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Mike Bloomberg Wants to Indoctrinate the Media, But He Can't Fool the NRA

Mike Weisser   |   February 2, 2015   10:09 AM ET

In mid-January the NRA warned its members about an insidious effort by Enemy Numero Uno (Mike Bloomberg) to make yet another attempt to rob Americans of their Constitutional right to gun ownership by sponsoring what they call an "anti-gun indoctrination camp" to teach gullible reporters and other media folks how to research and write about guns. What Bloomberg's really trying to do is foist his own 'discredited' research on attendees at this conference in yet another effort to distort and cover up the real (i.e., positive) truth about guns.

The program is organized by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia School of Journalism ( and during this two-day workshop in Phoenix this coming May, attendees will actually hear from both sides in the gun debate, a significant and I believe first-time coming together of scholars and influencers whose views run the spectrum of the good news and the bad news about guns. On the one hand we have Garen Wintemute, an ER physician out of California, who has been a thorn in the side of the gun industry since he published studies on the manufacture of small, cheap handguns whose only real use was to arm people who wanted to commit crimes. At the other end of the spectrum, showing up to push the "guns are good" message, will be S.E. Cupp, whose attacks on Bloomberg and other gun-control 'threats' gets her airtime on the usual red meat outlets like Fox and Blaze, while also showing up on the other side with appearances on MSNBC.

Standing in the middle will be an economist by training but a remarkable gun researcher by vocation named Philip Cook, who has been conducting important and valid research on the social utility of guns for more than forty years. In general, Cook's work has focused on the economic costs of gun violence and his conclusions in these studies, as well as other work on gun violence, leaves no doubt as to where he stands; i.e., he's no friend of the folks who claim that Americans need to own more guns. But this past year Cook and his colleague, Kristin Goss, published a balanced and reasoned summary of the gun debate, and while they didn't attempt to hide their own concerns about the proliferation of guns in American society, they also found good reasons why many Americans don't want to give up their guns.

The fact that the NRA should attempt to malign a public conference whose speaker's list contains one of their most ardent supporters shows you how unwilling or unable they have become when it comes to listening to any voice other than their own. But a quick look at some of the information that has lately appeared on their own website makes me think that perhaps the NRA research and editorial staff might benefit from attending a conference where they might learn how to understand and explain facts.

I am referring to a story that just appeared on the NRA-ILA website attacking Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, for what the NRA says is a 'bogus' claim that the number of people who die from gunshots each year equals the number of people killed in accidents involving cars. The story is bogus, according to the NRA, because the number of people who die from shootings that are ruled as accidents are a tiny fraction of the number of dead people pulled from vehicular wrecks. But of course that's not the point of the ARS story at all, unless perhaps we should figure out and compare gun deaths to the number of car accidents in which a driver actually tried to kill someone else using his car.

That Mike Bloomberg is asking professional media folks to come together and listen to both sides of the gun debate is a refreshing and important event. Refreshing because it hasn't happened previously, important because public policy is only successful when it reflects every valid point of view. I hope the conference is a great success.

Stray Bullets Are No Accident

Robert Muggah   |   February 2, 2015    8:43 AM ET

Thirty-two bullets. That's all it took to shatter the lives of just as many innocent men, women and children in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro last month. It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victims consist of toddlers and senior citizens -- all of them going about their own business. Most of them are residents of low-income neighborhoods, especially the city's sprawling north zone.

The blame game is in full swing. The state's Secretary for Public Security has condemned drug trafficking groups, alluding to a "nation of criminals" with brazen disregard for human life. Meanwhile, human rights activists say that the military police are also to blame. Caught in the crossfire, locals are throwing up their hands in resignation. Yet there is nothing accidental about these incidents -- they are indicative of a failure of public policy.

The January shooting spree is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the statistics. According to public data, there were 61 victims of "stray bullets" in Rio de Janeiro in the first six months of 2012, the last year for which official information is available. This compares to 88 in 2011, 139 in 2010, 193 in 2009 and 236 in 2008. Since the government does not collect data on a regular basis, it is impossible to tell which direction the trend is moving.

A closer inspection of these incidents reveals that most shooting incidents occur in the poorest parts of Rio de Janeiro. A small proportion of them -- less than 5 percent -- result in fatalities while the rest generate terrible physical and psychological scars. Yet these cold statistics conceal the reign of terror generated by shoot-outs. Citizens are no longer able to move about for fear of falling victim. School absenteeism in dangerous neighborhoods is increasing and locals are reluctant to make the perilous journey to work.

Brazilians are not the only ones gunned down by stray bullets. While surely an under-estimate, the United Nations recorded 617 victims of stray bullets in 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries between 2009 and 2013. About 47 per cent of them died of their gunshot wounds. Half of the victims were male while the rest were women and girls -- most of them under 18. Although gangs played a role, police were involved in a disturbingly high proportion of reported cases.

Stray bullets can be prevented. To do so requires national, state- and metropolitan-level strategies that prioritize violence reduction, especially in poor and unstable neighborhoods. This should not translate into more forceful police operations. Instead, interventions should focus purposefully on hot spots, support at-risk youth, and guarantee the protection of civilians. These measures must also be pursued alongside targeted efforts to regulate illegal firearms and ammunition and destroy surplus to prevent leakage into criminal networks.

