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World's Strictest Airport Security? Forget Tel Aviv. Think Kashmir.

Peter Mandel   |   April 8, 2014    4:50 PM ET

The soldier and airport security guy are pointing, pointing. What do they want? Not my camera. Not my car clicker.

It's my pen. A Paper Mate soft grip. See-through plastic, flattened cap. Also -- I have no clue why -- my wallet. They ignore the I.D. and get to work on trying to strip out the little pockets that hold cards.

"Hey," I say. This brings instant reinforcements. Sullen faces. Khaki turbans. Guns under armpits, nightsticks stuck to hips.

My plane is loading but I'm taken out of line. I have a Wallet Thought: do these guys need a bribe?

It is April, a few years back. I am in Srinagar, in northern India. According to the signs this minor airfield is more scrupulous than Baghdad's. More tough than Tel Aviv. The "World's Strictest Airport Security" is at work.

I believe this boast. I only wish I could learn from the drill. Like almost anyone who flies these days, I'm easy. I'll do what I'm told if it will make planes safer. But being in Srinagar makes me realize: my obedience has limits. I want -- just a little -- to understand.

I've been frisked now four times but no one's glanced at my passport. As far as I can see, Osama Bin Laden himself would be welcome to board (though not his wallet or pen).

I'm one of a smattering of foreign tourists caught up in separatist shootings and grenade blasts in this city of Himalayan views. Srinagar is in the region of Kashmir -- nowadays split between India and Pakistan.

Militants are striving for statehood. I'm anxious to leave them, along with the sullen Indian soldiers and their security safeguards.

When I've walked on Srinagar streets, I've had to watch my step. Shoe-shine guys have bombed my Eddie Bauer boots, spilling mud and polishing it off for a fee. A man in large pajamas has enjoyed himself by trailing me around and trying to tear my sleeve.

The morning of my final day, I see a monkey on a wall. He's shaking a furry, clenched-up fist. I take this as a sign. I get the message. So long as I can get on a flight, I'm gone.

My suitcase is radioactive thanks to epic X-rays. At a checkpoint on the airport road. At the gate to the airport itself. Entering the terminal building. And, yet again, at check-in.

To top this off, I am informed that before any baggage makes it onto a plane, passengers must "identify" it out on the tarmac. You need a final stamp on your ticket stub and on a special tag.

The gate agent snatches my much smaller carry-on pack as soon as I arrive. She puts it on her scale. I snatch it back. It has a ring for my wife inside and I've heard stories about things being stolen, about bags that never arrive.

I lose the tug of war. "You are a man," she says. "It is forbidden for a man to bring any bag on the plane." This is when I first protest. It is when I have to give up my wallet and my pen.

What does any of this mean? I think. I imagine some militant in a field not far from the airport ready with his rifle or missile. I see a woman with her permitted carry-on: I envision it stuffed with explosives.

I hear an announcement: my "Jet Airways" flight to Delhi is closing.

I pull out two crumpled 500 Rupee notes (roughly 20 bucks). I watch the paper portrait of Gandhi as it passes from my hand to theirs.

It may be folds along his forehead, but I'm sure that Gandhi is unhappy. Angry at uniforms. Or frowning at what I have done.

There is a conference between caps and turbans. My cash is gone, but instead of heading to the gate, I'm marched to the side. Out through a service entrance where there is no one around.

I am thinking of trying to yell or make a run for it. One of the soldiers grips me by the arm and hauls me behind a pile of suitcases.

This may be it. I'm made to bend down.

"Now," says the soldier.

I get my pen back and my wallet. I am told to root around and find my smaller pack. What's this? I am allowed to bring it with me.

I have made it through the World's Strictest Airport Security. I get the final stamp on my ticket and let out a sigh of relief.

I understand now that security like this has meaning, has its cost. It's about the price of a Chicken Tikka dinner with dessert, a pot of tea and maybe some Indian wine.

I say a silent apology to Gandhi. I am out of Rupee portraits.

But I am going aboard.

* * *
Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).

  |   April 6, 2014    3:13 AM ET

By David Rosenberg

In early 2013, on a five-day assignment for the German magazine Stern, photographer Charles Ommanney traveled around the United States photographing Americans with their guns. Ommanney has built a career working as a political and documentary photographer and felt a responsibility to make a story that wasn’t just another “predictable NRA-bashing” type of series. He wanted to see “real” people to find out why they wanted to have guns in their homes. He also decided to shoot the project in a more engaged manner with his subjects instead of simply being a fly on the wall.


Ommanney said the project took him to six states in the Southern and Western United States, where he met people who owned guns for protection, as preparation for when things go “horribly wrong,” or simply because they like the beauty of weaponry. Instead of photographing the gun owners at a firing range or at a National Rifle Association conference, Ommanney wanted to capture them in their homes to create a sense of “normalcy.”

The British-born Ommanney was surprised by the ease at which the gun owners in America felt comfortable being photographed for this project. “I can’t imagine going around England and knocking on someone’s door and saying ‘I’d like to photograph you with your shotgun,’ ” Ommanney said. “They would look at me like I was a lunatic. But for these people, there was nothing in any shape or form abnormal about me wanting to do this; [their guns were] a perfectly normal extension of their lives.”

Ommanney’s favorite photos exhibit this idea of normalcy, including one of Loigrand De Angelis, who posed for Ommanney with his young son. “At first glance it’s just a dad with a baby in a Baby Bjorn on his chest, and then you take a second look and you see he’s strapped up with a 9mm just inches away from his baby—he never takes that thing off,” Ommanney said.

Another image, of teenager Elizabeth Lamont with her gun at home in Virginia, was remarkable for Ommanney because it contrasts Lamont’s innocence juxtaposed with a deadly weapon. Ommanney was struck by Lamont’s all-American looks and bedroom décor, as well as by her admitting doubt about whether she could actually fire a weapon at another person if she needed to. “That a 17-year-old girl could even be thinking about that is so foreign to me,” Ommaney said.

