Hillary Clinton Unveils Plan to Tackle Gun Violence Using Executive Action

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:58 AM EDT

On Monday, Hillary Clinton plans to unveil a series of proposals aimed at reducing gun violence that includes the possible use of an executive action to close the "gun show loophole," which currently allows gun sales to proceed even if background checks on individuals are still pending.

The Democratic presidential candidate is expected to announce the plan at two town hall events in New Hampshire. In advance of the appearances, Clinton's campaign released a statement outlining her proposals that detail her push for comprehensive background checks, the tightening of loopholes and internet gun sales even if "Congress fails to act," and efforts to block individuals with domestic abuse records and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms.

In the wake of Thursday's deadly rampage at a community college in Oregon, the former secretary of state called on lawmakers to enact stricter gun control legislation and vowed to help loosen the grip of the National Rifles Association on Congress.

"I'm going to try to do everything I can as president to raise up an equally large and vocal group that is going to prove to be a counterbalance," she said in response to the latest mass shooting in America. "And we're going to tell legislators, do not be afraid. Stand up to these people because a majority of the population and a majority of gun owners agree that there should be universal background checks. And the NRA has stood in the way."

Gun control is one area in which Clinton has appeared markedly more progressive than Sen. Bernie Sanders. In the past, the Vermont senator has drawn criticism from Democrats for his more libertarian stance on the issue, including his controversial support for a 2005 law that protects gun makers against lawsuits from victims of violence. In her plan on Monday, Clinton will reportedly announce her efforts to repeal that law as well.

Following Thursday's massacre, Sanders said he agreed with President Barack Obama's statements saying prayers and condolences were not enough to tackle gun violence in America.

Read Clinton's sweeping plan here.

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Can Donald Trump Sink the TPP?

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

A last-minute deal has finally been reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and concerns abound. Paul Ryan is concerned about dairy products. Sander Levin is concerned about cars. In Louisiana they're concerned about sugar. The whole deal is oozing with parochial local concerns.

So will it pass? A couple of months ago, I would have said yes, and I guess I still do. But I'm a little less sure thanks to the Donald Trump effect. He's opposed to the deal—there's no telling why, really—and he's shown a genius in the past for picking out specific details about various issues and then flogging them to death. So I wonder: what's he going to pick out about the TPP? It might be something ordinary, like currency manipulation provisions, or a general attack on President Obama's lousy negotiating skills. Equally likely, though, he'll somehow find something in the treaty that no one else is really paying attention to, and then twist it into a populist attack that really resonates with the public. If he does that successfully, it's just possible that he could derail the deal.

I'm not sure what odds I'd put on that. But not zero. So far, Trump has mostly been a loudmouth who hasn't fundamentally changed the political landscape. But there's a chance he could do it here. He's worth watching.

Arming the Opposition: A Compendium of Failure

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:20 AM EDT

A couple of days ago I linked to a Phil Carter piece about why arm-and-train missions in underdeveloped countries tended to fail. Today the New York Times has a longish roundup of our failures, and even I was a little surprised by the sheer number of countries we've bungled:

The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries....Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar Province....several thousand American-backed government forces and militiamen in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers.

In northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million....Morocco to Chad. American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner. But in 2012, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya to rout the military, including units trained by United States Special Forces....In Yemen, American-trained troops and counterterrorism forces largely disbanded when Houthi rebels overran the capital last year.

Bright spot....oust the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia....The American government has invested nearly $1 billion....But even with the gains, the Shabab have been able to carry out bombings in Mogadishu, the capital, and in neighboring countries, including massacres at a university and a shopping mall in Kenya in the past two years.

Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and then US ambassador in Afghanistan, sums it up pretty well: "Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable." Maybe it's time we faced up to this.

John Oliver Slams Republicans Who Only Discuss Mental Health to Actively Avoid Gun Control

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:07 AM EDT

In the wake of Thursday's mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, many Republicans were quick to dismiss renewed calls for increased gun safety measures, in favor of discussing the need for a stronger mental health care system. 

On Sunday, John Oliver agreed that mental health is a topic Americans need to properly address. But as he explained on the latest Last Week Tonight, broaching mental health issues in the aftermath of a mass shooting is more often than not a political strategy used to simply reroute the conversation away from gun control.

"It seems like there is nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health," Oliver said, while featuring the talking points of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee—all of whom steered away from discussing increased gun control legislation after the shooting in Oregon, to tout the need for better mental health programs.

