December 28, 2012

Bill Nemitz: A world so safe, it's scary

By Bill Nemitz

He insists that he speaks for no one other than himself. And that when he slung his assault rifle over his shoulder and went out for a stroll around Portland on Christmas Eve day, he wasn't trying to make a statement about anything.

So ... why do it?

"It's a tool to defend yourself," Justin Dean replied during a 30-minute telephone interview Thursday. "When people carry a weapon, if something bad happens, they can defend themselves."

Welcome to Justin's world – and that of all those other gun owners whose love for their weaponry is rooted not in Maine's time-honored tradition of hunting, not in the camaraderie of the shooting range or the thrill of owning a rare collectible.

No, this is a world of pure paranoia. A world where the bad guys, however invisible, might be anywhere. A world where your personal safety is directly proportional to how much firepower you're packing – and if that scares the hell out of everyone around you, well, that's just not your problem.

Dean, as all of Maine knows by now, lit up the Portland Police Department's switchboard Monday when he attached a new sling to his Daniel Defense assault rifle, slapped on a fully loaded, 30-round magazine and spent 3½ hours strutting his stuff from his apartment in the West End down to Back Cove and back.

Little wonder that 65 eyewitnesses, the searing memories of the massacre Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., fresh in their minds, frantically called police to report what most probably thought was a crime in progress.

Except it wasn't.

Police kept an eye on Dean, even spoke with him at one point. But because carrying a weapon, even a loaded assault rifle, is not illegal in Maine, the 24-year-old former Army Ranger was free to go on his way.

"I'm not a violent person," Dean told me when I called Thursday to learn a little more about him. "I'm a peaceful person. But at the same time, I'm not going to give up my right to defend myself. I'm not going to not defend myself or make myself a target. I'm not going to do that."

Defend himself? Against whom?

"There are lots of examples of assault and robbery in Maine," replied Dean.

On Portland's Back Cove footpath? In broad daylight?

"Period," said Dean. "Just period."

So who exactly is Justin Dean? And what makes him so fearful of being assaulted and/or robbed in a state that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has the lowest violent-crime rate in the country?

Born in Portland, he grew up in New Hampshire. His father is from Afghanistan, where Dean served three deployments (along with one in Iraq) as a member of the Army's elite 1st Ranger Battalion from 2008 to July of this year.

He's now a freshman at the University of Southern Maine (where any and all weapons are prohibited) and plans to major in finance.

His wartime story, Dean said, is "complicated." While he was reluctant to go into detail, he did mention a platoon sergeant who died during his 12th deployment overseas and lamented the "disconnect" between those who serve in the military and civilians who "don't want to hear the truth."

Did I detect a hint of bitterness in his voice?

"I'm not bitter," Dean replied. "But it's like, you know, who are you to judge me? You haven't walked a mile in any of our shoes and we've walked a lot of miles, so ..."

He readily acknowledges that he "didn't like the military." At the same time, Dean said he has neither sought nor received counseling for post traumatic stress disorder or any other mental health problem because "I'm not some crazy veteran."

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