From an elderly woman who kept a gun because her mother had been murdered to a family with two young girls who were well-versed at stripping down an M16 assault rifle, Ommanney’s series is a striking cross-section of gun ownership in America.

See more photos on Slate.

PAUL ELIAS   |   April 5, 2014   12:57 PM ET

The San Diego County sheriff denied Edward Peruta a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Christopher Haga's gun collection was seized, and he was charged with crimes after he was mistakenly linked to a theft of assault weapons from a Fresno-area military base.

The National Rifle Association then lent legal assistance to both men as part of its aggressive legal and political campaign to blunt gun controls across the nation.

Emboldened by a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that upstanding Americans have the fundamental right to keep guns in their homes, the NRA has involved itself in hundreds of legal cases, many in California.

That case "unleashed a torrent of litigation," said University of California, Los Angeles Law School professor Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert.

Much of it is either started by the NRA or supported by the organization, which offers financial assistance and legal help to people embroiled in lawsuits and legal trouble because they own guns.

Winkler said the latest legal battle over the Second Amendment centers on expanding the right to carry guns outside the home, which is why the NRA is representing Peruta and several other gun owners who are challenging restrictions blocking permission to carry concealed firearms in public.

Peruta filed a lawsuit in 2009 after the San Diego County sheriff rejected his application for a concealed-weapons permit because Peruta failed to show he had a "good cause" to carry a gun outside his home. Peruta owns a motocross track in Connecticut, but he and his wife spend many months each year in San Diego living in their recreational vehicle.

Peruta said he wanted permission to carry a gun weapon for protection, but the sheriff and California law said he needed a better reason, such as that his occupation exposes him to robbery.

"I'm not a hunter. I'm not a collector or a target shooter," Peruta said. "I'm not a gun crazy. But I do want to protect myself."

After a federal judge refused to toss out the lawsuit in 2010, the NRA took over the case for Peruta. "The NRA is the 800-pound gorilla in this fight," he said.

In February, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, citing the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling, struck down California's "good cause" requirement, ruling that self-defense was a good enough reason to issue a concealed-weapons permit.

The California attorney general and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are seeking to overturn that decision after San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said he would abide by the court decision.

"The issue is important: As a result of the decision, residents and visitors will be subjected to the increased risk posed by the carrying of loaded, hidden handguns on the streets of San Diego County by persons with no good cause to do so," a lawyer for the Brady organization wrote in a court filing seeking permission to formally oppose Peruta and the NRA in an appeal.

The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut --where a gunman used an assault rifle to kill 20 children and six others-- led some cities and states to enact laws banning high-capacity magazines, and the NRA countered with lawsuits.

So far, federal judges across the country have unanimously rejected the NRA's legal challenges to these bans. Federal judges in recent weeks have upheld bans enacted by San Francisco and Sunnyvale, a Silicon Valley suburb about 40 miles to the south.

"California has always been sort of one of the front-line states," said Chuck Michel, a Long Beach lawyer who represents the NRA in many of its California-based cases. Michel said the NRA and other Second Amendment advocates have filed "a whole slew of lawsuits" using the 2008 high court ruling to challenge gun-control laws enacted after Sandy Hook.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the group has always involved itself in furthering gun rights in court, but that legal challenges have increased since 2008.

NRA has been involved in "hundreds of cases" and spends "tens of millions" of dollars out of its $300 million annual budget on legal issues, Arulanandam said.

Among the cases is a lawsuit to repeal a Connecticut law that went into effect Monday, requiring a state license to buy rifles. Another is a challenge to New Jersey's concealed-weapons law, which is similar to California's.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear two NRA-backed cases. One sought to overturn a federal law barring licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to anyone under 21; the other was a Texas law barring people under 21 from carrying concealed weapons.

The NRA employs about two dozen in-house lawyers and hires many more outside lawyers -- including former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement -- to do battle in courtrooms across the country. It not only takes on weighty constitutional issues seeking to broaden the reach of the Second Amendment but also helps people who find themselves in trouble with the law because they own guns.

The NRA provided financial assistance and legal counsel to Christopher Haga, a gun collector who owns an auto shop in the Central Valley town of Parlier.

In 2011, Haga allowed federal firearms agents to search his house after they were tipped he had some of the 26 AK-74 assault rifles recently stolen from Fort Irwin, Calif. Haga's lawyer Mark Coleman said his client had no connection to the theft and consented to the search after agents assured him they only were interested in stolen guns. After finding none, the investigators left -- but they told Fresno police Haga had types of assault rifles prohibited by California law.

Following that tip, Fresno police searched Haga's home and business and seized his gun collection. He was later charged with 35 felony gun counts.

With legal support and money from the NRA, Coleman challenged the legality of the guns search, and a judge sided with him. The district attorney dropped all charges late last year and returned Haga's guns. Haga agreed to remove two of his AK-74s and a submachine gun from California.

The case was more about search-and-seizure laws than expanding gun rights, Coleman said. "But the NRA's help was still valuable," he said.

Mental Illness and Guns Aren't the Enemy: Ignorance Is

Paul Heroux   |   April 3, 2014    5:46 PM ET

America is saddened by the tragic shooting a Fort Hood on April 2, 2014. The loss of life of anyone is difficult but there is an added level of tragedy when it hits our service members in what should be a safe zone. We can never know what the families of the victims must feel. The family of the shooter is undoubtedly grieving, too.

The focus of many of the news and media stories surrounding this shooting has been to highlight that the shooter, identified as Ivan Lopez by Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been said to have had struggles with mental illness. An Iraq War veteran, it is reported that Lopez sought mental health treatment. It is also reported that Lopez saw no combat. It may never be known what role mental illness did or didn't play in this shooting, but it is important to remember that mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence.