Brazil's current approach to dealing with stray bullets borders on negligence. Supposedly random shootings are treated as collateral damage -- an unavoidable outcome of a tough on crime approach. If this gun-violence epidemic is to be reversed, urgent steps must be taken. This includes enforcing a coherent doctrine regarding the proportional use of force by the military police. It also means rethinking the wisdom of arming police with high-caliber military-style weapons with a range of 2-3 kilometers. And rather than reducing the state´s spending on public security -- as is currently anticipated in the 2015 budget -- Rio's politicians need to dramatically increase it, alongside social and economic investments in making the city safer.

Nationwide Wants Us Afraid of the Wrong Things

David M. Perry   |   February 2, 2015   12:00 AM ET

Nationwide wants us to be afraid of the wrong things.

During the Super Bowl, Nationwide showed an ad that showed cute kids saying they never got to do things, with the kicker, "because I died." Then they showed an overflowing bathtub, an open cabinet under the sink, and a crashed flatscreen TV.

What they didn't show was a gun. Of course, they don't want to offend the gun lobby. But what they also didn't show is the #1 danger to children in America. Read down to find out what it is. Do you know?

Here's the commercial.

According to the Children's Defense Fund report, a child or teen is injured by a gun every 30 minutes. Seven are killed every day. And this number is apparently often under reported.

Now, falling TVs do send a child to the ER every 30 minutes, but only 215 died from 2000-2011. A relatively tiny number.

There are about 20,000 accidental child-poisoning-related calls every year, but the "most serious" ones all involve adults.

So firearms are definitely an issue, but it turns out that most of the 0-19 year old deaths from firearms are homicides. Here's the whole data on unintentional injury from the National MCH Center for Child Death Review:

  • In 2010, there were 83,267,556 children aged 0-19, of which 45,091 died.
  • 8,684 died from unintentional injury. 1027 from drowning, 365 from fires, 1,176 from suffocation and strangulation, and 134 from firearms.
  • 4,419 from motor vehicles.

So let's get real. Not only could Nationwide have shown us a gun, but if they really wanted to show us what kills children, all we have to do is look to all those lovely cars featured in about 50 percent of the Super Bowl ads throughout the night.

Cross-posted from

Amanda Gutterman   |   January 29, 2015    3:33 PM ET

It seems like a relatively obvious equation: The weaker the gun laws and the higher the rate of gun ownership in a given state, the more deaths from gun violence that state will see.

That's the conclusion of a report released Thursday by the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that researches the public health impact of gun violence.

Alaska has the highest rate of gun fatalities in the country, according to data from 2013. The state saw 19.59 deaths per 100,000 people, which is significantly above the national average of 10.64 deaths per 100,000. VPC's report indicates that Alaska also has the country's third-highest rate of gun ownership, with firearms in 60.6% percent of households.

The study found a similar correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths in the rest of the country. Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Wyoming, the states that followed Alaska in terms of highest gun death rates, had some of the nation's largest percentages of households owning guns.

VPC also noted that states with weaker gun laws tend to see higher gun death rates. All five states named above have gun restrictions that the report's authors describe as "lax."

The study defined states with weak gun laws as those that don't add extra provisions to federal gun laws, such as banning assault weapons or requiring a permit to buy a gun. In addition, states with open or concealed carry laws were considered to have weak gun restrictions.

States with the lowest gun death rates -- the top three were Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York -- were found to have strong gun laws as well as low rates of gun ownership. A separate 2013 analysis from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence similarly found that these three states were among those with the strongest gun restrictions in place.

A number of previous studies have linked gun laws and gun ownership with deaths by gun violence, challenging the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis that suggests a higher rate of gun ownership makes communities safer. The Violence Policy Center published a similar study last year, using data from 2011. According to the two studies, between 2011 and 2013, the five states with the highest percentages of gun-owning households saw a noticeable spike in gun deaths per 100,00 residents.

Another recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities found a positive link in all 50 states between right-to-carry laws and a rise in violent crimes.

States have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to gun laws. It is up to individual states to determine whether to perform background checks, what types of weapons and ammunition can be sold and where firearm owners can bring their guns.

Hawaii, the state that had the fewest gun deaths in 2013, has only 9.7 percent gun ownership and a gun death rate of 2.71 out of 100,000. Yet VPC's analysis noted that those numbers are still far higher than in many industrialized countries. For instance, in the UK, where very few people own guns and do so under tight restrictions, the gun violence death rate in 2013 was 0.23 deaths per 100,000.

The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, focused global attention on America's gun crisis and resulted in a pledge from President Barack Obama to work to remedy the situation. Since then, however, Americans have stockpiled more ammunition and firearms than before amid weakened gun laws in many states.

Guns, Steel, Grit and Grief

David Katz, M.D.   |   January 26, 2015   10:12 AM ET

Michael Davidson, the cardiothoracic surgeon shot and killed in Brigham and Women's Hospital last week by the distraught son of a woman on whom he had operated some time ago and who died in November, was a medical student of mine at Yale back in the early 1990s.

Some few of my former students, including our newly minted surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, became friends of mine, and we stayed close over the years. I didn't know Dr. Davidson that well, but seeing his photo in the Boston Globe, I certainly remember his face. It's a good face.

