Clayton businessman challenges state machine-gun law

rputterman@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2012 

In his gun store, Freedom Arms, on U.S. 70, Dennis Nielsen opens a semi-automatic rifle, explaining where the device, called a sear, would be inserted near the trigger to turn the weapon into a machine gun.

REBECCA PUTTERMAN - RPUTTERMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

— It's not clear where Dennis Nielsen is currently keeping his machine guns.

Had local law enforcement visited his U.S. 70 gun store, Freedom Arms, after 2 p.m. Dec. 26, Nielsen would have brought his machine gun inside the store to keep there for the business's protection - a right he believes he has under state and federal law.

Sitting comfortably in a chair at the front of the store where few weapons are even on display, Nielsen waited patiently Monday for the police or sheriff's deputies to show up. They never did.

He wrote a letter Dec. 9 to Johnston County Attorney David Mills explaining his confusion over the state statutes regulating machine gun permitting, and said that he was going to bring his machine gun to the store on Dec. 26 at 2 p.m. unless he received a response in which the attorney explained the law to him.

Mills never wrote Nielsen back, and could not be reached for comment last week.

On Jan. 3, Nielsen will once again stand before the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and plead his case that the sheriff is acting outside of the law by adding requirements to machine gun permits that, outlined in state law, can be permitted to those with a federal class III firearm license who are business owners, bankers or merchants. Johnston County Board of Commissioners chairman Allen Mims could not be reached for comment.

In a lawsuit against Sheriff Steve Bizzell which was dismissed in early December, Nielsen asked the court to order that the sheriff grant him a machine gun permit under the law.

The case was thrown out because it was filed in Nash County where Nielsen lives instead of Johnston County where he owns his business, because the sheriff was improperly served, and also because the courts cannot order sheriffs to issue gun permits, said Bizzell's attorney Ronnie Mitchell.

Nielsen said his motion of venue change wasn't even heard, nor was his explanation that the sheriff was not served because the deputies refused to do so, having heard the case would be thrown out.

The issue now, Nielsen says, is that the sheriff is able to add rules and regulations to the permitting process that are outside of the state statutes and federal licensing laws. The machine gun permit Nielsen asked for in May 2011 was denied because Nielsen would not give Bizzell the gun's serial number or details on storage of the weapon, for fear of those facts becoming public record.

While Nielsen doesn't want to sue the sheriff again, he said he won't put the matter to rest.

"We're a nation of laws, not men," said Nielsen, sitting in front of a book shelf displaying gun magazines along with a Patriot Tool Book. On the wall beside him is a poster of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

"I'll never give up. I'll never resort to tricks, lying, taking advantage of my position," said the 37-year Air Force veteran. "This fight is not about machine guns. It's about control. And when they can't control me, they lose."

Nielsen, who is licensed to build, manufacture and sell his own weapons, can take apart a semi-automatic rifle - he refuses to call it an assault rifle - in seconds, and show where the sear goes in to turn the rifle into a machine gun.

He'll even admit that a machine gun is not a realistic weapon for protection. But, he says, that's not what this is about. It's about fairness under the law, he says.

The Wake County Sheriff's Office has a discretionary machine gun-permitting policy similar to that in Johnston County.

According to the sheriff's public information officer Phyllis Stephens, Sheriff Donnie Harrison had not issued a machine gun permit at all in 2011. "If they meet the qualifications, he issues them, but it's always on a case-by-case basis," Stephens said.

The case-by-case basis is Nielsen's problem. If the law states that certain groups of people can own the weapon, then why should it be only some people within that class, he asks.

For now, Nielsen says he will continue stirring things up. But two questions remain: whether state law overrides his federal machine gun permit and where those machine guns are located.

Putterman: 919-553-7234

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