Sunday, December 30, 2012

Enough!


By Arik Bjorn

When I visited Yad Vashem 15 years ago, I separated from my group and entered the Children's Memorial, not realizing what it was. I was alone for some time and became overwhelmed by the infinite regress of candlelight, by the names being read of the more than 1 million children who were senselessly murdered during the Holocaust.

I lowered my head against a rail and wept for some time.

Several days after, I was traveling through the Sinai Desert. I am grateful that I was able to be in a space so vast into which I could pitch the horrible sorrow I felt.

Today, I find myself confronted with such a sorrow again--and I think we all do as a nation. Only, I do not have the luxury of a desert around me. However, I do have something I did not have 15 years ago: a five-year-old daughter.

When I picked her up from her school today, I loved her with all the love I could muster--which is the same love I have given her since the day she was born. Unlike 15 years ago, today I understood what it was that many parents in Connecticut had stolen from them. What every parent who loses a child to senseless violence has stolen from them, from suburban neighborhoods to third-world slums to the world's all-too-numerous goddamned theaters of war.

Our nation and society has a special thirst for violence. We are not the only such nation. But we are such a nation. Personally, I don't see a shred of difference between what happened in Connecticut and what happens when a military drone kills a child "by accident." The death of any child by weaponry is obscene, immoral and damnable--and those are the kindest words one could use to describe such an act. And if you are the one who pulls such a trigger, I cannot imagine what it will be like to stand before the god of any pantheon someday.

We have every right collectively to revise our political foundations, and there is no reason that we cannot as a society revise our political foundation known as the Second Amendment--minimally--to make it damned near impossible to own munitions and firearms unless you demonstrate that you are a responsible citizen.

And I don't mean by filling out a form. If you want to own a gun, fine, then we'll make you wish you were applying to start and operate a nuclear power plant instead.

How about an 8-hour psychiatric evaluation which you must pass and the requirement of letters of recommendation from no fewer than three licensed physicians? And taxes on ammunition that make them as expensive as their weight in gold? And those are the easy regulations.

I wish we could make it similarly impossible for a soldier to fire at human beings from an unmanned plane (or a manned one, for that matter) half-a-world removed from his or her target. That's the pacifist idealist in me. But for now, I would be satisfied if our society made it more difficult to buy a bullet than to obtain a commercial driver's license.

You think you have a right to bear arms? Fine. We'll simply call it an "earned right" from now on.

And if you get so much as a speeding ticket or a DUI or any number of civil red flags, you lose that right.

Will it blaze the trail for a peaceable future of human exploration? Not by itself. Will there still be bad guys with guns? Yes. There will always be acts of senseless violence. But it will also be a start that is 200 years overdue. And until we commence such a start, we'll simply continue to watch children being gunned down and "as a nation grieve."

I am so fucking sick of "grieving as a nation." Let us ACT as a nation.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

How Bad Is Our Debt Problem, Anyway? And Will a Deal Fix It?

by Theodoric Meyer ProPublica
President Obama will meet with congressional leaders today in another attempt to avert the fiscal cliff — the automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1 unless Congress can strike a deal. The cuts and tax hikes, which total more than $500 billion, are so large and so sudden that many economists fear they would plunge the country back into recession.
As Washington tries to hash out a deal, we've taken a step back to break down the numbers behind our deficit — how it grew so big, why it is actually shrinking and whether a deal can bring it under control.

How much are we in debt?
The federal debt is just shy of $16.4 trillion at the moment, which also happens to be the debt limit that Congress set in 2011. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner announced on Wednesday that the nation would hit the limit on Dec. 31. The Treasury can take some "extraordinary measures" to keep paying its bills for a few weeks, but it'll run out of cash by February or March unless Congress raises the limit again.

And that's different from the deficit, right?
Yes. The debt is the total amount of the government's outstanding obligations. The deficit is how much the government is in the red in a given year. In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the deficit amounted to $1.1 trillion.

That seems like a huge number. How did the deficit get so big?
The 2012 deficit was actually the smallest one since 2008. But it's still a giant shortfall.
As Binyamin Appelbaum noted in The New York Times, the federal government has run a deficit in 45 of the last 50 years. (The exceptions were 1969 and 1998 through 2001.) The financial crisis in 2008, however, caused the deficit to skyrocket, as tax revenues fell because of the slump in incomes and production, and government spending on the stimulus and safety net measures such as unemployment insurance shot up. The deficit for the 2008 fiscal year was $455 billion. In 2009, it surged to more than $1.4 trillion.
Since then, the deficit has been falling, albeit very slowly. The government took in 6.4 percent more in taxes in 2012 than in 2011, as the economy improved a bit and several tax breaks expired. And it spent less on Medicaid, unemployment insurance and the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What about the total debt? How much of that is President Obama's fault?
The debt has grown by nearly $6 trillion since Obama took office, from $10.5 trillion to $16.4 trillion.
Figuring out how much of that is due to Obama is tougher. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, working with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, calculated in January that the legislation Obama had actually signed — as opposed to factors like the economy — had added about $983 billion to the debt.
Klein has also rounded up several charts that break down exactly what's caused our debt to grow so large. The biggest single factor has been the weak economy; President George W. Bush's tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also fueled the debt buildup, as did President Obama's stimulus.

