in Prosser restaurant

Kristin M. Kraemer, Herald staff writerFebruary 21, 2010 

COVINGTON -- Duncan Dohmen wants people to notice the pistol he carries.

He isn't a police officer and tells people that when he's asked. He likes these chances to educate people about a right afforded them 219 years ago -- a right he fears could be stripped.

"Rights not exercised are rights lost," said the 68-year-old resident of Covington in King County. "... I was walking around for 18 years with a pistol secretly concealed and it alarmed nobody. Then I realized that (openly) carrying a pistol might cause questions."

So for the past two years Dohmen has openly worn his Smith & Wesson 1911 model .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. He's an active member of the Open Carry movement and takes any chance he gets to talk about the right to bear arms under both the U.S. and Washington constitutions.

Dohmen said he's found most people willing to listen -- until last June, when a restroom break at a Prosser restaurant ended up in a criminal charge.

According to police reports, the McDonald's manager said that when she asked Dohmen to leave because of his gun, he tapped the holstered pistol and told her, "Bring it bitch."

Dohmen denies that.

He says he told her it wasn't illegal and offered her a brochure about gun rights.

He was eventually charged in Benton County District Court with a gross misdemeanor for the unlawful carrying or displaying of a firearm "in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons."

He was scheduled to go to trial Monday, but earlier this month he agreed to a six-month continuance. If in the meantime he commits no other crime, including traffic infractions, the charge may be dropped.

Dohmen, who has carried a gun for 20 years, says he's never shot anyone nor felt the need to do so.

A graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in economics, he originally moved to Washington state because he'd heard the skiing was good.

He was working for Boeing when he realized that if he could get a security clearance there, he should be able to get a permit to carry a gun. He obtained a concealed weapons permit.

"It was more safety than anything else," he said of his initial desire to be armed at all times.

He'd been in a couple of road rage incidents, though nothing came of them. But he figured, "How long does it go on before somebody goes completely around the bend?"

For 18 years, Dohmen said, he thought carrying a concealed pistol was the "tactically superior way to go." Then he decided it was time to "do something proactive to retain our gun rights" and joined the Open Carry movement.

Unlike carrying a concealed gun, people who openly carry don't need a permit because it's a right under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the state Constitution, Article I, Section 24.

"While everybody has the right to carry a pistol, they don't because they don't know they have the right or they think they'll get in trouble ...," said Kennewick lawyer Jim Egan, who is representing Dohmen in the Benton County case.

"Mr. Dohmen believes if more people carried handguns for self protection, that would make the world a more safer place instead of a dangerous place."

Washington is considered an Open Carry-friendly state. However, gun owners must be 21 to open carry, and must possess a concealed pistol license to carry a loaded handgun in a car.

People are prohibited from carrying weapons into certain places like schools and buildings connected to courtrooms and judge's chambers, bars or lounges that are off-limits to people under 21, the restricted areas of a jail or law enforcement facility, a commercial airport or public mental health facility. Businesses also may prohibit guns.

The website opencarry.org says Open Carry is "A pro-gun Internet community focused on the right to openly carry properly holstered handguns in daily American life." The organization was founded in 2004 by two Virginia gun rights activists.

An e-mail request from the Herald for an interview with one of the founders was not returned.

The website serves as not only a legal resource for gun owners, but also a social network to share stories and name businesses that are either gun-friendly or anti-gun.

Starbucks has drawn praise from Open Carry for allowing customers to carry guns into its coffee shops.

But the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has launched a petition drive urging Starbucks to change that stance. A letter to the company's chief executive officer said "the open display of firearms in public places is inherently threatening and intimidating, and poses risks to those nearby, to law enforcement and to the community."

Dohmen disagrees that he's being intimidating. "I never carry it to be a wise guy, to say, 'Look at me, I got a gun,' " he said.

He does, however, attract attention. He said people often approach to ask questions, a few to tell him they object.

"Most are curious and want to know, 'Can you do that?' And then I explain," he said. "I think some think I'm a cop and just don't say anything. I make sure to tell them no because I don't want to impersonate."

That's just what Dohmen was initially asked on June 18 at the Prosser McDonald's, where he and his wife, Gail, had stopped on a trip home from Denver.

Dohmen said he was leaving the restroom through the lobby when manager Brenda Aldridge approached and asked if he was a police officer. His pistol had apparently attracted the attention of a customer who reported it to management.

Upon learning Dohmen was not a cop, Aldridge told him to leave because he couldn't have a gun in the restaurant.

Dohmen says he replied that the law allows it, but that he also respects private property rights. He says he was preparing to get a brochure from his car to "further her understanding" when Aldridge told him she was calling 911. He waited for police in his car.

McDonald's has a nationwide policy that forbids employees from carrying weapons at work, but it's unclear if it has a policy regarding customers' guns. Corporate officials did not respond to an inquiry. The Prosser restaurant reportedly did not have a sign posted saying guns were banned.

In her written statement to police, Aldridge said employees can refuse service to anyone. "I did feel like he was going to do something ... ," she said. "He didn't point the gun at me but by putting his hand on it I felt for my crew and customer safety."

In his report, Prosser Officer Antonio Martinez said he approached Dohmen's car carrying his patrol rifle and ordered Gail Dohmen out of the car. When Officer Nickalas Letourneau arrived, Martinez took Dohmen's pistol and ordered him out of the Audi. Letourneau then handcuffed Dohmen. Martinez wrote that Dohmen "was extremely verbal and was very upset I was taking the firearm from him."

"I said, 'You do not have my permission to do that,' " Dohmen said of the officer taking his legally carried, loaded gun.

Gail Dohmen, 63, said she was upset as she watched what was happening to her husband. She said she tried to grab Open Carry brochures from the car to give the officers but was told to move away or face arrest.

She said she later met a truck driver in the parking lot who said he never saw Dohmen do anything threatening. That man was willing to testify if the case went to trial, Egan said.

Eventually, Gail Dohmen was able to get the brochures and gave them to the officers. The pistol and cartridges were returned to Dohmen, who was released and told a report would be sent to prosecutors for review.

Two months later, Dohmen received notice he'd been charged and needed to appear in District Court. Prosser City Attorney Howard Saxton III did not return a call seeking comment on the case.

Dohmen hired Egan, who recommended the stipulated order of continuance, which Dohmen reluctantly agreed to sign earlier this month.

Dohmen, a retired concrete inspector, said he doesn't know how to feel about the incident.

"A stranger has me quoted saying things I never said," he said. "... I have no idea what they think my purpose was given what I do. What would I have to gain from this?"

Pointing out his mane of gray hair, he said he's well past adolescence and is aware his open carry advocacy could offend others so he avoids arguing.

"I feel no different open carrying than I did before. ... The only difference now is people can see it and they approach me," he said. "I don't feel particularly empowered by it, though I know that I am."

Washington's Open Carry forum is at opencarry.mywowbb.com/forum55.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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