Monday, February 25, 2013

What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding

by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence as part of his legislative package on gun control. The CDC hasn't pursued this kind of research since 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut funding for it, arguing that the studies were politicized and being used to promote gun control. We've interviewed Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the agency's gun violence research in the nineties when he was the director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
We talked to Rosenberg about the work the agency was doing before funding was cut and how it's relevant to today's gun control debate. Here's an edited transcript.

There's been coverage recently about how Congress cut funding for gun violence research, but not much about what the agency was actually researching and what it was finding. You were in charge of that. Tell us a little bit about what the CDC was doing back then.
There were basically four questions that we were trying to answer. The first question is what is the problem? Who were the victims? Who was killed? Who were injured? Where did they happen? Under what circumstances? When? What times of the year? What times of the day? What was the relationship to other events? How did they happen? What were the weapons that were used? What was the relationship between the people involved? What was the motive or the setting in which they happened?
The second question is what are the causes? What are the things that increase one's risk of being shot? What are the things that decrease one's risk of being shot?
The third question we were trying to answer is what works to prevent these? What kinds of policies, what kinds of interventions, what kinds of police practices or medical practices or education and school practices actually might prevent some of these shootings? We're not just looking at mass shootings, but also looking at the bulk of the homicides that occur every year and the suicides, which account for a majority of all gun deaths.
Then the last question is how do you do it? Once you have a program or policy that has been proven to work in one place, how do you spread it? How do you actually put it in place?

So what were you were able to find before funding got cut off?
One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.
What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.
It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.
But in this case, we're talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks.

I understand there was also an effort to collect data on gun violence through something called the Firearm Injury Surveillance System. What did that involve?
We were collecting information to answer the question of who, what, where, when, and how did shootings occur?
We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They're not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They're not mostly home intrusions.
We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

So if you were able to continue this work, what kind of data do you think would be available today?
I think we'd know much more information about what sorts of weapons are used in what sorts of firearm deaths and injuries.
Let's say you look at robbery associated homicides, and you find that in those homicides certain weapons are used in almost all of them and that these weapons come from a limited number of sources and that those weapons are not used by people to defend their home or to hunt or to target shoot. Then you can say, "Here's a type of weapon that seems to be only used in criminal enterprises and doesn't seem to have any legitimate uses, and maybe we ought to find a way to restrict the sales or access to that type of weapon."
I think it's also important to look at what the impact of these data might be.
If you look at how many deaths have occurred between 1996, when there was this disruption to surveillance and research, and now, so that's 16 years, and if you assume that there are about 30,000 gun deaths every year, you're talking about 480,000 gun deaths over that period of time.
If even a fraction of those deaths could have been prevented, you're talking about a significant impact in terms of saving lives.

Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what the most effective policies might be to curb gun violence, and how to implement them. What were you beginning to find on that?
The largest question in this category is what kind of larger policies work? Does it work, for example, if you have an assault weapon ban? Does that reduce the number of firearm injuries and deaths? In truth, we don't know the answer to that. That requires evaluation.
Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don't have the answer.
The policies that make it easier to carry concealed weapons, do those reduce or do those increase firearm injuries and deaths? We don't have the answer. Do gun bans like they have in the city of Chicago, work? We don't have the answer yet to those.
These require large-scale studies of large numbers of people, over a long period of time to see if they work or don't.
I don't think those studies were fully funded or completed.

How do you think the gun control debate might be different today, if you had been allowed to continue that research?
I would like to think that we would have had answers to what works and what doesn't work. I would hope that we know whether the kind of bans and restrictions that they have in Chicago really make a difference or don't. I would hope that we would have had information about whether an assault weapon ban saves lives or doesn't. Unfortunately, when you don't have those data that really show you, scientifically, whether or not something works, then you end up with people making statements like the following, "Obviously, the assault weapon ban didn't work, because Columbine happened."
That's kind of like saying, "Vaccines don't work because someone got the flu."