Have debt levels ever been this high before?
Yes, proportionally. Economists like to talk about a country's debt in relation to its gross domestic product (a measure of the economy's total annual output). And instead of using a country's total outstanding debt to calculate this debt-to-GDP ratio, economists typically use the amount of debt held by the public. (Somewhat confusingly, the federal government holds about $5 trillion in obligations to itself, most of which is money owed to the funds that support Social Security and other programs.)
Using this measurement, our debt was about 67.7 percent of GDP last year. As this chart compiled by Quartz's Ritchie King shows, that's the highest our debt-to-GDP ratio has been since the 1940s, when the need to finance World War II caused the debt to surge to 112.7 percent of GDP. But the economy grew fast enough after the war that the debt soon became a much smaller percentage of the country's GDP.
It's worth noting that a number of other developed countries have higher debt-to-GDP ratios than the U.S. Germany's public debt is 80.6 percent of GDP, and Canada's is 87.4 percent. The euro zone's most troubled countries fare even worse: Italy's debt is 120.1 percent of GDP; Greece's is 165.3 percent.

At least we're not Greece. How much longer can we keep borrowing?
That's a tough one. Some commentators — including Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and columnist for The New York Times — have argued that our current deficits are mostly a product of the sluggish economy. The deficit, Krugman wrote last week, "is a side-effect of an economic depression, and the first order of business should be to end that depression — which means, among other things, leaving the deficit alone for now."
Other economists — including Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who studied eight centuries' worth of financial crises for their book "This Time Is Different" — argue that countries with debt-to-GDP ratios above a certain level tend to experience slower economic growth. Reinhart and Rogoff suggest the level is around 90 percent of GDP — which the U.S. is rapidly approaching. A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded that while the debt-to-GDP ratio can't keep rising forever, "it can rise for a time." The report continued:
It is hard to predict at what point bond holders would deem it to be unsustainable. A few other advanced economies have debt-to-GDP ratios higher than that of the United States. Some of those countries in Europe have recently seen their financing costs rise to the point that they are unable to finance their deficits solely through private markets. But Japan has the highest debt-to-GDP ratio of any advanced economy, and it has continued to be able to finance its debt at extremely low costs.
How does all this fit into the fiscal cliff? Would a deal to avert it fix our debt problem?
Actually, going over the fiscal cliff would almost singlehandedly erase the deficit. Tax rates would shoot up, and the fiscal cliff's indiscriminate budget cuts would slash military and safety-net spending alike.
The problem is that all those tax increases and spending cuts would likely throw the economy back into a recession, causing the deficit to balloon again. "The economy will, I think, go off a cliff," said Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman.
(For more detail, see The Washington Post's exhaustive fiscal cliff explainer.)
What the two sides are trying to do is identify cuts that are ultimately deep enough to bring down the deficit — and thus, eventually, the debt — without stalling the economy. But negotiations collapsed last week after John Boehner, the Republican House speaker, tried and failed to pass a "Plan B" alternative to the president's proposal in the House. Obama is set to meet with congressional leaders today to try to strike a deal to block at least some of the cliff's impact by Monday night. But its prospects seem dim.
"I have to be very honest," Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, said on Thursday. "I don't know timewise how it can happen now."
Of course, some analysts have pointed out that people on both the Republican and the Democratic sides may actually want to move the cliff just slightly down the road into the next Congress, which convenes Thursday, Jan. 3. The advantages: Boehner can be safely re-elected as Speaker before he has to do serious twisting of arms of fellow GOP House members to get their votes for any compromise plan. And there will be a few more Democrats in the House and the Senate for the White House to rely on in enlisting the votes it needs to ratify any such deal. The disadvantage: Delay makes the risk of miscalculation greater for either or both sides — and for the public.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

How Dark Money Helped Republicans Hold the House and Hurt Voters

by Olga Pierce, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer ProPublica,

In the November election, a million more Americans voted for Democrats seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives than Republicans. But that popular vote advantage did not result in control of the chamber. Instead, despite getting fewer votes, Republicans have maintained a commanding control of the House. Such a disparity has happened only three times in the last century.
(Here's a chart comparing 2010 and 2012.)
Analysts and others have identified redistricting as a key to the disparity. Republicans had a years-long strategy of winning state houses in order to control each state's once-a-decade redistricting process. (Confused about redistricting? Check out our song.)

Republican strategist Karl Rove laid out the approach in a Wall Street Journal column in early 2010 headlined "He who controls redistricting can control Congress."
The approach paid off. In 2010 state races, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining complete control of 12 state legislatures. As a result, the GOP oversaw redrawing of lines for four times as many congressional districts as Democrats.

How did they dominate redistricting? A ProPublica investigation has found that the GOP relied on opaque nonprofits funded by dark money, supposedly nonpartisan campaign outfits, and millions in corporate donations to achieve Republican-friendly maps throughout the country. Two tobacco giants, Altria and Reynolds, each pitched in more than $1 million to the main Republican redistricting group, as did Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads; Walmart and the pharmaceutical industry also contributed. Other donors, who gave to the nonprofits Republicans created, may never have to be disclosed.