This salient aspect of Lopez -- his mental health status -- is often looked at first as a reason for why someone goes on a shooting rampage. While this may be a factor, it is important to keep in mind that:

  • Most people living with a mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general population.

  • People living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent themselves

  • People living with mental illness may become violent because of the way they are improperly treated; it may be a reaction. Other times, a medication may be responsible for a difference in rates of violence in people with mental illness.

Mental illness has been a reason for the NRA to say that gun control should not be the focus after a high profile shooting. I agree with the NRA that top down gun policy isn't effective, but I disagree with the notion that people with mental illness should be treated differently, be it if we are talking about employment, rights or access to guns. The issue with access to guns should not be if the person has a mental illness or not. The issue should be if the person is a danger to oneself and/or a danger to others. That should be the focus. Not if the person has a mental illness.

On the one hand, the several high profile shootings have brought attention to the importance of mental health, I am not sure if these shootings have done so in an effective way. What we should have is compassion and understanding associated with mental illness, not fear.

The issue at Fort Hood may be one of a base policy with respect to access to guns on the base. It may be an issue of the politics of the shooter. It may be one of premeditation and criminal intent or revenge. It may also be one of mental illness. It could be any number of these or other issues in conjunction with one another that are responsible for this recent tragedy.

It is unfortunate that high profile shootings are misinforming -- intentionally or unintentionally -- the public about the relationship between violence and mental illness.

The point of this article is to remind people to keep things in perspective. The incidence of violence among people living with mental illness is extremely low. We should be focused on our misinformation, misconceptions and misunderstanding of mental illness more than we are about the odds of people living with mental illness hurting someone.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Mental Health & Substance Abuse. Paul has a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC, a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

For more on mental health, click here.

For more by Paul Heroux, click here.

Do We Have a Gang Problem or a Gun Problem?

Evan DeFilippis   |   April 3, 2014    1:40 PM ET

Co-authored with Devin Hughes

In a scathing critique of ABC's recent report "Young Guns," Dana Loesch stated that most gun deaths were the result of gang violence; therefore, America has a gang problem, not a gun problem. Her claim appears to be supported by sites positing that "a staggering 80 percent of gun homicides are gang-related." As it turns out though, not only is her statement factually incorrect, as the majority of gun deaths are suicides, but there is not a shred of evidence to support her characterization that gangs are the driving force behind firearm violence.

Unfortunately, Dana Loesch's sentiment is shared by many gun advocates, including the Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, who, when opposing firearm background checks said, "President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers."

So, do we have a gang problem or a gun problem? Data collected by the National Gang Center, the government agency responsible for cataloging gang violence, makes clear that it's the latter. There were 1,824 gang-related killings in 2011. This total includes deaths by means other than a gun. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds this number to be even lower, identifying a little more than 1,000 gang-related homicides in 2008. In comparison, there were 11,101 homicides and 19,766 suicides committed with firearms in 2011.

According to the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the number of gangs and gang members has been on the rise for some time now, increasing by more than one-third in the past decade. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, there was a 3 percent increase in the number of gangs, but an 8 percent decrease in gang-related homicides. If gang violence was truly driving the gun homicide rate, we should not see gang membership and gun homicide rates moving in opposite directions.

The most recent Centers for Disease Control study on this subject lends further credence to our claim. It examined five cities that met the criterion for having a high prevalence of gang homicides: Los Angeles, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Long Beach, California; Oakland, California; and Newark, New Jersey. In these cities, a total of 856 gang and 2,077 non-gang homicides were identified and included in the analyses. So, even when examining cities with the largest gang problems, gang homicides only accounted for 29 percent of the total for the period under consideration (2003-2008). For the nation as a whole it would be much smaller.

The 80 percent of gang-related gun homicides figure purporting to support Loesch's claim, then, is not only false, but off by nearly a factor of five. The direct opposite is necessarily true: more than 80 percent of gun homicides are non-gang related. While gang violence is still a serious problem that needs to be addressed, it is disingenuous to assert that the vast majority of our gun problem (even excluding suicides) is caused by gangs.

In spite of this, LaPierre's proposed solution to gun violence is to "contact every U.S. Attorney and ask them to bring at least 10 cases per month against drug dealers, gang members and other violent felons caught illegally possessing firearms."

That same CDC study, however, also refutes LaPierre's claim that the drug trade is fueling gun-violence, saying, "the proportion of gang homicides resulting from drug trade/use or with other crimes in progress was consistently low in the five cities, ranging from zero to 25 percent."

Furthermore, a 2005 study done by Cook, Ludwig and Braga found that nearly three in five homicide offenders in Illinois in 2001 did not have a felony conviction within the 10 years prior to the homicide. Looking at just violent felons excludes a huge subset of potential criminals that become violent in the presence of a firearm.

Gun advocates' blind focus on gangs, drugs and violent felons overlooks the larger gun problem facing America. It is irresponsible and disingenuous for some of us to brush off our staggering death toll from firearms merely as the product of gangs or even violent criminals. Recognizing America's high homicide rate for what it is -- a gun problem -- is the first step in solving it.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Do More Guns Cause More Suicide?

Evan DeFilippis   |   March 27, 2014    7:52 PM ET

Suicide Barriers and Gun Control

Less than three months after the Golden Gate Bridge opened, the first known suicide took place. Since then, over 1,500 people have taken their lives by jumping off the bridge, making the site one of the most popular suicide sites in the world. Calls for the construction of an anti-suicide barrier have been rejected by policymakers who argue that those committed to suicide will inevitably do so -- they will, after all, "just go somewhere else."

