Dwayne Ferguson spent more than a decade advocating for nonviolence and peace in the streets of Buffalo.
He was a well-known face in the movement for the SAFE Act, the state law that made carrying a gun on school property a felony. He was also a familiar presence in the hallways of the city’s Harvey Austin Elementary School, where he worked in the after-school program and mentored students.
No one imagined that on Thursday he would show up at the school in possession of a gun, touching off an hours-long lockdown, search and ultimately his arrest on two felony charges.
Ferguson, 52, told WGRZ-TV that he frequently carries the gun, for which he has a permit, and did not realize he had it on him when he went to the school as part of the mentoring program.
Those who have worked with him also said they believe it was an honest mistake.
“I’m sure Dwayne went into the school not thinking he had the gun on him,” said Rev. James E. Giles, a friend of Ferguson and president of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries. “We know this for a fact, that he called out to a Buffalo police lieutenant asking why the school was in lockdown, and that they were looking for a man with a gun.
“Dwayne’s reaction was to get his kids – he had about 50 of them – and make sure they were safe,” Giles explained. “He led them into the cafeteria and closed the doors.”
Giles, like Ferguson, is a member of Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence coalition that targets gang-related street crime.
Ferguson is not employed by the Buffalo School District but was working in the 21st Century Community Learning Program, an after-school academic enrichment initiative that tutors disadvantaged students.
Professionally, friends say Ferguson operates a printing business and works as a security guard for community events.
The father of three children, Ferguson is a lifelong resident of the East Side. He was 35 when he joined forces with fellow fathers on Buffalo’s East Side to form MAD DADs (Men Against Destruction Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder) and is now the organization’s president.
Ferguson also has taken an active role in many community outreach programs targeting youth. He regularly patrols area malls, and city streets in an effort to curb gang-related violence.
Throughout the years he has overseen MAD DADS basketball leagues in an organized effort to keep teens off the streets.
He was among local activists who stood with Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes last year lobbying for a law that would make possessing a gun on school property a felony. Prior to New York State’s adoption of the SAFE Act last year, in response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, it was a long-established state law that guns could not be brought onto school property. The only difference was that the crime carried less punishment as a misdemeanor.
In an ironic turn of events, Ferguson was charged with two counts of criminal possession of a weapon under that law for Thursday’s incident. The law carries a maximum sentence of up to four years in state prison.
Some gun advocates opposed to the SAFE Act have argued that the law actually makes schools less safe since law-abiding handgun owners cannot possess their weapons on school grounds, while mass murderers have never heeded laws making schools gun-free zones.
Ferguson held a New York State licensed pistol permit, but that makes no difference under the law.
“The more they make these gun-free zones, the more they make people vulnerable to mass killers like at Columbine and Sandy Hook,” said Stephen J. Aldstadt, a Colden resident who serves as president of the state Shooters Committee on Political Education.
Some of Ferguson’s supporters echoed similar criticism, saying that carrying a weapon meant Ferguson could have helped police in the event there was a gunman actually threatening students.
“Dwayne probably was in a position to help the police not knowing that he was the one they were looking for,” said George Johnson, president of Buffalo United Front,
Ferguson often carries a gun during the course of his business day, Giles and Johnson said.
“Mental lapses happen,” Giles said. “Things happen. It’s an unfortunate mistake. Dwayne was not conscious that he was in school with a gun.”
Both Schools Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and Kevin Brinkworth, the district’s chief of police, school safety and security, said it is unclear why Ferguson had the gun on school property, but officials do not believe he had any ill intent.
“This is a person well-known in the building,” Brinkworth said. “No one expected him to have a gun in the building.”
Brown and Brinkworth also revealed new details about the incident, which started with an anonymous call to the school and culminated with an extensive search by the SWAT team.
The school received the call about 4:15 p.m. notifying staff that someone had entered the school with a gun. Brown and Brinkworth said it is not yet clear who placed the call. Around that time, 911 received two calls about the incident, prompting the school to go into lockdown and touching off a search of the building by police and SWAT team responders.
The initial search of the building turned up nothing, Brinkworth said.
It was not until police were patting down students so they could evacuate the school that they found the gun on Ferguson, Brinkworth said.
Ferguson was wearing it in a holster, and at no time during the lockdown did he notify police that he was carrying a weapon.
“He had opportunities,” Brinkworth said.
“I will say he had no ill intent to harm these students,” Brinkworth added. “I don’t know why he had it on him.”