While many observers have noted that mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson backed losing candidates, a close look at the Republicans' effort on redistricting suggests something else: The hundreds of millions spent this year on presidential TV ads may not have hit the mark, but the relatively modest sums funneled to redistricting paid off handsomely.

Where Democrats were in control, they drew gerrymandered maps just like Republicans. They also had their own secretive redistricting funding. (Last year, we detailed how Democrats in California worked to undermine the state's attempt at non-partisan redistricting.) But Democrats got outspent 3-to-1 and did not prioritize winning state legislatures. They also faced a Republican surge in 2010.
Exactly how the Republican effort worked has been shrouded in mystery until now. But depositions and other documents in a little-noticed lawsuit in North Carolina offer an exceptionally detailed picture of Republicans' tactics.

Documents show that national Republican operatives, funded by dark money groups, drew the crucial lines which packed as many Democrats as possible into three congressional districts. The result: the state's congressional delegation flipped from 7-6 Democratic to 9-4 in favor of Republicans. The combination of party operatives, cash and secrecy also existed in other states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

Redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote. As demographics change, lines are shifted to make sure everyone is equally represented and to give communities a voice. In order for Republicans to win in North Carolina, they undermined the votes of Democrats, especially African-Americans. (Party leaders in North Carolina say they were simply complying with federal voting laws.)

The strategy began in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Republicans poured money into local races in North Carolina and elsewhere. It was an efficient approach. While congressional races routinely cost millions, a few thousand dollars can swing a campaign for a seat in the state legislature
The Republican effort to influence redistricting overall was spearheaded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has existed since 2002. For most of that time, it was primarily a vehicle for donors like health care and tobacco companies to influence state legislatures, key battlegrounds for regulations that affect corporate America. Its focus changed in 2010 when Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, was named chairman. His main project: redistricting.

Soon after Gillespie took over, the RSLC announced an effort to influence state races throughout the country, the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP. Fundraising soared. The group raised $30 million in 2010, by far its best year. (Its Democratic counterpart raised roughly $10 million.)
The RSLC is organized as a type of political group that can take in unlimited corporate donations. It must disclose its contributors. But that doesn't mean it's always possible to trace the origins of the money.

Along with Walmart and tobacco companies, the RSLC's largest funders in 2010 were the Chamber of Commerce and American Justice Partnership, which gave a combined $6.5 million. Those two groups raise money from corporations and others but don't have to disclose their donors.
As the 2010 North Carolina legislative elections heated up, the RSLC jumped into local races. But the way they made contributions kept their involvement away from the attention of state voters. Rather than running campaign ads under its own name, the RSLC distributed money to a newly formed local nonprofit. The RSLC declined to comment.

The RSLC gave $1.25 million to its vehicle of choice Real Jobs NC. The group calls itself a "non-partisan organization that believes we need to return to a reliance on the free enterprise system that made our country great for real answers." It was started in 2010 and got a hefty $200,000 boost from dollar store magnate and Republican supporter Art Pope, although Pope denies his donation was related to redistricting or REDMAP.

Real Jobs NC produced ads and mailers slamming more than 20 state Democrats.

"Steve Goss … nice guy," intoned the voiceover in one such ad in North Carolina, attacking then-Democratic State Senator Goss. "Too bad he's voting with the Raleigh liberals over hometown conservatives."

Goss lost, and Democrats lost control of North Carolina's General Assembly for the first time in a century. The pattern repeated itself across the country.

"Twenty legislative bodies which were previously split or under Democratic control are now under Republican control," said a triumphant RSLC REDMAP post-election analysis, highlighting its spending in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, among other states.

The next step for Republicans was to draw district maps, which can be expensive. The maps require expertise, extensive data and sophisticated software. Skillful map drawers can make even the most partisan gerrymander look reasonable.

To fund the work, the Republican State Leadership Committee used its previously dormant nonprofit arm, the State Government Leadership Foundation. Such dark money groups are increasingly popular because they are allowed to keep secret the identity of their donors. Federal tax law permits them to do this as long as they pledge that politics is not their primary focus.

Flush with anonymous donors' cash, the Foundation paid $166,000 to hire the GOP's pre-eminent redistricting experts, according to tax documents. The team leader was Tom Hofeller, architect of Republican-friendly maps going back decades.

"Our team would be happy to assist in drawing proposed maps, interpreting data, or providing advice," wrote Chris Jankowski, the head of both the RSLC and State Government Leadership Foundation, in a   of introduction to North Carolina legislators. The letter was disclosed as part of the North Carolina lawsuit.

"We are engaged in a number of states and believe we are playing a meaningful role in helping draw fair and legal lines that will allow us to run competitive elections in 2012 and in future cycles," Jankowski added.

The same letter emphasized that the Republican redistricting push was being funded through its dark money nonprofit: "The entirety of this effort will be paid for using non-federal dollars through our 501c(4) organization."