I can't speak to Dr. Davidson's character corresponding to that good face, but others can -- and have. According to colleagues, he was one of the greats, the kind of doctor every medical student wants to be, and the kind of doctor every patient wants to have. By all accounts, including those of patients, he was deeply caring. He was thoughtful, expressive, and clear. Peers credit him with the grit to wield the steel of scalpels in situations where other surgeons would balk, great surgical skill, the brilliance of innovation, and an extraordinary work ethic.

In addition, Dr. Davidson had a life outside the hospital. That life, according to the Boston Globe, included a wife -- also a physician -- and three children, with another on the way. That baby, of course, will now never meet his/her father.

The story line of this tragedy is almost unbearably heart rending.

And there's more. The shooter, who also took his own life, left behind a complicated legacy of love, anguish and disbelief. He had four grown children, and siblings, who say he was nothing but a good guy who was devastated by the death of his mother, with whom he was very close. Rightly or wrongly, he blamed his mother's death on an adverse reaction to medication, and rightly or wrongly, he apparently implicated Dr. Davidson in the use of that medication.

From the information available thus far, it could be that the medication had nothing to do with the patient's death, and that Dr. Davidson had nothing to do with prescribing the medication. Either way, there is nothing in the record to suggest any misstep in the treatment; just a bad outcome. Unfortunately, sick people die sometimes despite all that modern medicine can offer, and even when everything is done right.

Of course, sometimes patients die because something is done wrong, too.

But accuracy about who did what, when, and whether or not it was appropriate is not a priority in a moment of anguished passion. Passion clouds the mind, and tenses the muscles -- including those of the finger, on the trigger.

Admittedly, Mr. Pasceri might have hurt, or even killed Dr. Davidson without a gun. And he might have killed himself without one, too. But both scenarios are a whole lot less likely. Try to remember the last time you heard about a murder/suicide involving, for instance, a knife.

I myself was stabbed long ago, on a train while traveling in Europe. I fought back with no weapon, and lived to tell the tale. If my assailant had used a gun instead, I suspect it would have been the end of the line for me.

There is a bitter irony underlying this dreadful story that has torn holes in two families at least. The shooting took place in the hospital where our new surgeon general worked, prior to his confirmation. That confirmation was held up for months and months because Dr. Murthy had stated publicly that guns were a public health issue. So here we are, in the immediate aftermath of that long forestalled confirmation, and a current colleague and former classmate of the surgeon general was shot dead with a gun also used to kill its owner, in a health care setting.

The irony is too thick to cut with a knife; you would have to shoot through it. Of course guns are a public health issue, if suicide is; if bleeding is; if emergency surgery is.

The public discussion about who has guns when, where, and for what obviously includes rights related to the use of such arms. But it cannot exclude the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- all taken from Dr. Davidson. It cannot exclude the need to do what is right.

A finger on a trigger in a moment of acute grief is very unlikely to result in the right thing being done. In a moment of aggrieved passion, beastly and beatific look the same; it's a particularly bad time to pull a trigger.

That makes it a bad time to be holding a gun. That's where my sad ruminations on this tale take me. Guns and acute grief make for a very bad combination.

Whatever my own beliefs and preferences, I am not currently challenging any contentions about the right to bear arms, or the value of guns in self-defense. I am merely asserting this: if liberal gun policies mean more guns carried by more people more of the time, the likelihood of a gun in the hands of any given transiently, passionately aggrieved person goes up. This is a statement of statistical fact. Guns and such grief are a volatile mix.

Killing any other way requires real intimacy, and that's hard. Guns don't kill, people do, we are told. But guns allow those people an antiseptic, insulating distance. They make killing easier, and more efficient. One's hands need not even get dirty.

And in that way, they can convert the kind of emotional devastation we have all felt at one time or another into an irrevocable tragedy such as played out in Boston last week.

Guns and grief are a bad combination. Our judgment is clouded and undone in moments of aggrieved passion; we are least suited at such times to take on the roles of both jury and judge, leaving aside the illegality of such vigilantism. We may, in the throes of passion, misconstrue causes and misdirect blame. But we may hope to live through such moments, and see in a calmer, clarifying light.

First, though, we need to live through such moments at all. Guns in aggrieved hands make that tragically less likely.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity

Follow at: LinkedIN; Twitter; Facebook
Read at: INfluencer Blog; Huffington Post; US News & World Report;
Author: Disease Proof

ReThink Review: American Sniper -- Can There Be Heroes on the Wrong Side of History?

Jonathan Kim   |   January 23, 2015    8:28 AM ET

If you've followed my reviews for these years, you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in American films (and America in general) is our unhealthy, dangerous worship of soldiers, where every American soldier is considered a hero who defends American freedom even if they did nothing heroic, America's freedom was never at risk, and the real reasons for waging the war were far from noble. All of this results in unquestioning, knee-jerk, bipartisan public support for any American war, regardless of the war's justness or logic, where critics of those wars are accused of desiring the deaths of American soldiers. For some strange reason, I thought American Sniper, based on the book and true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, might somehow be different. But with conservative Clint Eastwood directing, American Sniper continues America's worship of soldiers and our obsession with guns in a film that ignores the fact that the Iraq war in which Kyle fought is arguably the worst debacle in American history. Watch a clip from American Sniper below.