A famous study sought to challenge this contention, tracking 515 persons who were prevented from committing suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. The study found that 90 ninety percent of people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge did not go on to commit suicide. The findings support the idea that suicides are often "crisis-oriented" in nature, and that failed attempts often lead to a renewed commitment to living.

Despite this fact, the same bad arguments forwarded by politicians against suicide barriers are being used by the National Rifle Association to challenge gun regulation. This insistence by gun advocates that suicide is a foregone conclusion is not only factually incorrect, but incredibly dangerous because it impedes the most useful strategy for preventing suicide -- means reduction.

If barriers on bridges can significantly reduce the suicide rate, why can't barriers to accessing firearms do as well?

The Impulsiveness of Suicide

An impulsive suicide is one for which there is very little preparation prior the attempt. A 2001 study, using the Beck's Suicidal Intent Scale, examined 478 individuals who attempted suicide, and found that more than half (55 percent) of attempts could be classified as "impulsive," while only about one-sixth (17 percent) of attempts were premeditated. One study found that 40 percent of suicide attempt survivors contemplated suicide for less than five minutes before the attempt.

Another study examined self-inflicted gunshot wounds that would have been fatal in the absence of emergency treatment. The researchers found that none of the 30 individuals who attempted suicide had written a note, and more than half of them said that the thought to commit suicide occurred within 24 hours of the attempt. In a two-year follow up, none of the 30 had attempted suicide again, and the overwhelming sentiment among the group was that they were happy to be alive.

The data is clear, then, that there's nothing "inevitable" about a suicide, nothing predictable about impulsiveness. To turn a blind eye to suicide based on the pretense that they'll "just try again" demonstrates a profound ignorance of the psychology of suicide, and a callous unwillingness to consider the struggle of another human being.

The Data

The latest available data on suicide rates, published by the Centers for Disease Control, shows that 38,364 suicides occurred in the United States in 2010 -- an average of 105 each day. This made suicide the tenth leading cause of death for all age groups.

More people kill themselves with guns than all other methods combined. Males are at particularly high risk of firearm suicide, given that guns account for 56 percent of male suicides, but 32 percent of female suicides. Firearms tend to be the weapon of choice for a suicide given their lethality factor -- for example, one study from Dallas found that, of those attempting suicide with a gun, 76 percent died.

Dr. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health summarized 10 studies in the previous 20 years examining the relationship between gun ownership and suicide and found that "all [of them] find that firearms in the home are associated with substantially and significantly higher rates of suicide."

Furthermore, every single case-control study done in the United States has found the presence of a firearm is a strong risk factor for suicide. (That's
24 separate studies).

The most recent case-control study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found at least five reasons to believe that firearm ownership is driving the suicide rate:

  1. The association between firearm availability and suicide is robust to adjustments for measures of psychopathology and aggregate-level measures of suicidality such as depression, mental illness, alcoholism, poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse.
  2. The risk of suicide extends beyond just the gun owner to all members of a household, and lasts for years after the firearm has been purchased.
  3. The rates of psychiatric illness and suicidal tendencies is similar in households with and without firearms across the United States.
  4. Multiple ecological studies have confirmed the results of individual-level studies to show aggregate-level trends in suicide rates.
  5. Suicide attempts are not significantly associated with firearm ownership rates. If it were the case that gun owners had stronger suicidal proclivities than non-gun owners we would expect the suicide attempt rate to be positively associated with the firearm ownership rate, but it isn't. This means that the primary way through which firearms influence the suicide rate is by making each attempt comparatively more lethal than other methods.

There is little controversy, then, that firearms exacerbate the suicide rate primarily by increasing the likelihood of a "successful" suicide attempt. Discussion about suicide should be at the forefront of gun control debates, yet it is often a footnote in meaningful policy discussion. This reflects poorly on our nation's priorities -- it shows a cruel insensitivity to the value of human life, and a miscalibrated sense of morality which says that change is only worth having if it benefits me.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Armed, Locked and Loaded: The Worst and Most Intimidating Gun States

Leonard Steinhorn   |   March 21, 2014   12:36 PM ET

No one should feel safe in the following states. And it is time to take a stand and do something about it.

These are states with the most Wild West gun laws where you are most likely to encounter someone -- anyone -- with a gun: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi.

It is legal in these states for people with absolutely no training to walk around armed and to carry their guns openly in the streets.

It is legal in these states to bring loaded guns into gambling establishments, sporting events and restaurants that serve alcohol. It is legal in these states to carry weapons into stores and shopping malls, and in some cases even onto college campuses and into bars and houses of worship.

In all of these states, it is legal to shoot first and claim self-defense much the way George Zimmerman did with Trayvon Martin and hundreds of others have done in less publicized cases.

And in all of these states, their background laws -- if they even exist -- are so full of loopholes that someone with a criminal record, a drug or drinking problem, or a history of mental illness can obtain a gun.

These are states of intimidation, where every one of us must wonder if the guy over there with a gun might pull the trigger because he's angry, under the influence, troubled, mentally ill or simply ticked off.

And it's all because of grossly permissive gun laws that allow almost anyone to walk around anywhere locked and loaded.

We've all seen the stories in the news, almost daily. Text your child during movie previews and it could kill you. Shop at a mall and it could cost you your life. Look suspicious to someone for any reason whatsoever and it could get you shot. Have a disagreement and it ends with a bullet.

Look at the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports: We are 30 percent more likely to die from guns used in arguments and alcohol-related conflicts than from robberies, burglaries, drug crimes and gangs.

What does that tell us? That as much as we fear common criminals, we may face an even larger threat from citizens who are allowed to carry guns almost anywhere and anytime.

It's no consolation that before many of these shooters pulled the trigger, they were once law-abiding citizens. That's irrelevant. What's relevant is that they were allowed to carry around and wield a lethal weapon, and because of that someone's life was cut short.