Jankowski, representing both the RSLC and the Foundation, declined to comment.

Because Hofeller's team was paid with dark money and the redistricting process is so secretive, it is hard to know the full extent of its activities. In Wisconsin, the team provided technical assistance to an aide to Rep. Paul Ryan as he drew new districts that favored Republicans. In Missouri, Hofeller was the sole witness called by attorneys representing the Republican legislators who drew the maps there.
In the case of North Carolina, Hofeller made his first trip to Raleigh on Feb. 1, 2011, even before final state Census data had been released, the first of 10 trips that year.

From then on, two parallel redistricting processes unfolded in the state.
Through the spring and summer, legislators in charge of redistricting traveled the state holding public meetings at local colleges, soliciting comment and proposed maps from citizens — though the Republicans on the committee would not produce draft maps themselves.

"We are not here to answer questions. We are not here drawing maps," state Senate redistricting committee chairman Bob Rucho told the crowd at a hearing in Durham. "What we are here for is to basically hear your thoughts and dreams about redistricting."

But that input had little influence on the districts that were eventually drawn.
Instead, the real maps were being produced behind the scenes by a team that based its operations at Republican Party headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. Armed with advanced mapping software, Hofeller and others crafted districts that would virtually guarantee big gains for the party.
Hofeller did not attend or read transcripts of any of the public meetings, according to his deposition.

Hofeller did not respond to requests for comment.

A mysterious state dark money nonprofit that sprung up just in time for the process, called Fair and Legal Redistricting for North Carolina, hired a technician to operate the mapping workstation day-to-day, and another Republican mapping expert. The group did not respond to our requests for comment.
State-based nonprofits have been a vehicle for Republicans to funnel anonymous money into their map-drawing operations in a number of states, including self-proclaimed nonpartisan groups in Michigan and Minnesota.

Republican state legislators tasked with redistricting frequently visited and consulted with the mapping team, according to depositions. Even Art Pope, the most influential conservative donor in the state, was appointed "co-counsel" to the legislative leadership and allowed in the room to give direct instructions to the technician.

"We worked together at the workstation," said Joel Raupe, the technical expert paid by Fair and Legal Redistricting, in a deposition. "He sat next to me."
Pope, who is a lawyer but does not actively practice, was made co-counsel to the state legislature, offering his services pro bono. Now, because he was technically a legal adviser to the state, he says any information about his involvement in the redistricting is privileged.
(The New Yorker had a sweeping profile of Pope last year, detailing how he has used his fortune to dominate North Carolina politics.)

North Carolina's Republican incumbents in Congress pushed for a so-called "10-3 map," the majority they hoped to win in the state's delegation.
Hofeller, the mapping expert, delivered. His maps kept most of the districts from being competitive — or even remotely winnable — for Democratic candidates.
A key part of the redistricting strategy was to push minority voters into three districts. Republicans insisted their maps were "fair and legal," necessary to conform to laws protecting minority voting rights, although according to a well-known voting rights attorney, the opposite is true.
But federal voting rights law "doesn't require a jurisdiction to pack blacks in districts," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. "If you tried to pack minority voters into a district, that would arguably be a violation."

In two of those districts, African-American incumbents been already been winning by large margins for years. Republicans' maps added yet more African-Americans to the districts, what's known in redistricting parlance as "packing." As Hofeller wrote in an email about one of the districts, the plan was to "incorporate all the significant concentrations of minority voters in the northeast into the first district."

A third district was 120-mile long, and sea monkey-shaped, connecting pockets of African-Americans from three different, distant cities. Republicans justified it on the basis of a common media market.
The maps were designed to "segregate African-American voters in three districts and concede those districts to the Democrats," says Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan public interest group that joined the lawsuit against the new maps.

In 2012, Democrats won the three districts by more than 70 percent of the vote. Another effect: the surrounding districts were much more Republican.
Rucho and other Republican legislators had presented the maps as advantageous to Democrats. Indeed, registered Democrats actually outnumbered registered Republicans in seven additional districts beyond those that were clearly slated to be Democratic.
Emails show Republicans decided to make that fact a major talking point.

But the stat was misleading, as the Republicans' own data indicates. An internal analysis of one of Hofeller's later drafts (code name "Blue Horizon 3") obtained by ProPublica shows that those seven allegedly "competitive" districts would have been landslide wins for John McCain in 2008, and for Republican Senator Richard Burr in 2010.

The carefully drawn maps worked. In this year's elections, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in North Carolina won 50.6 percent of the total vote. But the state's House delegation now has nine Republicans and just four Democrats. One of the Democrats won by just a few hundred voters, despite the fact that his newly drawn district skewed heavily Republican and that his own home had been drawn out of it. North Carolina's delegation before the election had seven Democrats and six Republicans

In addition to his pay from national Republican groups, invoices show Hofeller billed North Carolina taxpayers $77,000 for his services.
The Republican maps are still under threat by suits filed by Democrats and the NAACP. The lawsuits are headed to the state Supreme Court. But a flood of contributions tied to the RSLC have lowered the risk of the maps' being overturned.