Bradley Cooper, who also produced American Sniper, plays Chris Kyle, a Texan whose father installs a savior complex in Chris as a child that makes him believe that his purpose in life is to defend others (meaning other Americans). Outraged by attacks against Americans overseas, Kyle joins the Navy SEALs and uses his natural gift for sharpshooting to become a sniper. After the 9/11 attacks, Kyle is deployed to Iraq, where he claims his primary goal is to protect the lives of American soldiers, whether it's picking enemies off from a distance or leading Marines doing house searches. We then watch as Kyle returns home and then back to Iraq on multiple tours, ignoring the symptoms of PTSD he's exhibiting, the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and the protests of his wife (Siena Miller) who is left to raise their two young kids alone while living in constant fear for her husband's safety.

American Sniper is competently made. Cooper gives a nicely natural and understated performance as Kyle, with him being humble and effacing while others are eager to do the praising. The action scenes are sufficiently tense, though I would've liked to know more about the special training snipers receive to mold their minds and bodies for such a specialized task instead of the film's more typical gunfight scenes that are similar to those found in nearly every military action movie.

And that's about all of the good things I have to say about American Sniper. So now let me get into what I dislike about this movie and why its six Oscar nominations are as regrettable as the five nominations earned by 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, a film that lied not only about the efficacy and morality of torture, but in the role torture played in locating Osama bin Laden. There are some spoilers here, unless you already know what happened to the real Chris Kyle.

Kyle as portrayed in American Sniper is a character with little or no emotional arc. He maintains the same naïve, simplistic beliefs throughout his life in the existence of evil and his role as a uniquely violent protector against it as he did when his hardass father rather menacingly imposes the idea on him as a child. Kyle serves four tours in Iraq, witnessing all the horrors of war, but his views on war, his role in it, and killing people do not seem to change him at all. He does not seem haunted by any of his over 160 confirmed kills and states outright that he has absolutely no regrets about any of them aside from the targets that got away. Throughout the film, he maintains zero empathy for or understanding of the Iraqi people and repeatedly refers to Iraqis and anyone he's fighting as "savages", which is gross, ignorant, and racist. With all he experiences -- and despite seemingly having PTSD, which he seems to conquer by toughing it out without any real treatment -- Kyle ends the movie as the same affable, soft-spoken, gun-loving guy with a savior complex he was at the start of the movie, despite having killed hundreds of people.

All that may be faithful to what Kyle was like in real life. But in the stories we love, the main characters usually go through some kind of journey or experience where they gain insights about the world, humanity, or themselves that changes them forever. But in American Sniper, the only thing that changes about Kyle is that he finally understands that his wife needs him at home and will divorce him if he doesn't stop leaving her to raise their kids alone, and that he can help American soldiers without killing people. Other than that, Kyle is completely unchanged, with his war experience simply confirming everything he believed about himself and the nature of war that he thought before he had ever fought in one, apparently never regretting, questioning, or even dwelling on the morality and rightness of anything he did or the war itself.

And that's a big reason why American Sniper lost me for good.

While we rightly admire people who make great sacrifices for a just, worthy cause, Kyle was fighting in the Iraq war, probably the biggest foreign policy clusterfuck in American history, and arguably one of the worst fuckups by any government ever. We invaded and occupied a country based on utter lies -- or, to be generous, an incomprehensibly massive intelligence failure -- directly and indirectly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destabilizing the entire region, wrecking America's image and legitimacy around the world, costing American taxpayers trillions of dollars, and turning us into a country that lies about torture, then endorses and commits it unapologetically.

That leads me to the key issue I have with soldier worship and American Sniper specifically: Should a soldier be celebrated as a hero for serving bravely while fighting on the wrong side of history in a war that is neither just, moral, or even legal? Is it possible to be heroic in the act of committing a crime by saving the lives of the criminals? Because what Chris Kyle was doing was "protecting" American soldiers who were part of the illegal occupation of a sovereign country based on the thoroughly debunked lies that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, possessed weapons of mass destruction they would give to terrorists, and that occupying Iraq would prevent terrorist attacks elsewhere. Kyle's father explains to him that there are three types of people in the world, and that Chris is a "sheepdog" given "the gift of aggression" to protect the naïve and helpless "sheep" from the evil "wolves" who "use violence to prey on the weak." As we watch Kyle and a group of Marines bust down a family's door and point guns at the heads of women and children, could Kyle have once entertained the notion that who the "wolves" and the "sheepdogs" are might be perceived differently from the wrong end of a rifle?

I'm guessing a lot of people would say that a soldier's heroism has nothing to do with the so-called "politics" of the war he's fighting in, and that what makes a soldier like Chris Kyle a hero isn't that he was fighting in a just war for a good cause (since he wasn't), but that his actions saved the lives of his fellow soldiers. But if we accept the definition that a soldier who kills his enemies to protect his comrades is a hero, should we call Mustafa, the Syrian sniper depicted in the film as Kyle's nemesis (though barely mentioned in Kyle's book), a hero for protecting his fellow fighters from American troops? Don't all soldiers on any side of every war attempt to save and protect their comrades? Or as Seth Rogen noted, what about the fictional Nazi sharpshooter Fredrick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino's World War II film Inglourious Basterds, who Germans in the film consider an inspiring war hero for singlehandedly killing 200 Allied soldiers, and is even the subject of his own movie celebrating his skill, bravery, and commitment? If the "politics" of the side of the war you're fighting on are truly irrelevant, wouldn't we call a real-life Zoller a hero for saving the lives of countless Nazis soldiers?