In reality, this is dangerously problematic because, as Oliver explains, "the vast majority of mentally ill people are nonviolent, and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally-ill people."

But if Republicans are only willing to talk about treating mentally ill people following mass shootings, so be it: Then at the "very least we owe them a fucking plan," Oliver said.

Bikini Kill's Classic Demo Finally Reissued

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Bikini Kill
Revolution Girl Style Now
Bikini Kill Records

Loud, surly and thrilling, Revolution Girl Style Now reissues the raw 1991 demo tape by the Olympia, Washington, punk quartet widely considered to have launched the Riot Grrl scene, leading the way for a host of other women not content to stay quiet. Feral singer Kathleen Hanna mixes performance art and old-fashioned show-biz charisma in confrontational outbursts like "Daddy's L'il Girl" and "Suck My Left One," addressing feminist concerns with surges of fabulous noise. For longtime followers, this essential set offers three previously unreleased tracks, including the sludgy "Playground." Recommended for fans of Sleater-Kinney and Screaming Females, and anyone else who appreciates rock and roll at its primal best.

The Bottle Rockets' Latest, "South Broadway Athletic Club," Is One of Their Best

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The Bottle Rockets
South Broadway Athletic Club

Utterly familiar yet amazingly fresh on every album, Brian Henneman and company have made loose-jointed, empathetic roots-rock for more than two decades. South Broadway Athletic Club ranks among their best. Spiritual cousins of Drive-By Truckers, with less tragedy and more wry humor, this lovable St. Louis quartet honors people who don't merit headlines, including the auto worker with a bad attitude ("Chrysler"), the dude with a canine best friend ("Dog") and someone whose idea of a good time is wasting time ("Big Fat Nuthin'").

The Bottle Rockets' nimble mix of boogie, blues, and country provides the perfect setting for Henneman's twangy everyman vocals. He's been one of pop's more underrated singers for a long time, but it's never too late to get on the bandwagon.

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The CIA Is Still Refusing to Release Its Files on This Alleged War Criminal

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Salvadoran troopers graduating from artillery school, 1981

In November 1981, early in what would become a 12-year civil war, Lt. Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez led an estimated 1,200 Salvadoran troops into a rural region near the Honduran border. As part of an eight-day campaign to eliminate guerrillas in the area, the soldiers allegedly killed dozens, even hundreds, of fleeing civilians near the community of Santa Cruz.

Now, nearly 34 years later, a group of human rights experts is trying to help bring Ochoa Pérez to justice—and is taking the fight to the CIA, as well. On Friday, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CIA after the agency would neither confirm nor deny the existence of documents surrounding the Santa Cruz massacre. That includes files on Ochoa Pérez, who until recently was a member of Congress in El Salvador.

According to UWCHR project coordinator Phil Neff, the massacre was emblematic of the Salvadoran government's scorched-earth campaigns to "cleanse" areas of guerrillas while often claiming the lives of civilians. Ochoa Pérez, whom Neff calls "one of the US's top counterinsurgents during the '80s," is currently facing a criminal investigation in El Salvador in connection to the offensive. Now that Ochoa Pérez's congressional immunity has run out, the UWCHR is hoping to use CIA intelligence from that era to move the long-stalled cases against him.

Ochoa Pérez marches with supporters in a 2012 protest. Luis Romero/AP

"There have been no successful prosecutions of this kind in El Salvador," Neff says. "In comparison to Guatemala, the advances have been insignificant. So it's thought that he may be low-hanging fruit—but he's not an insignificant guy."

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst of US policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, says the UWCHR faces an uphill battle. "The CIA has been traditionally very well protected against the efforts of citizens to gain records through the legal channels we have open to us," she says, noting that most CIA documents are exempt from FOIA thanks to a 1984 law signed by President Ronald Reagan. The declassifications that do occur, Doyle says, generally happen because the agency releases the information on its own or is forced to by presidential order. That very thing happened in 1993, when President Bill Clinton, under pressure from Congress, pushed the CIA to declassify an estimated 12,000 documents on the Salvadoran civil war, including some on Ochoa Pérez.

"The CIA has got a lot of tricks up its sleeve to protect itself from responding to something like this," Doyle says, noting that the courts rarely overrule the agency when it invokes national security. Still, she says the FOIA suit is a valuable public reminder that the US government has been knowingly sitting on records with important details of grave human rights abuses.

"The lawsuit has the tremendously positive effect," Doyle says, "of bringing that gap between the rhetoric of human rights policy in the United States and the practice into the light."