While judicial elections in North Carolina are nominally nonpartisan, it was common knowledge that Republicans held a 4-3 majority on the court. One of those Republican incumbents was facing a tough challenge in 2012, potentially throwing the whole redistricting result in jeopardy.
Justice Paul Newby was running for re-election against appellate judge Sam Ervin IV, grandson of the famous North Carolina senator who investigated Watergate. With a few weeks left until the November election, Newby was trailing Ervin.

But then, in the final stretch, Newby was the beneficiary of a flood of late spending that can be traced back to the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Once again the contributions were funneled through homegrown groups. With only a few weeks to go, the RSLC gave more than $1.1 million to a group called Justice for All NC. Campaign finance filings show Justice for All NC in turn gave nearly $1.5 million to a super PAC running pro-Newby ads, the NC Judicial Coalition.

Most of the money spent by the super PAC went to pay for hundreds of airings of a jingle ad featuring lines like, "Paul Newby / Justice tough but fair / Paul Newby / Criminals best beware" set to infectious banjo music.

The spending didn't end there: and Pope's fingerprints were also on the race. Two dark money groups affiliated with Pope — the state-based Civitas Action and Americans for Prosperity — spent another $300,000 on radio ads and mailers supporting Newby. Pope's company also gave to the RSLC in the run-up to this fall's elections.

Pope says he gave money to Americans for Prosperity for years before the judicial race even came up, and that he was not involved in the decision to run pro-Newby ads.
"I'm Republican, I support Republican groups," Pope said. "But just because you support something doesn't mean you're responsible for all they do."

It was an unusually large amount of outside spending for a judicial race. The outside pro-Newby groups had spent more on the race than the two campaigns combined.
In the end, Newby eked out a 52-48 victory, preserving the court's Republican majority.
When the groups contesting the maps called for Newby to recuse himself from redistricting litigation, lawyers for Republican legislators argued that because the campaign ads were paid for by "independent" groups, they did not jeopardize Newby's impartiality.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court rejected the motion for Newby to recuse himself.
"I've got no control over who contributes to an ad. I have no control over who endorses me," Newby — who did not respond to a request for comment — told a local TV station on the eve of the election. "You've got to put your blinders on like lady justice."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Seven of the Most Striking Ways States Have Loosened Gun Laws

by Suevon Lee ProPublica

Friday's deadly rampage at a Connecticut elementary school marked the 13th mass shooting in the United States this year. Among the 11 deadliest shootings in U.S. history, more than half took place in the last five years. During the same period, states have often relaxed their gun laws, making it easier for individuals to obtain guns, extending the places where concealed guns are permitted, or giving gun owners more robust protections.
We take a closer look at some of the more striking measures:

1. Five states allow students to carry concealed guns on college campuses     
A March 2012 Colorado Supreme Court decision held that the University of Colorado could not ban students and employees with state-issued concealed weapon permits from carrying guns on campus. The decision overturned the university's long-standing gun ban. While school policy prohibits guns at ticketed athletic and cultural events, Boulder and Colorado Springs' campuses now designate dorms for permit-carrying students. (Guns are still banned in other dorms). "Not a single student has asked to live where guns are allowed," the Denver Post reported last month.
In September 2011, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling, allowing guns on campuses throughout the Oregon University system.
Wisconsin passed legislation in 2011 allowing college students in the University of Wisconsin school system to bring a concealed weapon on campus grounds, parking lots and "other spaces that aren't enclosed," according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The school can prohibit guns in buildings, but only if signs are posted at each entrance.
A law passed by the Mississippi State Legislature in 2011 broadly extended the places where concealed weapons are allowed, including college campuses, secondary schools, courthouses, polling locations, churches, bars and passenger terminals of an airport – places previously off-limits. This year, the University of Mississippi, which previously required students to leave guns in their vehicles, began allowing students to bring concealed weapons on campus, provided they have a concealed weapons permit and take an 8-hour training course.
Utah grants the least discretion: Since 2004, the state has prohibited any public college or university from banning concealed weapons, as campuses are considered state property.

2. Some states now allow you to bring guns into daycare centers, churches, and even "gun-free zones"
Last week, the Michigan Legislature passed a law that would allow concealed weapons in current "gun-free" zones such as schools, day care centers, bars, churches, hospitals and stadiums. Gun owners are required to receive eight hours of extra training before bringing guns into these places. The bill, which has yet to be signed into law, gives private business owners discretion to ban firearms on their property.
While Michigan's legislation has gained attention given its timing to Friday's shooting, it's far from the only law of its kind. As we've already noted, Mississippi has also expanded the list of permissible concealed carry locations.
Elsewhere, loaded guns in bars are now allowed in Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia and Ohio. Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this year that would expand the list of places where you can bring in a concealed weapon, proposing to allow them in colleges, places of worship and polling places.
Virginia, Louisiana and Maine allow firearms to be carried in state parks, state historic sites and state preservation areas. Recently passed federal legislation also allows the carrying of loaded guns in national parks, but only if state laws don't interject.