Of course, a gun can maim or murder in any state. But it's the states with higher population densities and virtually no restrictions on who can obtain a gun and walk around armed that pose the greatest threat.

That characterizes every state listed here -- Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi. And that is why no one should feel safe in these states.

Over the last four decades, guns have claimed the lives of about 1.4 million Americans -- more than all the Americans who have died in wars.

It is time to stand up to the gun lobby and tell the states most in their thrall exactly what you think: I don't feel safe in your state. Sign this petition and make your voice heard.

It's Time to Hold Accountable Advocates Who, in Pursuit of Their Values, Put Us at Risk

David Ropeik   |   March 19, 2014   10:47 PM ET

By 2002 golden rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the vitamin-A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed over all financial interests to a nonprofit organization so that there would be no resistance to the lifesaving technology from GMO (genetically modified organism) opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, golden rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from vitamin-A deficiency.

It's still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM (genetic modification) technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study estimates that the delayed application of golden rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd-sounding metric -- not just lives but "life years" -- actually not only accounts for those who died but quantifies the blindness and other health disabilities that vitamin-A deficiency causes. (The full name of the metric they used is "disability-adjusted life years," or DALYs.) The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to golden rice were children.

These are real deaths, real disability, real suffering, not the phantom fears about the health effects of golden rice thrown around by opponents, none of which have held up to objective scientific scrutiny. It is absolutely fair to charge that opposition to this particular application of genetically modified food has contributed to the deaths of and injuries to millions of people. The opponents of golden rice who have caused this harm should be held accountable.

That includes Greenpeace, which, in its values statement, promises that "we are committed to nonviolence," only their nonviolent opposition to golden rice contributes directly to real human death and suffering. It includes the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, which claims the credibility of scientific expertise and then denies or distorts scientific evidence in order to oppose GMOs. It includes the U.S. Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club and several environmental groups, who deny and distort the scientific evidence on GM foods every bit as much as they complain that the deniers of climate-change science do. It includes the Non-GMO Project, started by natural-food retailers who oppose a technology that just happens to threaten their profits.

Society needs groups like Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to hold big companies accountable when they put their profits before our health, as they too often do. But society also has the right to hold advocates accountable when they let their passions blind them to the facts and, in pursuit of their values, put us at risk. Let's be absolutely clear: That is precisely what opposition to genetic modification of food is doing, as the study of the golden-rice delay in India makes sobering clear.

And golden rice is just one example. There are several other applications of GM technology that could contribute to food security and reduce hunger and starvation. Skeptics like the Union of Concerned Scientists criticize GM technology for not having fulfilled this promise. But that's because opposition has prevented most of these products from coming to the market in the first place. It's pretty tough to keep a promise you're not allowed to try to keep in the first place. Opposition to several GMO applications, based on fears that don't stand up against evidence from extensive safety testing, is denying people food and nutrition and doing real harm.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk-perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, "risk is a feeling." So societal arguments over risk issues like golden rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group's values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That's a dumb and dangerous way to make public-risk-management decisions.

When advocates get so passionate in the fight for their values that they potentially impose harm on others, it puts us all at risk, and we have the right to call attention to those potential harms and hold those advocates accountable. And this is much broader than just GMOs:

  • Delay on dealing with climate change exposes us all to much greater risk. We should hold responsible those whose ideologically driven denial of climate change is responsible for some of that risk.
  • Resistance to anything to make it harder for bad guys to get guns puts us all at risk. Society should hold responsible the paranoid arch-conservatism that has created resistance to any prudent gun control and contributed to that risk.
  • Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids put others in their communities at risk. They certainly should be held accountable for this, and in some places, that's beginning. Several states are trying to pass laws making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids.

To hold advocacy groups accountable, people could refuse to belong to or financially support these groups, and thus avoid personally contributing to the harm. They could belong to the groups but protest certain positions from within. They could choose to stand up to these groups in public meetings and respectfully challenge them to answer for the negative consequences and tradeoffs of what these groups espouse. A more skeptical press could challenge these groups about the harm that some of their positions can cause. Scientists can provide hard evidence about the negative impacts of the positions of these groups, as this new economic study does.

Governments can hold advocates accountable if they are threatening public health. The Australian government just rescinded the tax-exempt status of an anti-vaccine group on the grounds that their misinformation was putting children at risk. (This is a dangerously slippery slope, however, and calls for caution. Vaccines are an easy example. GMOs, guns, and most other issues are not so black-and-white.)

Scientists can also hold advocates accountable by demanding reasoned debate, in public forums, as GMO researchers did recently in the UK. When anti-GMO groups threatened to trash field trials of GM wheat, researchers invited them to debate the issue first, in public, with this challenge to open-mindedness:

You have described genetically modified crops as "not properly tested." Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. ... We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason.

Anti-GMO protestors, who claimed that they were just trying to "take back the flour," first accepted, and then refused. The British press and many in the public held them accountable, rejecting the advocates' closed-mindedness.

This needs to continue, and expand, on GMOs and any other emotional risk issue. Our values must always have a place in these debates, but when those values cause people to become so closed-minded and absolute that they deny or distort the evidence and refuse to acknowledge the harmful consequences that our values can sometimes produce, it is fair for society to hold those advocates accountable for pursuing things so stridently that they are putting the larger community at greater risk.

This blog post originally appeared on the Scientific American blog.

The Second Amendment: A Symbol of Freedom or an Invitation to Violence?

John W. Whitehead   |   March 17, 2014    3:39 PM ET

You can largely determine where a person will fall in the debate over gun control and the Second Amendment based on their view of government and the role it should play in our lives.

Those who want to see government as a benevolent parent looking out for our best interests tend to interpret the Second Amendment's "militia" reference as applying only to the military.

To those who see the government as inherently corrupt, the Second Amendment is a means of ensuring that the populace will always have a way of defending themselves against threats to their freedoms.