Now before anyone says that I'm calling Chris Kyle a Nazi, I'm not. What I'm saying is that when it comes to calling people war heroes, fighting on the wrong side of history trumps whatever you do in service of that wrong side, regardless of the skill or bravery it required. The Germans know this, which is why you won't find any war memorials in Germany celebrating the accomplishments of "heroic" Nazi soldiers who protected their comrades by aiding in the defeat of Allied soldiers. And I suspect those who claim that the "politics" of a war have no bearing on a soldier's heroism also know this, which is why you'll never hear them call anyone who has ever fought against American troops a hero, regardless of their skill, patriotism, bravery, or lethality.

Contrary to what people like Kyle think, good and evil are rarely absolutes, especially in war, and determining which is which more often comes down to the perspective from the side you're on and the clarity that hopefully comes with experience, knowledge, and time. However, these are nuances Kyle seems incapable of acknowledging, never wavering in his belief that he and his fellow Americans are unequivocally the righteous good guys while anyone fighting against them is an evil savage. But when pressed, I think that nearly everyone, whether conservative or liberal, would agree that there are no heroes on the wrong side of history. And it has become nearly impossible to claim that George W. Bush's deceitful war of choice in Iraq was not a quest to free the Iraqi people, but was nothing less than a shameful, costly, unnecessary tragedy.

So what are we to make of American Sniper's Oscar nominations and its record-breaking success at the box office? Regarding the nominations, I think it points to how deep and bipartisan America's soldier worship goes, where even liberal Hollywood wants to celebrate a soldier who killed hundreds in service of a lie and a crime as long as he seems like a likable person. Second, it exemplifies America's obsession with guns, where I'm sure gun nuts couldn't watch American Sniper without creaming their pants and dreaming of the day when they'll be able to kill someone with moral and legal impunity as Kyle did, which is also one of the fantasies at the heart of "stand your ground" and "castle doctrine" laws.

And third, it shows how desperate many Americans, and especially conservatives, are to find any silver lining about the Iraq war. Even though a recent poll showed that more than half of all Republicans and nearly 40 percent of all Americans continue to believe the lie that the US found active WMDs in Iraq, it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to feel that the war was worth fighting and that it achieved any goals worth the money, effort, and lives it cost. For Americans who believe that the US is always right, noble, and unbeatable, accepting the harsh truth about our occupation of Iraq would shake them to their core.

But instead of an indictment of those who deceived us into invading Iraq and a soul-searching examination of why Americans supported the war for so long, we get the lionization of Chris Kyle, who is simply another color of lipstick applied to the stinking pig that is the Iraq war. Instead of dealing with the tragic reality of a war based on lies, we're supposed to celebrate a guy who either believed the lies, never cared about the truth, or convinced himself that all of the killing he did was simply the noble defense of the innocent instead of being a part of an illegal occupation that destroyed a country. In my lifetime, the US has never fought a war where America's safety or way of life was ever at risk, so let's dispense with the oft-used falsehood that I owe soldiers serving now for my ability to live my life and write this. Repeating a lie and believing it with all your heart doesn't make it true, and you don't get points for standing up for your beliefs if your beliefs are not only wrong, but destructive and counterproductive.

There's a feeling that, after the surprise of American Sniper's six Oscar nominations, a lot of Academy members are now taking a closer look at the film and the disturbing implications of honoring such a film and person, similar to what eventually happened with Zero Dark Thirty, which was a Best Picture frontrunner that faded late in its bid as its claims about the efficacy of torture and how it was integral to finding Osama bin Laden were debunked at the highest levels in a film whose main character, in a just world, would be convicted as a war criminal.

I see soldier worship as harmful because it so easily morphs into support for wars, no matter how unjust, by letting our affection for our fellow citizens in uniform and our desire to see them come home alive obscure the truth behind what they're supposedly fighting and dying for, which is rarely as black and white as we are told or wish it to be. But this is exactly what American Sniper does and what makes it such an empty, misleading, but apparently effective piece of jingoistic pro-war propaganda. There are no heroes on the wrong side of history, but you can trick people into thinking there are by lying about the history or claiming that history doesn't matter. By inferring that invading Iraq was the correct response to 9/11 and that the most important thing about the war was protecting American soldiers while ignoring the lies that put those soldiers in danger in the first place, Chris Kyle and the makers of American Sniper seem to have done both. And bullshit like that doesn't deserve awards.

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War in Two Directions

Robert Koehler   |   January 22, 2015    7:49 PM ET

"Sometimes they have drug and alcohol problems and when they feel that the VA is ignoring them, not answering the phone, failing to return calls for assistance or there are long wait times, they get more and more disgruntled. The VA is ripe for a mass killing but no one is listening to us."

The speaker is John Glidewell, former chief of police at the Cheyenne, Wyo., VA medical center, who was quoted in a Washington Post story a few days ago. As I read his words, I realized they sounded a far deeper note of desperation than the story was addressing, even though, my God, the events being reported on were the fodder of scandal.