3. You don't have to be 18-years-old or sober to lawfully use a gun in some states
In Missouri, it's no longer a crime for an intoxicated person to handle or fire a gun, so long as they were acting in self-defense.
Federal law prohibits licensed firearms dealers from selling a shotgun or rifle to anyone under 18, or handguns to anyone under 21. Still, some states impose minimum age limits that go below these federal limits.
For instance, in Vermont, it's legal to sell a handgun or rifle to 16-year-olds. It's legal to sell a rifle to a 16-year-old in Maine, Alaska, Minnesota or New York. In Montana, the legal age is 14, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit organization that tracks state gun laws.

4. Eight states have (symbolically) asserted their freedom to be exempt from federal gun regulation
Current federal gun laws set baseline standards regarding the sale and possession of guns. For instance, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on prospective gun purchasers. And agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can conduct warrantless inspections of any licensed gun dealer – although, as we've previously noted, its authority has been hamstrung in recent years.
Still, eight states have passed resolutions stating that guns made and manufactured in-state shouldn't be subject to federal regulation: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Utah, Arizona, Tennessee and Alaska.
The Montana gun activist behind the state's legislation, whom the Wall Street Journal profiled, explained he felt he should be "free from federal laws requiring him to record transactions, pay license fees and open his business to government inspectors."
The states' moves are basically symbolic. The states are still following the few federal rules that exist.
But that could change. Montana Shooting Sports Association and Second Amendment Foundation have filed a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the law.

5. Some states want to make it a crime for doctors and employers to ask about your gun
In 2011, Florida became the first state to enact a law prohibiting any health care professional from asking patients whether they own guns or store them safely. A federal judge later struck down the law based on free speech grounds, stating that a physician who "counsels a patient on firearm safety…does not affect or interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess or use firearms."
Other states have followed in Florida's footsteps: Alabama and North Carolina have introduced similar legislation in the last year.
In 2010, Indiana made it easier for people to store guns in their vehicles in a workplace parking lot. A year later, Indiana passed a law allowing job applicants and current employees to sue a private or public employer for requiring disclosure of firearm ownership or use.
6. Nearly half of states have adopted some type of "Stand Your Ground," or "Shoot First" law
Florida and 24 other states have enacted "Stand Your Ground" laws that expand a person's right to self-defense. Under these laws, individuals no longer have a duty to retreat to avoid confrontation in any place he or she has a right to be.
Florida was the first state to introduce such a law in 2005 – and many other states have followed suit. The law came into national spotlight when an unarmed 17-year-old teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch guard in Florida earlier this year. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was not initially charged with a crime; he has since been charged with second-degree murder and awaits trial.

7. A few states make it easy for even violent felons to get their gun rights restored
The New York Times conducted an extensive investigation into this issue last year. The story reports that in 11 states, nonviolent felons have automatic restoration of their gun rights while a handful of other states allow felons convicted of violent crimes to regain their gun rights.
In Minnesota, for instance, violent felons can petition a court to regain their gun rights by showing "good cause." There is no waiting period. In Ohio, a violent felon need only demonstrate to a judge that he or she has "led a law-abiding life" since they've left prison. In Washington State, felons can get their gun rights restored as long as they haven't been convicted of any new crimes in five years. Under Washington State's Hard Times for Armed Crimes Act, judges actually have no discretion to deny restoration based on a felon's character or mental health.
Felons in other states have other ways to get their guns back: Georgia and Nebraska have granted a high number of pardons to restore felons' right to bear arms even for those convicted of crimes like voluntary manslaughter or armed robbery.
And Montana makes it possible for felons to get their gun rights restored as long as they didn't use a dangerous weapon in the commission of their crime.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation's Underground Water Supply