And then there are those who view the government as neither good nor evil, but merely a powerful entity that, as Thomas Jefferson recognized, must be bound "down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." To this group, the right to bear arms is no different from any other right enshrined in the Constitution, to be safeguarded, exercised prudently and maintained.

Unfortunately, as I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, while these three divergent viewpoints continue to jockey for supremacy, the U.S. government has adopted a "do what I say, not what I do" mindset when it comes to Americans' rights overall. Nowhere is this double standard more evident than in the government's attempts to arm itself to the teeth, all the while viewing as suspect anyone who dares to legally own a gun, let alone use one.

Indeed, while it still technically remains legal to own a firearm in America, possessing one can now get you pulled over, searched, arrested, subjected to all manner of surveillance, treated as a suspect without ever having committed a crime, shot at and killed. (This same rule does not apply to law enforcement officials, however, who are armed to the hilt and rarely given more than a slap on the wrists for using their weapons against unarmed individuals.)

Meanwhile, the government's efforts to militarize and weaponize its agencies and employees is reaching epic proportions, with federal agencies as varied as the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration placing orders for hundreds of millions of rounds of hollow point bullets, and local police agencies being "gifted" with military-grade weaponry and equipment from the Defense Department.

Ironically, while the Obama administration continues its efforts to "pass the broadest gun control legislation in a generation," the U.S. military boasts some weapons the rest of the world doesn't have. Included in its arsenal are an AA12 Atchisson Assault Shotgun that can shoot five 12-gauge shells per second and "can fire up to 9,000 rounds without being cleaned or jamming"; a Taser shockwave that can electrocute a crowd of people at the touch of a button; an XM2010 enhanced sniper rifle with built-in sound and flash suppressors that can hit a man-sized target nine out of ten times from over a third of a mile away; and an XM25 "Punisher" grenade launcher that can be programmed to accurately shoot grenades at a target up to 500 meters away.

Talk about a double standard. The government's arsenal of weapons makes the average American's handgun look like a Tinker Toy.

It's no laughing matter, and yet the joke is on us. "We the people" have been so focused on debating whether the Second Amendment "allows" us to own guns that we've overlooked the most important and most consistent theme throughout the Constitution: the fact that it is not merely an enumeration of our rights but was intended to be a clear shackle on the government's powers.

As such, the Second Amendment reads as a clear rebuke against any attempt to restrict the citizenry's gun ownership. It is as necessary an ingredient for maintaining that tenuous balance between the citizenry and their republic as any of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, especially the right to freedom of speech, assembly, press, petition, security, and due process.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas understood this tension well. "The Constitution is not neutral," he remarked, "It was designed to take the government off the backs of people." In this way, the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights in their entirety stand as a bulwark against a police state. Without any one of these freedoms, including the Second Amendment right to own and bear arms, we are that much more vulnerable to the vagaries of out-of-control policemen, benevolent dictators, genuflecting politicians, and overly ambitious bureaucrats.

When all is said and done, the debate over gun ownership in America is really a debate over who gets to call the shots and control the game. In other words, it's that same tug-of-war that keeps getting played out in every confrontation between the government and the citizenry over who gets to be the master and who is relegated to the part of the servant.

The Constitution is clear on this particular point, with its multitude of prohibitions on government overreach. As 20th century libertarian Edmund A. Opitz observed in 1964, "No one can read our Constitution without concluding that the people who wrote it wanted their government severely limited; the words 'no' and 'not' employed in restraint of government power occur 24 times in the first seven articles of the Constitution and 22 more times in the Bill of Rights."

In a nutshell, then, the Second Amendment's right to bear arms reflects not only a concern for one's personal defense, but serves as a check on the political power of the ruling authorities. It represents an implicit warning against governmental encroachments on one's freedoms, the warning shot over the bow to discourage any unlawful violations of our persons or property. As such, it reinforces that necessary balance in the citizen-state relationship.

As George Orwell noted, "That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer's cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there."

A longer version of this commentary is available on The Rutherford Institute's website.

Bullet Holes in the Bill of Rights

David Katz, M.D.   |   March 17, 2014   10:53 AM ET

This will be brief: I find it incredible, and deeply disheartening, that the confirmation of our next U.S. Surgeon General may come undone because Dr. Vivek Murthy has expressed his support for widely favored gun control measures, such as an assault weapons ban.

Now, before you start taking shots at me -- let's be clear: I am not writing about gun control today. I have done that before, and weathered the attendant barrage. Today, I am writing about bills, not bullets; dialogue, not Derringers.

The most ardent proponents of gun rights and the most impassioned advocates for gun control are obligated to come together and acknowledge the relevance of the Bill of Rights. Interpretations of the Second Amendment vary, but the fundamental relevance of the Bill of Rights and its amendments to the ineluctable aspects of being American do not. We are American. These are our rights.

So here's my problem: On what basis do we invoke the Second Amendment to put bullet holes in the First? Dr. Murthy as Surgeon General would have no policy-making authority at all. No Surgeon General, not even the most activist, has had anything whatever to do with gun laws. The likelihood of any such thing is so remote as to be laughable. One Surgeon General was terminated because she used the word "masturbation" in a speech.

So what this really comes down to is the tolerance of our culture for the expression of opinions, or in other words, expression of our First Amendment rights. Dr. Murthy is a public health physician. Given the relevant epidemiology, that a public health physician would express support for curtailing the distribution of high-capacity, semi-automatic weapons is far from surprising. That he has the right to do so is codified in our Constitution, and perhaps it's even relevant that it comes before, not after, the right to bear arms. Freedom of speech is the First Amendment.

We may differ or agree on what we think the Second Amendment means, or what we wish it meant, or what we prefer to do about it. But we are obligated to agree that the Second Amendment does not have primacy over the First. If political deference to the NRA is causing us to repudiate the expression of opinion unrelated to policy, then we are allowing the Second Amendment to put bullet holes in the First. And wherever we stand on gun control, that redounds to our collective shame.