The story was a follow-up about a murder that took place at another VA clinic, in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 6. Jerry Serrato, an Iraq vet whose claim of PTSD, and the subsequent treatment and benefits, was denied, fatally shot the clinic's chief psychologist, Timothy Fjordbak, then killed himself.

Beyond the terrible details of the double killing and the fact that "there have been a string of shootings and violent incidents in VA medical centers across the country," the story managed to sound only a superficial warning, it seemed: about the lack of metal detectors and surveillance cameras at VA clinics, and, of course, the need for a larger, better trained staff to deal with all of America's distraught vets.

All of which leads me back to Glidewell's quote and its implicit linking of "disgruntled" and "mass killing" -- as though the transition from one to the other in American society is obvious and fully accepted by now and armed irritation, you might say, is simply the way things are.

Yes, by all means, the VA is failing American veterans terribly, with wholesale claim denials and scandalous waiting times and a general, contemptuous dismissal of the psychological and physical wounds American vets are coming home with -- that is, a rich man's investment in the waging of war, to the tune of many trillions of dollars, but a pauper's investment in its aftermath. Something else is going on here as well, however, that's deeper and darker and not limited to the failure of government programs.

In a column I wrote almost a decade ago, I reflected: "Bush's war to promote terror -- the perfect self-sustaining fear machine -- isn't just generating an endless supply of hardened enemies beyond our borders. It is also creating the conditions of social breakdown and psychological blowback within our borders. Guess what? Under Plan Bush, we'll never be safe."

This seems to be coming to pass. If a word like "disgruntled" -- which describes, at worst, an everyday sense of being mistreated or snubbed -- can flow seamlessly into "mass killing," then America is at a serious precipice. We're becoming a heavily armed, mentally ill society. And our primary institutions are either contributing directly to the situation or, at best, failing to notice it.

The obvious mega-contributor to our social breakdown is the unending War on Terror, of course. It's a war cynically waged in two directions: at the enemies beyond our borders that we've manufactured and the collateral-damage-in-waiting who live with them; and at the lower and middle classes (the 99 percent) here at home, who have the nerve to expect a reasonable share of the empire's wealth.

The War on Terror is our first prolonged post-Reagan war, waged in the context of social austerity. Sorry, vets. Sorry, poor people. There's almost no social safety net anymore, even to care for those who used up their physical, emotional and spiritual health participating in that war. There's only... more war, in the form of domestic surveillance, militarized police departments and the like. This is the making of a broken, Fourth World, emotionally disturbed society, which sees enemies everywhere and addresses all of its spiraling ills militarily.

Consider another recent, tragic news fragment: the death, this past Sunday afternoon, of Johnathan Guillory, a 32-year-old vet who served in both Iraq and (as a contract worker) Afghanistan. He was shot and killed by two police officers at his home outside Phoenix. He was married. He had two young sons.

Why he died isn't completely certain, but he was clearly caught in the jaws of America's war on itself. He suffered, or claimed to suffer, from PTSD. His wife told Phoenix TV station KTVK: "Sometimes he couldn't even deal with day-to-day life. It was a struggle for him to get through each morning, but he did."

He once sought emergency help from the VA but, "they turned him away," his wife said. "They told him there was no room, and that he'd have to make an appointment."

Neighbors said there were occasional disturbances at the couple's residence. On the afternoon in question, police went to the house in response to several 911 hang-up calls. Police say Guillory pointed a gun at them and they fired in self-protection. His wife denies he had a gun and said there had not been a disturbance. And this is where the story ends: in a she-said, they-said mystery. The news cycle moves on.

We don't know what really happened. All we know is that a vet and dad is dead (another one), and our militarized insecurity marches on.

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at


One Word Was Missing From Obama's State Of The Union Address: Guns

Sabrina Siddiqui   |   January 20, 2015    9:51 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- One word was noticeably missing from President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday: guns.

In a sign that the sun has set on Obama's gun control agenda, the president's prepared remarks contained no mention of the issue. Two years after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the absence of guns from Obama's speech marked a departure from previous years, in which the president urged Congress to pass legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in America.

Obama made a thinly veiled reference to mass shootings while discussing national tragedies that have brought Americans together.

"I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia," he said.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of Obama's 2013 State of the Union address was his impassioned plea to lawmakers to at least hold a vote for the sake of the children at Sandy Hook and other victims of gun violence, such as former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head at a 2011 constituent meeting in Tucson. Obama's remarks on guns were significantly shorter last year, following a failed Senate vote to expand background checks. Nonetheless, the president pledged in that speech to take steps to curtail gun violence "with or without Congress."

Obama has continued to use other forums to push for a change in how America perceives the issue of gun control, while chastising lawmakers for bowing to the National Rifle Association and other special interest groups. He also took limited executive action last year to strengthen the federal background checks system. But his failure to even mention the word "guns" in his most high-profile speech of the year is an acknowledgement that gun control is currently dead at the federal level, particularly under a GOP-controlled Congress.

A December report found that nearly 100 school shootings have occurred since Sandy Hook, resulting in at least 45 deaths and 78 non-fatal gunshot injuries. The anti-gun violence coalition has refused to back down from its efforts to take on the gun lobby, but given the reluctance among congressional lawmakers to revisit stricter gun laws, gun control groups have shifted their focus. Advocates are increasingly pursuing progress outside of Washington, following some state-level victories on instituting background checks and preventing domestic abusers from purchasing firearms.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been a leading advocate for stricter gun laws after Newtown, said Obama was being "realistic" about the prospects of gun control in the new Congress.