by Abrahm Lustgarten ProPublica,
     Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.
In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.
EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.
"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
As part of an investigation into the threat to water supplies from underground injection of waste, ProPublica set out to identify which aquifers have been polluted.
We found the EPA has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect.
What records the agency was able to supply under the Freedom of Information Act show that exemptions are often issued in apparent conflict with the EPA's mandate to protect waters that may be used for drinking.
Though hundreds of exemptions are for lower-quality water of questionable use, many allow grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology.
The EPA is only supposed to issue exemptions if aquifers are too remote, too dirty, or too deep to supply affordable drinking water. Applicants must persuade the government that the water is not being used as drinking water and that it never will be.
Sometimes, however, the agency has issued permits for portions of reservoirs that are in use, assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted.
In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company's application.
The EPA declined repeated requests for interviews for this story, but sent a written response saying exemptions have been issued responsibly, under a process that ensures contaminants remain confined.
"Aquifer Exemptions identify those waters that do not currently serve as a source of drinking water and will not serve as a source of drinking water in the future and, thus, do not need to be protected," an EPA spokesperson wrote in an email statement. "The process of exempting aquifers includes steps that minimize the possibility that future drinking water supplies are endangered."
Yet EPA officials say the agency has quietly assembled an unofficial internal task force to re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies. The agency's spokesperson declined to give details on the group's work, but insiders say it is attempting to inventory exemptions and to determine whether aquifers should go unprotected in the future, with the value of water rising along with demand for exemptions closer to areas where people live.
Advances in geological sciences have deepened regulators' concerns about exemptions, challenging the notion that waste injected underground will stay inside the tightly drawn boundaries of the exempted areas.
"What they don't often consider is whether that waste will flow outside that zone of influence over time, and there is no doubt that it will," said Mike Wireman, a senior hydrologist with the EPA who has worked with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "Over decades, that water could discharge into a stream. It could seep into a well. If you are a rancher out there and you want to put a well in, it's difficult to find out if there is an exempted aquifer underneath your property."
Aquifer exemptions are a little-known aspect of the government's Underground Injection Control program, which is designed to protect water supplies from the underground disposal of waste.
The Safe Drinking Water Act explicitly prohibits injection into a source of drinking water, and requires precautions to ensure that oil and gas and disposal wells that run through them are carefully engineered not to leak.
Areas covered by exemptions are stripped of some of these protections, however. Waste can be discarded into them freely, and wells that run through them need not meet all standards used to prevent pollution. In many cases, no water monitoring or long-term study is required.
The recent surge in domestic drilling and rush for uranium has brought a spike in exemption applications, as well as political pressure not to block or delay them, EPA officials told ProPublica.
"The energy policy in the U.S is keeping this from happening because right now nobody — nobody — wants to interfere with the development of oil and gas or uranium," said a senior EPA employee who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The political pressure is huge not to slow that down."
Many of the exemption permits, records show, have been issued in regions where water is needed most and where intense political debates are underway to decide how to fairly allocate limited water resources.
In drought-stricken Texas, communities are looking to treat brackish aquifers beneath the surface because they have run out of better options and several cities, including San Antonio and El Paso, are considering whether to build new desalinization plants for as much as $100 million apiece.
And yet environmental officials have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining in Texas, records show. The most recent was issued in September.
The Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas drilling, said it issued additional exemptions, covering large swaths of aquifers underlying the state, when it brought its rules into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982. This was in large part because officials viewed them as oil reservoirs and thought they were already contaminated. But it is unclear where, and how extensive, those exemptions are.
EPA "Region VI received a road map — yes, the kind they used to give free at gas stations — with the aquifers delineated, with no detail on depth," said Mario Salazar, a former EPA project engineer who worked with the underground injection program for 25 years and oversaw the approval of Texas' program, in an email.
In California, where nearly half of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown with water from as far away as the Colorado River, the perennially cash-strapped state's governor is proposing to spend $14 billion to divert more of the Sacramento River from the north to the south. Near Bakersfield, a private project is underway to build a water bank, essentially an artificial aquifer.
Still, more than 100 exemptions for natural aquifers have been granted in California, some to dispose of drilling and fracking waste in the state's driest parts. Though most date back to the 1980s, the most recent exemption was approved in 2009 in Kern County, an agricultural heartland that is the epicenter of some of the state's most volatile rivalries over water.
The balance is even more delicate in Colorado. Growth in the Denver metro area has been stubbornly restrained not by available land, but by the limits of aquifers that have been drawn down by as much as 300 vertical feet. Much of Eastern Colorado's water has long been piped underneath the Continental Divide and, until recently, the region was mulling a $3 billion plan to build a pipeline to bring water hundreds of miles from western Wyoming.
Along with Wyoming, Montana and Utah, however, Colorado has sacrificed more of its aquifer resources than any other part of the country.
More than 1,100 aquifer exemptions have been approved by the EPA's Rocky Mountain regional office, according to a list the agency provided to ProPublica. Many of them are relatively shallow and some are in the same geologic formations containing aquifers relied on by Denver metro residents, though the boundaries are several hundred miles away. More than a dozen exemptions are in waters that might not even need to be treated in order to drink.
"It's short-sighted," said Tom Curtis, the deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, an international non-governmental drinking water organization. "It's something that future generations may question."
To the resource industries, aquifer exemptions are essential. Oil and gas drilling waste has to go somewhere and in certain parts of the country, there are few alternatives to injecting it into porous rock that also contains water, drilling companies say. In many places, the same layers of rock that contain oil or gas also contain water, and that water is likely to already contain pollutants such as benzene from the natural hydrocarbons within it.
Similarly, the uranium mining industry works by prompting chemical reactions that separate out minerals within the aquifers themselves; the mining can't happen without the pollution.
When regulations governing waste injection were written in the 1980s to protect underground water reserves, industry sought the exemptions as a compromise. The intent was to acknowledge that many deep waters might not be worth protecting even though they technically met the definition of drinking water.
"The concept of aquifer exemptions was something that we 'invented' to address comments when the regulations were first proposed," Salazar, the former EPA official, said. "There was never the intention to exempt aquifers just because they could contain, or would obviate, the development of a resource. Water was the resource that would be protected above all."
Since then, however, approving exemptions has become the norm. In an email, the EPA said that some exemption applications had been denied, but provided no details about how many or which ones. State regulators in Texas and Wyoming could not recall a single application that had been turned down and industry representatives said they had come to expect swift approval.
"Historically they have been fairly routinely granting aquifer exemptions," said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently seeking permits for new mining in South Dakota. "There has never been a case that I'm aware of that it has not been done."
In 1981, shortly after the first exemption rules were set, the EPA lowered the bar for exemptions as part of settling a lawsuit filed by the American Petroleum Institute. Since then, the agency has issued permits for water not "reasonably expected" to be used for drinking. The original language allowed exemptions only for water that could never be used.
Oil companies have been the biggest users of aquifer exemptions by far. Most are held by smaller, independent companies, but Chevron, America's second-largest oil company, holds at least 28 aquifer exemptions. Exxon holds at least 14. In Wyoming, the Canadian oil giant EnCana, currently embroiled in an investigation of water contamination related to fracking in the town of Pavillion, has been allowed to inject into aquifers at 38 sites.
Once an exemption is issued, it's all but permanent; none have ever been reversed. Permits dictate how much material companies can inject and where, but impose little or no obligations to protect the surrounding water if it has been exempted. The EPA and state environmental agencies require applicants to assess the quality of reservoirs and to do some basic modeling to show where contaminants should end up. But in most cases there is no obligation, for example, to track what has been put into the earth or — except in the case of the uranium mines — to monitor where it does end up.
The biggest problem now, experts say, is that the EPA's criteria for evaluating applications are outdated. The rules — last revised nearly three decades ago — haven't adapted to improving water treatment technology and don't reflect the changing value and scarcity of fresh water.
Aquifers once considered unusable can now be processed for drinking water at a reasonable price.
The law defines an underground source of drinking water as any water that has less than 10,000 parts per million of what are called Total Dissolved Solids, a standard measure of water quality, but historically, water with more than 3,000 TDS has been dismissed as too poor for drinking. It also has been taken for granted that, in most places, the deeper the aquifer — say, below about 2,000 feet — the higher the TDS and the less salvageable the water.
Yet today, Texas towns are treating water that has as high as 4,000 TDS and a Wyoming town is pumping from 8,500 feet deep, thousands of feet below aquifers that the EPA has determined were too far underground to ever produce useable water.
"You can just about treat anything nowadays," said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, which advises the state on groundwater management. Arroyo said he was unaware that so many Texas aquifers had been exempted, and that it would be feasible to treat many of them. Regarding the exemptions, he said, "With the advent of technology to treat some of this water, I think this is a prudent time to reconsider whether we allow them."
Now, as commercial crops wilt in the dry heat and winds rip the dust loose from American prairies, questions are mounting about whether the EPA should continue to grant exemptions going forward.
"Unless someone can build a clear case that this water cannot be used — we need to keep our groundwater clean," said Al Armendariz, a former regional administrator for the EPA's South Central region who now works with the Sierra Club. "We shouldn't be exempting aquifers unless we have no other choice. We should only exempt the aquifer if we are sure we are never going to use the water again."
Still, skeptics say fewer exemptions are unlikely, despite rising concern about them within the EPA, as the demand for space underground continues to grow. Long-term plans to slow climate change and clean up coal by sequestering carbon dioxide underground, for example, could further endanger aquifers, causing chemical reactions that lead to water contamination.
"Everyone wants clean water and everyone wants clean energy," said Richard Healy, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey whose work is focused on the nexus of energy production and water. "Energy development can occur very quickly because there is a lot of money involved. Environmental studies take longer."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Senate Report on CIA Interrogations You May Never See

