Jered Townsend had the distinction of being one of three dozen Americans whose video question for the Democratic presidential contenders was broadcast during Monday night's debate -- and the further distinction of being the only one whose mental stability was questioned.
Townsend, a 30-year-old from Clio, Mich., came next to last among the amateur inquisitors in the CNN/YouTube debate. But he made an indelible impression by asking the candidates if they would protect his "baby" -- the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle he cradled in his arms.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson gave a standard answer about the need to improve screening of gun applicants. But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who said that he sponsored an assault weapons ban, was not so sanguine.
"I'll tell you what, if that's his baby, he needs help," Biden said of Townsend. "I don't know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I'm being serious."
Many in the audience at The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C., laughed and applauded. But the response in Townsend's home and among gun enthusiasts was considerably more chilly.
Townsend called the Biden response "kind of off-kilter," adding: "I think he hurt himself. A lot of people who are out there said, 'We are all gun owners. He lost my vote.' "
Townsend picked up his interest in guns from his father. He said he used the rifle for target practice and to hunt for coyotes on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Townsend uses a 10- or 20-round clip, saying that a 100-round clip is too expensive.
The longtime gun enthusiast said he agreed with background checks but was opposed to excessive regulations, which he did not enumerate. "It all goes back to the fact that guns don't kill the people, the people with the guns kill people," Townsend said. "They should put stiffer punishments on these people who commit the crimes."
A fan of YouTube, Townsend had never posted a video until last Thursday, when he responded to the site's competition for questions in what it billed as the first video-driven debate. Wearing shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, Townsend propped himself on a small wooden stool and said: "Tell me your position on gun control, as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe." He then reached off camera and pulled his rifle on screen, adding: "This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views."
After taking his dig at Townsend, Biden added: "I hope he doesn't come looking for me."
The exchange received nearly 200 comments on YouTube by Tuesday evening, and Townsend judged at least half to be supportive.
His 28 seconds of fame (the length of the video) continued into Tuesday, as local television stations and newspapers called for interviews. He said one supporter asked him whether he intended to sue Biden for slander.
"I don't know. I guess it's worth looking into," he said.
For now, Townsend said he had e-mailed and phoned the Biden campaign, inviting the senator to come to Clio to discuss gun issues. "It would surprise me if I got a response."