Lewiston mass shootings changed Rep. Golden’s mind on assault weapons. Will it change his state?

“Sometimes, things happen that bring your worst nightmares to life,” said Democratic Representative Jared Golden, as he suddenly reversed his position and called for a ban on assault rifles.
Jared Golden poses for a photo
Photo by Sarah Rice.
This story was originally published by the Boston Globe and was republished with permission. View additional coverage from the Globe of the Lewiston shootings.

In a campaign ad during the 2018 election, Representative Jared Golden of Maine, a Democrat, picked up a black bolt-action rifle and fired it at a target, hitting a bull’s-eye.

Another ad set to foreboding music one month later accused his Republican rival of supporting background checks for gun purchases.

Golden, a tattooed Marine veteran, has long drawn on his support for gun rights as one pillar of his image as a rebel Democrat who understands the heavily-armed and politically red swath of Maine he represents.

He has broken with his party on several gun safety measures, including voting against an assault weapons ban last year.

But as he drove from Boston Logan Airport to Lewiston last Thursday, reeling from the news that a gunman in his hometown had just slaughtered 18 people, his thoughts drifted to his own assault rifles — and he changed his mind on that issue.

“Sometimes, things happen that bring your worst nightmares to life,” Golden said later that night, as he suddenly reversed his position and called on Thursday night for a federal ban on assault rifles, saying one had been used to carry out the attack. “I ask for forgiveness and support as I seek to put an end to these terrible shootings.”

It was a stunning about-face that shocked Mainers on both sides of the gun debate, one that could make it more difficult than ever for the 41-year-old Democrat to hold a Congressional district that has twice backed former president Donald Trump.

It also raises the question of whether the carnage here can shift the politics of one of the nation’s most gun-friendly states.

For Golden, who wrote his remarks in the 30 minutes between Portland and Lewiston, it was a personal, quickly-made decision, he told The Boston Globe, in his first extended interview since his remarks on Thursday night.

“I bought rifles such as these, always with the goal of protecting my family. And suddenly it occurred to me, like, what am I gonna do? For people like me, are we gonna start carrying AR-15s everywhere?” he asked, explaining that was not the solution he wanted. “Cause if we’re not, what are we gonna do when that guy walks in the door of the grocery store or the bowling alley?

“I was hundreds of miles away when this happened, half a mile away from the house where my family was,” Golden added. “All of my justifications turned out to be pretty hubristic.”

He had learned of the shooting from his staff within minutes of it happening, he said. The news was searing.

“I recognize and know some of these people. This is a town of 36,000 people,” he said.

The streets and sidewalks of Lisbon Street in Lewiston are seen empty.
Lisbon Street was among the many Lewiston streets empty Thursday, Oct. 26. Photo by Emily Bader.

In the interview, Golden said he is not doing a “180″ on gun rights generally, and declined to get into specifics about what should be banned, or how.

Asked if he would support the assault weapons ban proposed by Senate Democrats in January, he said he was not yet ready to commit to specific legislation, although he suggested he would likely now back a ban similar to the one he voted against last year.

“I would look at it and my guess is, that I would,” said Golden, adding that he would also contemplate measures that would require people who already own assault weapons to get permits that require regular renewal.

“I’m going to pursue what I promised to pursue, which is trying to keep more of these things from getting out on the streets,” he said.

Golden’s announcement on Thursday thrilled gun safety advocates around the state.

“Heretofore, he’d say, ‘It’s just not going to happen. I hear where you’re coming from. I just don’t agree,’” said Edward Walworth, vice president of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, recalling previous conversations in which Golden reiterated his opposition to certain restrictions on guns. “What we saw yesterday in the news conference was a complete turnaround, and we’re delighted by that.”

Golden did not inform the gun safety group of his change of heart before announcing it, Walworth said. The Gun Owners of Maine, a gun rights group here with 1,800 paid members, was just as blindsided.

“He campaigned on gun rights,” said Laura Whitcomb, the group’s president. “For him to campaign on that and then to reverse his stance now after he’s already been elected is really a dereliction of duty.”

It is not yet clear how — or whether — the attack in Lewiston will shape public opinion over guns in a state where the love of hunting and sport shooting runs deep and the laws are fairly loose.

A white paper heart that says to my community is stapled to a tree.
Miia Zellner, 22, and Hunter Kissam, 27, nailed paper hearts to trees along Lisbon Street. Photo by Emily Bader.