"This Congress unfortunately, tragically, unforgivably may well continue to do nothing," Blumenthal said in an interview with HuffPost Live after the speech. "And that's a missed opportunity to save lives of tens of thousands of people who will be victims of gun violence -- innocent children, people all across the country on campuses, in malls and individually on the streets of our cities."

"Gun violence affects everyone and Congress is aiding and abetting by failing to take stronger action," he added. "I think the president had a broader vision and he was reaching for a vision of expanding economic opportunity and investing in America rather than dwelling on any single issue."

This story has been updated.

Follow more of HuffPost's State of the Union coverage below:

Tracy Connor   |   January 20, 2015    4:47 PM ET

She had just put her 9-month-old down for a nap, turned on cartoons for the older kids and was headed for the dishwasher when she heard a strange "pop" come from the bedroom of the Missouri home.

Alexis Wiederholt, 26, said that as she rushed to investigate the noise, her 5-year-old son appeared and said something that didn't make any sense to her in the moment.

"I'm sorry, Mom. I shot Corbin."

  |   January 20, 2015    9:29 AM ET

A 9-month-old northwestern Missouri boy is dead after his 5-year-old brother playing with a handgun accidentally shot him in the head.

Nodaway County Sheriff Darren White says the baby was pronounced dead at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City just before noon on Monday.

The Kansas City Star ( ) reports that emergency responders were called to a home in Elmo around 9 a.m. Monday after a 5-year-old found a loaded .22 caliber handgun and apparently was handling it when it fired.

White says the bullet struck the 9-month-old, who was in a playpen.

The sheriff says there is no reason to believe the shooting was anything other than an accident.

Elmo is located 120 miles north of Kansas City, Missouri.

The Gun Violence Stats the NRA Doesn't Want You to Consider

Mike Weisser   |   January 20, 2015    8:59 AM ET

When I was a kid growing up in New York City I kept my eyes on a neighborhood gang whose older members, when it came to violence and lawlessness, put the feared Westies of Hell's Kitchen to shame. In fact, the Westies contracted out their hits to this bunch, whose SOP was to haul the victim up to the roof of one of the neighborhood housing projects and that was that. Five guys went up to the roof, four guys walked back down.

As tough and brutal as they were, the members of this crew never carried guns. Why not? Because whenever anything went down in the neighborhood, the cops would come around, line them up against the wall, administer the Miranda warning by kicking them in the ass or punching them in the face, and then pat them all down for guns. If the cops found a gun, that guy was slammed into the back of the patrol car and wasn't seen for a long time. Don't think for one second that aggressive, in-your-face street patrols used by Giuliani and Bloomberg to drive down gun crime in New York City is such a new idea.

The NRA and the gun industry wants us to take a giant leap of faith by going along with their idea that the most effective way to curb gun violence is to cut down on crime. But the data on gun violence published by the FBI doesn't support this, not at all. Of course there are criminals out there who use guns to commit crimes. Of course we need to do everything possible to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But the connection of guns to gun violence is more complicated than just the simple idea that more guns in the "wrong hands" equals more crime.

According to the FBI, from 2000 to 2012 there were slightly more than 200,000 homicide victims of which slightly more than two-thirds were killed with guns. This is an average of 10,400 gun homicides each year, a remarkably-stable number over the past thirteen years. Of these gun killings, slightly more than 15 percent involved women as victims, or roughly 21,000 over the same span of years. When women are homicide victims, most if not virtually all of these shootings grew out of some sort of IPV. Let's not forget, incidentally, that men were also shot to death by their girlfriends or their wives an average of 700 times per year. Taken together, domestic violence probably claimed more than 2,200 victims annually between 2000 and 2012, or one-fifth of all gun fatalities during those years.

The degree to which homicide grows out of personal disputes is shown by the fact that of the total murders committed in 2012, only slightly more than 20 percent took place during the commission of other crimes. The rest happened because people who knew each other, and in most cases knew each other on a long-term, continuous basis, got into an argument about money, or who dissed who, or who was sleeping with someone else, or some other dumb thing. And many times they were drunk or high on drugs, but no matter what, like Walter Mosley says, "sooner or later" the gun goes off.

Here's the bottom line on gun violence and crime. Every year 20,000+ shoot themselves intentionally, which is suicide. Another thousand, give or take a hundred, kill themselves accidentally with a gun. Then another 10,000 use a gun to kill someone else, but 8,000 of those shootings had nothing to do with other violent crimes. If we define gun violence as using a gun to end a human life, the FBI is telling us that less than 10 percent of those fatalities would be eliminated if we got rid of all violent crime. The NRA can try to convince its members that the reason for gun violence is that there's too much crime, but the data from the FBI clearly indicates that the reason for gun violence is that there are too many guns.

First-Time Novelist Tackles Guns and Corruption

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Morgan Smith   |   January 13, 2015    3:06 PM ET

As Texas lawmakers convened for the first day of the 2015 legislative session Tuesday, about a dozen activists carrying a variety of firearms gathered in front of the state Capitol to protest gun laws.