Dr. David L. Katz;

Author, Disease Proof

Guns and Jesus (Not to Mention Mohammed)

Clay Farris Naff   |   March 14, 2014    8:49 AM ET

Grace Baptist Church in upstate New York, following the lead of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, is giving away an AR-15 assault rifle -- you know, the kind that killed kids at Sandy Hook Elementary.
What does it say about a church when gives away an assault rifle as a door prize?

All that and more. In trying to lure gun-hungry men back to the Bible, these fundamentalist churches demonstrate one thing fo' sho': Old Time Religion in America has fallen into the same snake pit as Islamism.

Delusional, in its understanding of theology and of contemporary American society. Jesus had his moments of anger, and he apparently said some weird things about swords, but the worst violence he could be charged with is withering a fig tree.

Yet, see this thread on for a lengthy discussion under the subject line: "What would Jesus shoot?" Be sure to scroll down to the illustration of Jesus teaching a young boy how to handle a handgun.

It's a double delusion, because the external threat of violence has never been lower. Violent crime in America has plummeted. Gun ownership has likewise fallen to historic lows -- except among white Republicans and evangelicals, who largely overlap. What this means is that many of those who (mistakenly) feel the need to own guns for protection actually put themselves at risk by doing so. Nearly 100 people a day die of suicide in America. Most of them are men, most of them are conservatives, and most of them die by pulling the trigger of their own guns.

Desperate, because Christianity has lost its grip on our culture. Americans are abandoning churches like never before, and youth are leading the way. A third of the young have bailed out on religion. Why? A major reason is the incessant anti-gay hatred preached by churches like those cited above. A new study finds that nearly 70 percent of Americans ages 18 to 33 accept gay marriage. Sorry, bubbas, giving away guns won't "cure" that.

Dangerous, because the endless churning of fear, resentment, and twisted idealism in the cauldron of Old Time Religion stirs up an old and hideous wraith: fascism. That may seem out of place in liberty-loving America, but if the jackboot fits...

And it does. The celebrations of gun-toting violence, the radical revision of history into self-justifying myth, the casting of an inability to impose religious rules on all Americans as a loss of religious freedom, the self-pitying grievances, the venomous attacks on women, foreigners, Muslims, Jews, gays, and the calls for insurrection -- all these and more are hallmarks of a fascist movement.

Curiously, this is where Islamist fascism comes in. It matches up almost perfectly, including savage attacks on fellow (Shi'a) Muslims. If a picture's worth a thousand words, a click on this link should be worth twice that, because you'll soon find images of Jesus and Osama bin Laden each posing with a rifle. Really, fellas? That's who you want to model your savior after?

Only fear, and the exploitation of fear, could produce such monstrosities. Human nature has many dark corners, but the fear of humiliation lies in one of its deepest recesses. Humiliation prompts the most irrational, violent, and destructive reactions. The reason's not hard to grasp.

At the risk of oversimplification, let's glance at this through an evolutionary lens. We are social yet sexually competitive creatures. Hence, our access to resources, including mates, is largely determined by our social status. Celebrity, even for something as trivial as being a Kardashian, pays. No wonder, then, that we constantly and anxiously monitor our social standing among our peers, and the social standing of our peer group. Unfortunately, some use the humiliation of others to boost their own status. And humiliation, I believe, is the wellspring of fascism.

For some -- especially men raised in an "honor" culture -- humiliation is worse than death. No wonder, then, that Nazism grew out of a toxic brew of Prussian honor, Aryan myth, and the all-too-real humiliation imposed by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I. No wonder that Islamo-fascism grew out of the extreme honor culture of desert tribes, a crushing loss of status in being colonized following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Caliphate restoration myth.

And no wonder that Christo-fascism is taking shape before our eyes as white men steeped in biblical fundamentalism, John Wayne movies, and the honor culture of the Old South find their status as top dogs in our society losing all credibility.

White men? I generally scorn that kind of reductionism. But it's true. Sarah Palin apart, it becomes clearer by the day that women are bailing out of the comically misogynistic GOP. As for minorities, well, let's just say that Bobby Jindal must be feeling mighty lonely these days.

But here's the thing: It's not that white men in America are actually worse off. In fact, Tea Party types tend to be in that affluent class whose incomes have been rising. Their political power is far greater than their numbers, because of fanatical pressure groups like the NRA, the immense wealth various rightwing billionaires put at their disposal, and that blunt truth that fear pays at the polls.

Cynical manipulators get this. There are fortunes, both political and monetary, to be made by persuading anxious people that they are being humiliated by smart-ass elites and lazy, unworthy minorities. And there is no more convenient path to such anxious people than through the wide-open doors of a fundamentalist church. Giving out guns just saves an extra trip.

  |   March 12, 2014    5:28 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has denied an emergency request by the National Rifle Association to block enforcement of a California city ordinance that bans gun magazines capable of holding more than 10 bullets.

A court spokesman says Kennedy denied the request without comment.

Fake Fights About Big Forces

Mary Ellen Hannibal   |   March 10, 2014    6:10 PM ET

Oh dear, I thought this morning upon reading "Is the Wolf a Real American Hero?," an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Arthur Middleton, a post-doctoral student. This is going to make lots of people hopping mad, and for no good reason. It comes on the heels of another challenge to the trophic cascade theory in Nature, by writer Emma Marris. Her piece is "Rethinking Predators," and like Middleton, most of her evidence actually supports the assertion that carnivores at the top of the food chain have a big effect on what comes below. Yet both Marris and Middleton frame their pieces as take-downs of science done by scores scientists over decades of peer-reviewed research.