Before dawn on Saturday morning, hunters across Golden’s district were preparing for the first day of rifle hunting season for deer, and interviews with his constituents about his shift revealed a mix of skepticism and relief.

“It’s a stupid politician, grasping at straws,” grumbled Greg Fish, who wore an orange vest and hat as he left the annual Hunters’ Breakfast in Chesterville, about one hour north of Lewiston.

Fish had not supported Golden in the past, and said he won’t in the future. “If you’re going to change your views on something, it should be done a little different than that,” he said.

But inside the Town Hall where volunteers had laid out pancakes, eggs, and a big jar of homemade donuts for the hunters, Randy Hastings, a retired paper mill worker dressed in head to toe camouflage, felt differently.

“I think everybody should have a handgun at their disposal,” said Hastings, an independent voter who has voted for Golden in the past. But as for automatic weapons, he said: “I don’t think anyone needs a gun that can shoot that many times.”

Maine’s two senators, the Republican Susan Collins and the Independent Angus King, have not changed their views on guns in the wake of the shooting. Collins, who stood next to Golden at the press conference when he reversed his position, said it was “more important that we ban high-capacity magazines.”

King, like Collins, voted against a ban on assault weapons in 2013 and opposes the version of an assault weapons ban put forward by Democrats, which he says focuses on cosmetics rather than function. But he has said he is working on legislation that would make semiautomatic rifles less lethal by limiting their bullet capacity.

As a state lawmaker, Golden took some stances in support of gun safety, such as when he opposed permit-less concealed carry in Maine. While in Congress, Golden voted against expanding the federal background check system in both 2019 and 2021.

He opposed the House’s version of the gun safety legislation drawn up in response to the killing of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas, but ultimately supported the narrower version of the bill written up in the Senate, which passed. The law expanded background checks for young gun buyers, put millions toward mental health resources and school safety, and tightened laws on gun trafficking. It also incentivized states to pass “red flag laws,” which allow authorities to take guns away from people deemed dangerous. Maine does not have one.

At times, Golden’s stances won him praise from gun rights groups. In 2022, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine awarded him an A+, saying he had “guts.” That year, he got a “B” from the National Rifle Association, but a “C” from Gun Owners of Maine. Whitcomb said that, if Golden continues to support a ban on assault rifles, the group will give him an F in 2024.

The exterior of the bowling alley in Lewiston that was the site of a mass shooting.
Just-In-Time Recreation, also known as Sparetime Recreation, was the bowling alley that was the site of one of the shootings. Photo by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe.

Some of the Republicans hoping to unseat Golden quickly seized on his reversal.

“It’s unfortunate and frustrating that, at this time of tragedy, Jared Golden and Joe Biden would try to score political points by attacking the Second Amendment,” said one candidate, state Representative Austin Theriault.

Another, state Representative Mike Soboleski, accused Golden of “using this tragedy to advance a liberal political agenda.”

Meanwhile, progressives in Maine praised Golden, although some wondered what had taken him so long.

“I just emailed him my thanks,” said Scott Harriman, a Lewiston city councilor, in an email Friday night. “Weapons that are designed simply to kill lots of people quickly do not need to be in civilian hands, and I hope Congress can make progress on this.”

Back at the hunting breakfast, Randy Gauvin, a Republican and a retired physician’s assistant who was there, he said, not to hunt but to get a good breakfast, accused his congressman of seizing the moment for political gain.

“He was against banning assault rifles, because he’s from Maine. In Maine, you go for as many gun rights as you can,” Gauvin said. “He’s reacting to the moment.”

But Linwood Worster, an 80-year-old Golden supporter who was thrilled about the shift, nonetheless worried it would backfire.

“He’s in a bind,” Worster said. “He’s in a Trump district.”

Golden said he will talk about his own experiences with guns to persuade constituents opposed to his reversal.

“I went to the grocery store with my wife and daughter today, and I carried concealed,” Golden said in the interview. But, if a gunman with an assault weapon had come into the store, he said, that handgun would not have made much of a difference.

If he wanted to live in a world where everyone needed to carry an AR-15 to be safe, he said, “I never would have left Afghanistan.”


Jess Bidgood

Jess Bidgood is the senior national political reporter in the Globe's Washington bureau. She chronicles the way politics shape American life and vice versa, with a focus on enterprise stories that illuminate voters' thinking and revealing profiles of important figures in Washington from New England and beyond.
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