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to pursue gun-related research. If you had that budget and you had your old job, what would you use the money to look at?
I think we'd want to look at what the impact of different policies would be, both restricting and enabling policies.
The other thing that I would make sure we looked at is not just how do we prevent firearm injuries, but how do we also protect the rights of legitimate gun owners? I think it would be very important to look, for example, at legislation that restricts access by certain people to firearms.
People often think that there are maybe three things we should consider passing right now, something like an assault weapons ban, a ban on large capacity magazines, and background checks on all gun purchasers.
The truth is that there's not going to be a simple, magic pill or even three pills that cure the whole problem. If you look at suicides and the whole range of homicides and firearm injuries, the answers are going to come, bit by bit, over time, incrementally.
It's not one, two or even three things that are really going to solve the problem. They may solve our conscience, but they won't solve the problem. The research is really, really important. We really need to find out what works, so that we can save more lives.
It's been presented to people that research is going to hurt legitimate gun owners. That's the threat and how the NRA leadership has often presented it to the NRA membership. "Any sort of research is only going to result in your losing all your guns."
That's a tactic of fear. It's not at all the case. There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

At Least 20 CIA Prisoners Still Missing

by Cora Currier, ProPublica
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Illustration by http://www.sxc.hu/profile/svilen001
In one of President Barack Obama first acts in the White House, he ordered the closure of the CIA's so-called "black-site" prisons, where terror suspects had been held and, sometimes, tortured.  The CIA says it is "out of the detention business," as John Brennan, Obama's pick to head the agency, recently put it.

But the CIA's prisons left some unfinished business.  In 2009, ProPublica's Dafna Linzer listed more than thirty people who had been held in CIA prisons and were still missing.

Some of those prisoners have since resurfaced, but at least twenty are still unaccounted for.
Last week the Open Society Foundations' Justice Initiative released a report pulling together the most current information available on the fates of the prisoners. A few emerged from foreign prisons after the turmoil of the Arab Spring. One has died. (The report relied exclusively on media accounts and information previously gathered by human rights groups. The Open Society Foundations also donate to ProPublica.)

The report counts 136 prisoners who were either held in a CIA black site or subject to so-called extraordinary rendition, in which detainees were secretly shipped to other countries for interrogation.
Many of the prisoners were tortured, either under the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" program or by other countries after their transfer. The report also lists 54 countries that assisted in some way with detention and rendition. The U.S. has not disclosed the countries it worked with, and few have acknowledged their participation.

The CIA declined our request to comment.
Here are the fates of a few of the prisoners we listed as missing back in 2009:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

IRS Should Bar Dark Money Groups From Funding Political Ads, Lawsuit Says

by Kim Barker, ProPublica

A former Illinois congressional candidate and a government watchdog organization have teamed up to sue the Internal Revenue Service, claiming the agency should bar dark money groups from funding political ads.
The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by David Gill, his campaign committee and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, is the first to challenge how the IRS regulates political spending by social welfare nonprofits, campaign-finance experts say.
As ProPublica has reported, these nonprofits, often called dark money groups because they don't have to identify their donors, have increasingly become major players in politics since the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in early 2010.
Gill, an emergency room doctor who has advocated for health-care reform, including a single-payer plan, was the Democratic candidate for the 13th district in Illinois last year. After a tight race, Gill ended up losing to the Republican candidate by 1,002 votes — a loss the lawsuit blames "largely, if not exclusively," on spending by the American Action Network, a social welfare nonprofit.
It's impossible to say for certain why Gill lost. He had lost three earlier races for a congressional seat.
But the American Action Network, launched in 2010 by former Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, played a role. It reported spending almost $1.5 million on three TV commercials and Internet ads opposing Gill, mainly in the weeks right before the election. That was more than any other outside group spent on the race, and more than Gill's principal campaign committee spent on the entire election, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Though Gill had never held public office, the American Action Network ads described him as "a mad scientist" who supported sending jobs to China, channeling money to the failed green-energy company Solyndra, and making a mess out of health care and Medicare.
Gill said he ran into people every day who said they weren't voting for him because of claims he would destroy Medicare.
"I think that certainly the money put forward — they saw that they could have an impact here," Gill said of the American Action Network. "They wanted to put their money where it could make a difference between victory and defeat."
Dan Conston, spokesman for the American Action Network, described CREW as a "left-wing front group" in an email. He said Gill was a "failed candidate with an extreme ideology, looking to blame anyone but himself for losing his fourth-straight congressional election."
Nonprofits like the American Action Network have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into political ads in the last two election cycles. Like super PACs, these groups can accept unlimited donations. But super PACs must identify their donors, allowing voters to see who is behind their messages.
The Gill lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, alleges the IRS failed to properly regulate the American Action Network, citing seemingly contradictory definitions the agency has applied to such groups for years.
The statute governing social welfare nonprofits says they should be operated "exclusively" for promoting social welfare. But the IRS paved the way for political spending by these groups by interpreting "exclusively" as meaning the groups had to only be "primarily" engaged in promoting the public good. Some groups have taken this to mean they can spend up to 49 percent of their money on election ads.
The lawsuit claims the IRS' interpretation of the law "is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law," and asks for an injunction prohibiting the agency from using it.
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, blamed the IRS for sitting on its hands as social welfare nonprofits have been formed specifically to run negative ads paid for by anonymous donors.
"Now the IRS can explain its deplorable inaction in federal court," she said.
The IRS didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday. It typically doesn't comment on issues related to individual taxpayers.
The American Action Network has been one of the more controversial dark money groups active in politics. Conston said the American Action Network's primary focus was on non-electoral activities and called the dispute over the group's election spending a "tired long-since settled argument."
In filings to the IRS, the group said it spent $25.7 million in its 2010 tax year. In separate filings to the Federal Election Commission, it reported spending about $19.4 million over the same period on political ads, or about 76 percent of the total expenditures reported to the IRS.
If the group stays on its current schedule, American Action Network won't file its taxes covering the 2012 election until May 2014.