by Cora Currier ProPublica

A Senate committee is close to putting the final stamp on a massive report on the CIA's detention, interrogation and rendition of terror suspects. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Select Committee on Intelligence, called the roughly 6,000-page report "the most definitive review of this CIA program to be conducted."
But it's unclear how much, if any, of the review you might get to read.
The committee first needs to vote to endorse the report. There will be a vote next week.
Republicans, who are a minority on the committee, have been boycotting the investigation since the summer of 2009. They pulled back their cooperation after the Justice Department began a separate investigation into the CIA interrogations. Republicans have criticized that inquiry, arguing that the interrogations had been authorized by President George W. Bush's Justice Department.  (In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the investigation was being closed without bringing any criminal charges.)
Even if the report is approved next week, it won't be made public then, if at all. Decisions on declassification will come at "a later time," Feinstein said.
According to Reuters, the Senate report focuses on whether so-called "enhanced interrogation" tactics – including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other techniques – actually led to critical intelligence breakthroughs. Reuters reported earlier this year that the investigation "was expected to find little evidence" that the torture was in fact crucial.
Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and others have repeatedly said that such tactics produced important information. They've also said waterboarding was used on only a handful of high-level detainees, a claim which recently came into question. Feinstein has previously disputed claims that such interrogations led to Osama Bin Laden. (It is also still unclearwhat key members of Congress knew about the program, and when they knew it.)
Much about the CIA's program to detain and interrogate terror suspects has remained officially secret, despite widespread reporting and acknowledgement by Bush.  Obama banned torture upon taking office and released documents related to program, including a critical report from the CIA's Inspector General.
But the Obama administration has argued in courts that details about the CIA program are still classified. (As we have reported, this has led the administration to claim in some cases that Guantanamo detainees' own accounts of their imprisonment are classified.)