This story has been updated. For more on the Santa Cruz massacre, check out this short documentary from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights:

Ask Dr. Science: Campaign Trail Edition

| Sun Oct. 4, 2015 12:55 PM EDT

Presidential candidates have been asking a lot of questions lately. Science can help answer them, but this year scientists are in notably short supply on the campaign trail. Asked about the age of the earth, Marco Rubio famously told GQ, "I'm not a scientist, man." Likewise, Mitch McConnell is not a scientist, Rick Scott is not a scientist, John Boehner is not a scientist, Joni Ernst is not a scientist, Bobby Jindal is not a scientist, and Hillary Clinton is not a scientist—just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain. Luckily, I can help. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions asked by major party candidates recently.

Bernie Sanders: "Why are we the only major country that doesn’t guarantee health care for all?"

In 1986 James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in public choice theory, which can shed some light on this. In layman's terms, public choice theory says you should follow the money. So let's follow it. Universal health care is expensive. This means higher taxes, which rich people don't like. Conservative parties cater to the rich, so they generally oppose expansions in health care coverage. In the US, the rich are the richest of all, and the Republican Party therefore caters to them more enthusiastically than anywhere else in the world. As a result, they're more rabidly opposed to national health care than any other conservative party in a major country.

In other words, it's because no other country has the Republican Party.

Ben Carson: "Gravity, where did it come from?"

Well, Ben, when a four-dimensional pseudo-Riemannian manifold and a Landau–Lifshitz stress-energy tensor love each other very much, they produce a geodesic in curved spacetime. And that's the story of gravity.

Kevin McCarthy: "Everyone thought Hillary was unbeatable, right?"

Let's look at this statistically. According to a CNN poll from last year, 44 percent of respondents thought it "very likely" and 34 percent thought it "somewhat likely" that Hillary would win the Democratic nomination. Let's assign p=.9 to "very" and p=.65 to "somewhat." Then P(Nomination) = .62. The same poll assigned Hillary a conditional probability P(Presidency|Nomination) of .51. Thus, since P(A ∩ B) = P(A) * P(B|A), her perceived chance of winning the presidency was p=.32 and her chance of being beaten was a whopping p=.68. She was light years away from being considered unbeatable.

Or, in simpler terms you're more likely to understand, there was never any need to brag about the awesome Hillary-smashing power of the Benghazi committee. You're an idiot.

Donald Trump: "Let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?"

In the neorealist school of international relations, hegemonic stability theory tells us that the world is a better place when a single nation-state, or hegemon, is the dominant player on the global stage. Vladimir Putin is challenging us for this role. If he succeeds, the outcome is either a disastrous multipolar world or an equally disastrous world in which Russia is dominant. Ditto for China. In other words, Russia is killing us! China is killing us! We need to beat them!

Marco Rubio: "How can it be that we sent a Republican majority to Congress and yet they’re still not able to stop our country from sliding in the wrong direction?”

The study of political science can provide some insight into this phenomenon. In "Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism," George Tsebelis explains the crippling effect of having too many agents who can obstruct legislative agendas. "The potential for policy change," he says, "decreases with (a) the number of veto players, (b) the lack of congruence (dissimilarity of policy positions among veto players) and (c) the cohesion (similarity of policy positions among the constituent units of each veto player) of these players."

Taking those one by one, (a) Democrats can filibuster your endless Obamacare temper tantrums, President Obama can veto them, and the Supreme Court can send you packing; (b) the Republican Party has gone nuts; and (c) Democrats are united in stopping you. Did you really not know this?

Carly Fiorina: "Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Do you think this is not happening?"

Of course it's happening. In Hugh Everett's relative state formulation of quantum mechanics, the multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of an infinite number of increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. Thus, every possible thing is happening at every possible instant. And stop calling me Chuck.

Hillary Clinton: "Another conspiracy theory?"


Here's Why "Arming the Opposition" Usually Doesn't Work

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 9:54 PM EDT

I routinely mock the tiresomely predictable calls from conservative hawks to "arm the opposition." It never seems to matter who the opposition is. Nor does it matter if we're already arming them. If we are, then we need to send them even better arms. Does this do any good? Can allied forces always benefit from more American arms and training? That gets tactfully left unsaid.

Today, Phil Carter, who has firsthand experience with this, writes a longer piece explaining just why the theory of indirect military assistance is so wobbly in practice:

The theory briefs well as a way to achieve U.S. goals without great expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. Unfortunately, decades of experience (including the current messes in Iraq and Syria) suggest that the theory works only in incredibly narrow situations in which states need just a little assistance. In the most unstable places and in the largest conflagrations, where we tend to feel the greatest urge to do something, the strategy crumbles.

