The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee took Wednesday as an opportunity to hold a virtual hearing on how toxic chemicals are killing U.S. soldiers. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) took the hearing as an opportunity to clean his gun.
Cawthorn, the youngest current member of Congress, fiddled with his black pistol while one witness explained how university medical researchers could help the government examine how burn pits are harming military service members.
“It was immature. He’s a child. He lacks common sense. I think the congressman was overcompensating for something that he lacks and feeling inadequate among the heroes on that call,” said John Feal, a 9/11 first responder who was at the virtual meeting.
Feal was one of at least two people at the Veterans’ Affairs meeting who noticed what Cawthorn was doing. Both were infuriated. But the general public couldn’t see it, because the two-hour virtual hearing was held over Zoom—which meant that those tuning in could only see the person speaking.
Cawthorn worked on his pistol out of sight for several minutes, two people told The Daily Beast, but it became plainly visible during the testimony of Jen Burch, a veteran who spent six years in the Air Force serving in Japan and Afghanistan.
From the layout of the office behind him, Cawthorn appeared to be in his congressional office at the time, but The Daily Beast could not immediately confirm his location. (Although firearm possession is generally illegal in the District of Columbia, members of Congress have carved out a special rule that allows them to maintain guns in their offices.)
The Daily Beast asked Cawthorn’s office if the congressman thought this an appropriate time to clean his firearm. His communications director, Luke Ball, responded: “What could possibly be more patriotic than guns and veterans?”
During the live recorded meeting, which ran close to three hours, politicians listened to veteran advocacy groups discuss how uniformed military personnel have been exposed to dangerous toxins when ordered to stand by burn pits—an ill-conceived method of burning trash at military sites in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
That grimy duty usually fell to low-ranking soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, some of whom developed heart, lung, and digestive ailments after hours of standing over smoke from the burning plastics, rubber, and paper envelopes from families back home.
Rosie Lopez Torres, the cofounder of Burn Pits 360, told The Daily Beast that she did not notice that Cawthorn was working on his gun. She only recalled that he seemed distracted at times. But when she saw the picture of what he was doing, she was livid.
“Oh wow,” she said. “That is insane. Total disregard and disrespect to America’s war fighters. He was so bored with the topic. Those that are sick and dying and the widows in his district should see how much he cares about the issue.”
Some may find that criticism particularly notable, given that Cawthorn has made a name for himself by constantly singing praises about the nation’s military personnel. The glory of military service is also at the core of the public persona he built: he rose to prominence with a heart wrenching story about how a car crash took away his ability to walk and left him permanently in a wheelchair before he could enter the United States Naval Academy and begin a life of military service.
Journalist Tom Fiedler would eventually uncover how that story was built on a lie, because the Naval Academy had already rejected Cawthorn before his crash. And the friend Cawthorn claimed had left him for dead, in fact, pulled him from the wreckage.
Cawthorn’s behavior would have gone unnoticed on Wednesday were it not for Lindsay Church, the cofounder of Minority Veterans of America, who also spoke during the meeting. They tweeted out a picture of the congressman holding his gun backwards and wrote, “Imagine you showed up for a Zoom meeting and a colleague decided that was when he needed to clean his gun. Because that’s what happened today in a Congressional roundtable on toxic exposure. We’re better than this.”
Church later told The Daily Beast that Cawthorn’s behavior was “misguided and lacking the dignity of his office.”
“He was doing this while the ranking member of his own party was conducting actual business. I'd be mad as hell if I was Bost,” Church said.
The office of Rep. Michael Bost (R-IL), the top Republican on that committee, did not immediately respond to questions Thursday afternoon.
This isn’t the first time the 26-year-old congressman has been irresponsible with this gun.
In February 2021, he tried to board a plane in his home state of North Carolina while he still had his 9mm Glock pistol inside his bag. Cawthorn was not arrested, and his spokesman at the time chalked it up to a simple mistake—though federal airport security guards regularly detain and fine average Americans for doing the same thing.
According to CBS, the Transportation Security Administration confiscated a record 5,674 guns at airport checkpoints last year.