Can Vote-By-Mail Fix Those Long Lines At The Polls?

by Christie Thompson, ProPublica

In his State of the Union address, President Obama returned to a point he'd made on election night: The need to do something about long voting lines. Obama announced his plan for a commission to "improve the voting experience in America."
But often missing from discussions about how to make voting easier is the rapid expansion of absentee balloting. Letting people vote from home means fewer people queuing up at overburdened polling places. So why hasn't vote-by-mail been heralded as the solution?
When it comes to absentee and mail-in voting, researchers and voting rights advocates aren't sure the convenience is worth the potential for hundreds of thousands of rejected ballots.
Although Oregon and Washington are the only two states to conduct elections entirely by mail, absentee voting has expanded rapidly nationwide. Since 1980, the number of voters using absentee ballots has more than tripled. Roughly one in five votes is now absentee.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That's up from the six states that did so in 1988, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Rare cases of voting fraud are more likely to be through absentee ballots, The New York Times reported last fall, citing comment from some election officials. Compared to in-person voting, an absentee ballot also is more likely to be rejected.
Yet few legislators proposed restrictions on absentee and mail-in voting to prevent fraud during the wave of voter ID laws introduced in the last election. Some point to partisan politics, as Republican voters traditionally have been more likely to vote absentee while Democrats tend to turn out early to vote in-person.
Proponents of mail and absentee voting say it can encourage higher voter turnout. Last November, Oregon had the sixth-highest voter turnout of eligible voters in the country, though the five states with higher turnout had a mix of mail and in-person voting. Mail-only elections also require fewer staff and resources, said professor Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.
The effect of absentee voting on wait times is unclear. Nationwide, line lengths have stayed fairly steady over the last 10 years.
In Florida, more than 28 percent of the nearly 8.5 million ballots cast in the last election were from absentee voters, up nearly 6 percentage points from 2008. In anticipation of discouragingly long lines, the Obama team ran a "Vote Now!" campaign endorsing early and absentee voting. Yet many Florida voters still reported standing in line for hours.
The long wait times were likely the result of cutbacks in early voting days and an unusually lengthy ballot, said Dartmouth professor Michael C. Herron, who with another researcher studied the effect of early voting restrictions in Florida last year.
Herron found that the rise of absentee voting in Florida was the result of long lines and expressed concern about the high number of rejected absentee ballots. Overall, nearly 23,000 of Florida's absentee votes were thrown out in the last election.
"If the solution is to shunt people into a process that has a 1 percent rejection rate, that could be a lot of people," he said.
Like long lines, ballot rejection can disproportionately affect voters of color. In Florida, African-American voters who voted absentee were nearly twice as likely to have their ballot rejected as white absentee voters, Herron found. Vote-by-mail can also make it more difficult for low-income voters, who are more likely to move, to stay on top of registration requirements, Gronke said.
Gronke said he believes states that conduct all elections via mail are able to do a better job making sure votes get counted. Voters in Oregon have also been voting by mail ballot since 1998 and have a better handle on the system, he said.
Voting rights activists aren't trumpeting mail-in voting as the best answer. Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, said increasing early voting is not a priority. Instead, the League has focused on expanding online registration and securing more days of in-person early voting, she said.
"Is that a true 21st century solution to modernizing our election process, given the fact that fewer and fewer people are using the mail?" MacNamara said. Of vote-by-mail, she said, "I'm not sure this is going to be a long-term solution."