Were it in my power, I would confer a Profile in Courage Award upon Jared Golden, Maine’s Second District congressman.
The award, created in 1989 by the family of late President John F. Kennedy, annually recognizes exemplars of the type of courageous political leadership Kennedy celebrated in his 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage.”
In the wake of the mass shootings that occurred Oct. 25 at Just-In-Time Recreation and Schemengees Bar & Grille in Lewiston, Golden took a very public and unequivocal stance in favor of banning semi-automatic “assault rifles,” which not only represented a clear about-face from his previous position, but may well have spelled the end of his political career.
Golden’s Second District is a hotly contested swing district. It covers a sprawling territory comprising four-fifths of the state, with 72% of its population residing in rural areas and containing the second highest percentage of non-Hispanic white residents (94%) in the country. For all these reasons, it tends to lean red and was the only district in New England in 2020 that voted for Donald Trump for president.
Like many other congressional districts with this profile, it’s one in which guns and hunting are popular and the Second Amendment is an article of faith.
Golden, though a Democrat, has won and held his seat through three elections by keeping a laser focus on legislative issues of local importance, espousing fiscal moderation, rejecting the more extreme left-wing views of his party, and stoutly backing gun rights.
At a press conference at City Hall the day after the shootings, however, Golden turned the political world topsy-turvy by declaring that, although he had in the past consistently “opposed efforts to ban deadly weapons of war, like the assault rifle used to carry out this crime,” the “time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure, which is why I now call on the U.S. Congress to ban assault rifles.”
Perhaps alluding to the adverse impact these words could have on his reelection prospects, he added, “For the good of my community, I will work with any colleague to get this done in the time that I have left in Congress.”
In an era in which political courage is so rare the term “courageous politician” is practically an oxymoron (like jumbo shrimp), Golden had spoken from the heart without regard for his political future. Predictably two contenders for his seat in the upcoming election cravenly accused of doing just the opposite, playing politics. One charged him with “using this tragedy to advance a liberal political agenda,” while the other called it “unfortunate and frustrating” that Golden and President Biden would “try to score political points” during “this time of tragedy.”
What drivel! Golden had everything to lose and nothing to gain by staking out this position. He is, after all, a guy who earned an A+ rating from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and an above-average grade of B from the National Rifle Association (which for a Democrat is like an A+).
The easiest and least risky way for him to have handled the tragedy would’ve been to resort to anodyne words about “thoughts and prayers” for victims and their families, praise for first responders, and suggestions of increased mental health funding to help prevent future occurrences. Instead, he headed for the most dangerous spot on the political battlefield.
Last Sunday Golden followed up his press-conference statement with a letter to his constituents in which he laid bare his thoughts and feelings. As a former Marine who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, his words carry weight.
Golden asked himself, “Can a good guy with a gun stop a bad guy with a gun?” His answer: “Yes they can. But is it guaranteed to go that way? Absolutely not. Actually, it won’t without some serious good luck — right time, right place, right angle. Everything has to go right.”
A semi-automatic, military-type weapon like the one used by Robert Card makes the task of self-defense all the more difficult, Golden concluded, because “this style of rifle is near perfect for the rapid reacquisition of targets. The recoil more or less puts your muzzle right back on target if you know the proper technique. Coupled with a 30 round magazine of 5.56 or .223 that with muscle memory you can speed reload in seconds.”
The alternative to protect against mass shootings, “an increased police presence everywhere or a surveillance state that follows our every move,” seemed equally unacceptable to him.
Having run through the alternatives, he concluded: “I’ve come to believe that the easiest step we can take is the simplest solution: we should remove these deadliest of rifles from the equation. We should ban the further sale of them and, at a minimum, we should regulate the ongoing possession of them with a permit and a regular review process in order to keep them.”
That’s a tall order. Though no official statistics exist, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates there are about 20 million AR-15s and similar semi-automatics among the more than 400 million firearms in civilian possession in the U.S. The last time semi-automatic rifles were outlawed was in 1984, when a federal assault weapons ban expired. That was before the NRA became a powerful lobby joined at the hip with the GOP, the Second Amendment turned into a culture-war icon, and the Supreme Court greatly expanded the constitutional definition of gun owners’ rights.
But don’t tell Jared Golden that this battle is unwinnable. I imagine he’d quote the defiant slogan of the Corps, “Tell it to the Marines.”
Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 17 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at email@example.com