I first learned about trophic cascades while working on my book, The Spine of the Continent. I hung out with a bunch of researchers on a "science hunt" at a ranch in Colorado. There is a sentiment among some ranchers that scientists are all against hunting, and this is not the case; so the annual science hunt is something of a public relations event to demonstrate that people with PhDs also shoot large animals. They don't usually shoot top predators though -- they go for ungulates like elk and deer, and largely profess to shooting only what they will eventually eat. We're all part of the food web, after all.

One of the younger researchers on the science hunt told me he had reservations about the idea that the top predator in an ecosystem has such a big effect on all the interactions that go on in it. Bottom up forces, starting with the plants that photosynthesize sunlight, to him represent a bigger lever in nature. Fair enough, right? I for one, am completely able to hold in my mind the concept that both top down and bottom up are at work here.

Recently I interviewed Justin Brashares, a U.C. Berkeley professor who has studied trophic cascades very closely. Brashares' most recent research concerns not the top or the bottom but the middle of the trophic connection ('trophic' by the way, means 'food,' and cascade, of course, means to fall). With other researchers he's studying the effects of losing hippos in an ecosystem. Hippos are herbivores and in Brashares' study site they forage at night and poop in their water in the day. The aquatic result is thronging with biodiversity that disappears when the hippos go away. Doesn't it just make even more common sense that OF COURSE the middle of the food chain is important too?

It's fine, of course, to look under the hood of received wisdom, to challenge ideas that have become convention. But why take this big fake pose against decades of science? In the case of Middleton's piece, there are simply truckloads of research showing that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has restored ecological resilience there. Middleton says the wolves haven't restored Yellowstone to what it was before predators were removed. Okay, but does that mean that they're dispensable? His challenge implies as much. He glosses over the very fact he recounts, which is that yes, wolves have had a big effect on the Yellowstone ecosystem.

There are better windmills to be tilting at. The rest of us don't need to have absolutes declared about nature. Is the predator absolutely the big force, or is the vegetation absolutely the big force? Wait a minute, maybe the hippos are the big force? The point is all of the players in the ecosystem are important. It's a cycle. It's an interaction. It's a "tangled bank," as Darwin put it. We are pulling some of the tangle out at a greater rate than we are pulling out others. Top predators are under siege. Usually they are most directly threatened by ignorant, disenfranchised, underemployed white men who have a lot of guns. Now it seems, journalists and academics are finding them an easy shot too.

Steaks, Guns and God

Lester & Charlie   |   March 6, 2014    3:27 PM ET

This week's poll from the Lester & Charlie Institute of Forward Thinking!

Aeons ago, when your faithful, intrepid reporters Lester & Charlie were wee lads, we asked the nuns in charge of us at school: "Does God have a sense of humor?"

Those nuns, not ones to be out-sassed by sassy toddlers, were prepared with an answer. After the obligatory, "Of course he does. He made you, didn't he?" the nuns were more thoughtful: "God couldn't give you anything he didn't have himself," they said.

The wisdom of those nuns has seemed in sharp relief these days. Just last week, we told you about that guy in Michigan who shot himself in the head trying to demonstrate to his girlfriend that guns aren't that dangerous. And we told you about the man in Iraq who blew up an entire class of suicide-bomber wannabes while trying to show them how to use explosives to kill a whole bunch of unsuspecting people. Which, we suppose, is exactly what he did.

If God really does have a sense of humor, we're pretty sure he's laughing his ass off.

Naturally, we don't expect modern-day Christians to recognize any of these stories as proof of God's divine and hilarious intervention in the daily lives of us mere humans. That's saved for things like hurricanes and floods that hit states that happen to vote Democratic. (When they hit Red States, it's the Devil's work.)

But if it's true that God can't give us anything he can't give himself, can he also give himself a coronary from laughing too much?

That's the question we'd love to ask those nuns after reading about the Baptist church in Kentucky that has an ingenious idea about how to lure more Kentuckians into church to hear the word of God: Free guns!

Yes, guns. In what the Lone Oak Baptist Church in Paducah is calling an "outreach to rednecks" (really!), the 1,000 or so godless citizens who show up at the event will get a free steak dinner and a chance to win handguns, long guns and shotguns in an awesome raffle. And a chance to convert. Because, of course, the church insists its "main goal" isn't really to arm more citizens of Kentucky -- what it really wants is "to share the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Which struck some other church people as... odd. "How ironic," said the Rev. Joe Phelps of Louisville, pointing out the Biblical message of "putting away the sword." "The churches should stay out of the ways in which people can kill each other," said another Kentuckian, Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, ignoring what the people at the Lone Oak obviously know: If the Prince of Peace isn't enough to draw the heathens in, you gotta get creative!

And, apparently, it works! Last year the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which is sponsoring the event at the Lone Oak, converted nearly 1,700 people with similar giveaways -- sometimes called "Beast Feasts." At one raffle, they gave away Four-Wheelers. "You have to know the hook that will attract people," said the spokesman for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. (And by "people" we suppose he means "beasts.") "We have found that the number of unchurched men who will show up will be in direct proportion to the number of guns you give away."

Well, whatever works, we suppose. But are guns (and Four-Wheelers, and steak tartare) the only things that these unchurched "rednecks" like? And, more importantly, after they get their freebies, what's to keep them coming back to keep hearing Jesus' all-important message of forgiveness and turning the other cheek?

It seems to us that it's not enough just to get people to show up for one event. If you REALLY want them to stick around for all that Bible-learnin', you gotta plant their butts in the pews and keep them there. So let's give these Baptists a hand! After the free steak and guns, what other ideas will the Lone Oak Baptist Church have to keep these Kentucky "rednecks" coming back? What do YOU think?

"After these unchurched Kentucky 'rednecks' get their free guns, what will the Lone Oak Baptist Church do to keep them coming back?"


Click here to take the poll!

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