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Bart Stupak's First "Profile in Courage" Moment

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Democratic Representative Bart Stupak's April 9 announcement that he would not seek re-election from Michigan's First Congressional District, coming as it does on the heels of his pivotal role in passage of President Obama's health care reform package, will forever tie him to that iconic legislative moment. First vilified by abortion rights supporters for insisting on anti-abortion language in the first iteration of the health care bill last fall, he was then excoriated by the Right for tipping the balance in favor of the bill's passage.

Stupak insists that he is not leaving because of the relentless and vicious attacks he has endured from Tea Partiers, abortion opponents, and Republicans, and that he has been weighing this move for many months, and even years. There's no reason not to believe him when he said that he is retiring now because of the cumulative stresses of the job. Yet regardless of the truth, the former state trooper will forever be linked with what some will consider his "profile in courage" moment, even if others consider it more like "cut and run."

Yet Stupak had another profile in courage moment a decade ago, one that tested his political mettle against a similarly virulent political movement, and that, in many ways, spoke even more clearly to his character as a legislator.

Since his first election in 1992, Stupak was one of the most conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives, a moniker encapsulated by his staunch support for gun rights -- not a surprise, since his district covered Michigan's rural upper peninsula or "Yooper," where 60 percent of households have guns (about twice the national average). The National Rifle Association endorsed and funded him in every race until 2000, when it turned on him, recruited and funded his opponent, and campaigned aggressively for his defeat, accusing Stupak of betraying gun rights. Stupak's sin? In 1999, just months after the shooting massacre at Columbine High School, he voted in favor of a House bill that would have imposed a three-day waiting period for background checks for firearms sales at gun shows (the measure ultimately failed to win enactment). Despite the furious political onslaught, Stupak won re-election in 2000, garnering only about half a percent fewer votes than he had received in 1998. He was easily re-elected in each subsequent race.

Political pundits have noted that, even in the face of the right's furious assault, Stupak was the odds-on favorite to win re-election, had he decided to stay in the 2010 race. For those critics who may think of Stupak as a man who wilted when the going got tough, his past record says otherwise.

Spitzer's recent books include The Politics of Gun Control (4th ed. 2008), Saving the Constitution from Lawyers (2008), and Gun Control: A Documentary and Reference Guide (2009).