It fails first and most basically because it hinges upon an alignment of interests that rarely exists between Washington and its proxies.

....Second, the security-assistance strategy gives too much weight to the efficacy of U.S. war-fighting systems and capabilities....For security assistance to have any chance, it must build on existing institutions, adding something that fits within or atop a partner’s forces....But giving night-vision goggles and F-16 aircraft to a third-rate military like the Iraqi army won’t produce a first-rate force, let alone instill the will to fight.

....The third problem with security assistance is that it risks further destabilizing already unstable situations and actually countering U.S. interests. As in Syria, we may train soldiers who end up fighting for the other side or provide equipment that eventually falls into enemy hands.

There are some things we should have learned over the past couple of decades, and one of them is this: "train-and-equip" missions usually don't work. Sometimes they do, as in Afghanistan in the 80s. But that's the rare success. In Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan in the aughts, they failed.

So why do we hear cries to arm our allies during practically every conflict? Because it turns out there aren't very many good choices in between doing nothing and launching a full-scale ground war. One option is aerial support and bombing. Another option is arming someone else's troops. So if you know the public won't support an invasion with US troops, but you still want to show that you're more hawkish than whoever's in charge now, your only real alternative is to call for one or the other of these things—or both—regardless of whether they'll work.

And of course, the louder the better. It might not help the war effort any, but it sure will help your next reelection campaign.

Gun Control's Biggest Problem: Most People Just Don't Care Very Much

| Sat Oct. 3, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

David Atkins writes about the problem of getting gun control legislation passed:

There is a broadening schism in the activist community between those who focus on nuts-and-bolts electoral and legislative politics, and those who spend their energy on issue-area visibility and engagement....Election work and party involvement is increasingly seen as the unhip, uncool, morally compromised province of social climbers and "brogressives" not truly committed to the supposedly "real work" of social justice engagement by non-electoral means.

....There is certainly great value in persuasion, engagement and visibility model....But gun politics in the United States shows above all the weaknesses and limits of the engagement model. The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws....Numerous organizations have engaged in countless petitions and demonstrations to shame legislators into action from a variety of perspectives, but it essentially never works.

....The reason that the United States cannot seem to do anything about guns is simply that the NRA and the vocal minority of the nation's gun owners mobilize to vote on the issue, while the large majority that favors gun safety laws does not....Gun control will pass precisely when legislators become more afraid of the votes of gun control supporters than they are of gun control opponents. That will only happen when interested organizations invest in field work—that much maligned, unsexy work of precinct walking and phonebanking—to mobilize voters on that issue, and when liberal organizations work to unseat Democrats who do the bidding of the NRA and replace them with ones who vote to protect the people.

I'm not sure Atkins has this right. The problem is in the second bolded sentence: "The vast majority of Americans support commonsense gun laws." There's some truth to this, but there's also a big pitfall here, and it's one that liberals are especially vulnerable to. I routinely read lefties who quote polls to show that the country agrees with us on pretty much everything. Voters support teachers, they support the environment, they support financial reform, they support gun control.

But this is a bad misreading of what polls can tell us. There are (at least) two related problems here:

  • Most polls don't tell us how deeply people feel. Sure, lots of American think that universal background checks are a good idea, but they don't really care that much. In a recent Gallup poll of most important problems, gun control ranked 22nd, with only 2 percent rating it their most important issue. Needless to say, though, gun owners are opposed to background checks, and they care a lot.
  • Most polls don't tell us about the tradeoffs people are willing to make. In the abstract, sure, maybe a majority of Americans think we should make it harder to buy guns. But if there's a real-world price to pay how willing are they to pay it? A few months ago, a Pew poll that pitted gun control against gun rights found that gun rights won by 52-46 percent.

There are lots of polls, and some of them probably show a greater intensity among those who support gun control. A lot depends on question wording. But that's sort of my point: If you get substantially different responses because of small changes in question wording or depending on which precise issues you ask about (background checks vs. assault weapons, gun locks vs. large-capacity magazines) that's a sign of low intensity.

Atkins is certainly right that Democratic legislators won't act on gun control until voters are mobilized, but that puts the cart before the horse. You can't mobilize voters on an issue they don't really care much about in the first place. In this case, I think the folks who prioritize issue-area visibility and engagement probably have the better of the argument. Until voters who favor gun control feel as strongly as those who oppose it, all the field work in the world won't do any good.