Members of Come and Take It Texas — a group that organizes armed rallies to protest gun laws and one of several pushing to scrap the state's handgun licensing requirements this session — also demonstrated how to make a weapon with a machine known as the Ghost Gunner.

The event was held in support of a bill filed by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, that would lift the state's handgun licensing requirements, which critics say impose unconstitutional costs and restrictions.

"People would be up in arms if we had to pay a fee in order to have freedom of speech," said Pablo Frias, who said he traveled from Arlington to participate in the rally and was carrying an AR-15 for self-defense "but also for educational purposes."

Another rally participant, Tammy Koontz of Lewisville, wore the T-shirt of a national gun safety group along with a holstered black powder pistol.

Koontz said she was collecting the signatures of gun rights advocates on the Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America shirt in protest of that group's support of tightening gun restrictions.

"They seem to think they speak for all moms and they don't ... I'm for open carry because I have children," she said, adding that she planned to wear the shirt on the day open carry became legal in the state.

Texas, which allows the public display of long guns like rifles and shotguns, legalized the carrying of concealed handguns with a license in 1995. It is one of six states that specifically prohibit the unconcealed display of handguns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Gov.-elect Greg Abbott has said he would sign an open carry bill if it reached his desk — and on Tuesday, rally participants displayed a copy of Stickland's bill with Abbott's signature as a gesture of support. 

The measure is among several already filed this session targeting handgun restrictions, but it is the only one so far that proposes lifting licensing requirements altogether. Efforts to allow handgun license holders to openly carry their firearms have failed during the last two sessions, and it is unclear whether lawmakers have the votes to pass legislation that would repeal licensing requirements outright.

divide exists even among gun rights supporters over the use of armed rallies to raise awareness for their cause. Some view the tactic — which features protesters carrying weapons such as assault rifles in city streets — as overly aggressive. The manufacturing of firearms at the Come and Take It rally has also drawn criticism from within the ranks of Second Amendment supporters.

At a second rally planned for later in the month by Open Carry Texas, participants will be carrying empty holsters instead of firearms. The group's founder, CJ Grisham, told the Texas Tribune last week that he had reached out to the Jan. 13 event's organizers to ask them not to use the Ghost Gunner at the Capitol.

"I don’t understand the purpose of it," Grisham said. "It seems confrontational, and really, needless. I mean, it’s the first day of the Legislature, we are this close to getting open carry passed, and now these guys want to come and manufacture a firearm on the steps of the Capitol? I just don’t get it."

At the Tuesday rally, Chuck Richter of Athens said he used the Chinese SKS rifle he was carrying for hunting, particularly hogs, because it was easy to carry. He said that understood why people might not be comfortable seeing firearms in public but part of the event's purpose was to demonstrate that they did not have anything to fear. 

"It's less about intimidation than re-sensitizing people to something that should be customary," he said. "This is not North Korea where only the state gets to carry protection."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

Understanding the Misunderstanding; The Use of Weapons in Filming Carries With it Inherent Danger

Joe Wallenstein   |   January 13, 2015    1:42 PM ET

After 30 years as an Assistant Director, Production Manager and Producer, I was invited to become Director of Physical Production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

One would think that in jaded, old Hollywood, home to a thousand movie productions, people would be able to differentiate between real life and make-believe, in filming.

But guess what?

"People" would be wrong.

A beginning class was filming a mugging in an alley near school. One man held another man at gunpoint. The gun was rubber with no moving parts. There were a dozen students present. There was a camera on a tripod, dolly track, lights and a truck filled with electrical equipment. But a little old lady walking by failed to make the nexus between the cinematic accouterments and the fact that it was only a movie. She called the police and reported a hold up at gunpoint in an alley.

The police came running. And believe or not, when the LAPD gets a call about a gun and a mugging in an alley, they don't automatically say to themselves': "Oh, gosh, must be film students." They take it seriously. That is why we tell our students, "if the police roll up while you are filming, the actor must immediately DROP THE WEAPON."

Many people believe they can wave a weapon at the police while they explain it's only a make-believe gun. Most police will tell you: "We don't see you... we only see the weapon."

On another occasion, I was sitting in my office on a Saturday when the phone rang and a man's voice blurted: "You almost got my son killed. What-the-hell are you doing down there?"

You can believe that's the kind of dialogue that gets my undivided attention. Some of our students had been filming in a Seven-Eleven store in South Central Los Angeles in the middle of the night. The scene called for a young man attempting to rob the store by pretending to have a gun. In fact, he had no gun. What he did have was a ski mask. The student director told him specifically to place the mask on the top of his head but not to lower over his face until he was inside the store.

The student waited patiently outside for his cue to enter. The director yelled: "Action" and the young actor lowered the mask and stepped into the store. At that precise moment, a Good Samaritan, driving by, saw someone in a ski mask entering a Seven-Eleven and dialed 911. The cops responded quickly. We actually had on film two guys, the size of Delaware, holding shotguns, look right into camera and say: "if we had seen you enter the store, we would have shot you."

The students, thinking they were being diligent, had written a hand-drawn note on a piece of white paper and stuck it in the corner of one of the store windows. Naturally, the police never saw it. That event gave rise to our PRO WEAPONS IN USE signs that every USC student carries to location and places at any point of entry to the set.

We have even gone so far as to insist that students filming on our stages place those sign outside the stage doors.

Always err on the side of caution.