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."
"Everyone has adjustment trouble, but that doesn't mean you're about to snap," Dean said. "Destroying things and destroying life, that's bad to me. It's very easy to destroy things and people – and it's a lot harder to build people up and to help people out. And that's what I like to do. I'm not some guy who's, like, walking around the streets, you know, like: 'Give me a reason to do this.' Not at all."
Still, there's that assault rifle, which Dean said he'd have brought out sooner had he not been waiting for the new carrying sling to arrive in the mail.
"I wasn't going to carry before without the sling," he said. "I mean, that's ridiculous."
"You know how bad this story is, how it's gotten people (upset)," he replied. "How much worse would it be if I was carrying a rifle around in my hands? It's totally legal, but that doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do."
Yet walking with that same rifle over your shoulder is a smart thing to do?
"That's a choice that I make," Dean said.
A choice that could have unexpected – and entirely unintended – consequences.
What would Dean do if someone with a concealed-weapons permit mistakenly perceived his rifle as a threat, pulled out a handgun and ordered Dean to drop the rifle?
"I'd probably have to drop the gun or else he'd shoot me," said Dean. "I mean, it's not going to help anyone to get in a shootout."
How about an unarmed and misguided "hero," thinking he was preventing the next mass murder, tackling Dean from behind?
"I would hit them a lot. I would hit them with my elbows and fists and whatever I could get, but I wouldn't shoot them. Unless they were bashing my skull and I was clearly, you know, done for."
With that, Dean turned a deaf ear to any more "what if's."
"That's all really speculative, sir," he said. "I mean all these hypothetical things – they didn't happen and they don't really happen."
In fact, during his three-plus-hour walk this week, he said, "people completely avoided me for the most part."
Speaking of things that don't happen, has Dean ever found himself in a civilian situation where he needed his rifle?
"No. Not yet," he said. "But then again, there could be a time when it's the one time I didn't (have his weapon at the ready)."
How convenient: In Justin's world, we're more than welcome to picture Justin Dean the armed victim, staring down his would-be attacker with the steely eye of a trained marksman.
But speculating about Justin Dean the hapless magnet for trouble, rolling in the dirt while someone tries to relieve him of his assault rifle? Well, that's just silly.
Nor can we suggest that there's no need, in any scenario, for a 30-round magazine on the Back Cove footpath. Smaller magazines, insisted Dean, don't deter anything.
"That Cho guy had a 10-round magazine," he noted.
That what guy?
"The guy at Virginia Tech," Dean said. (He was referring to Seung-Hui Cho, who in 2007 committed the worst mass murder in U.S. history.)
So, fellow Mainers, how do we live safely, securely and peacefully alongside Justin's world?
Do we ignore him and hope he tires of making a frightening spectacle of himself?
Do we watch him like hawks and add fuel to whatever fears already drive him?
Or do we just pray that his self-centered paranoia, whatever its source, remains just that?
"The chances of me ever committing a crime with this weapon are zero percent," Dean promised. "No crimes are ever going to happen from my firearm."
If only he could guarantee no tragedies.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: