Bryan Schatz and Alexander SammonJun. 27, 2016 6:00 AM
"Friends, I need your help," Greg Evers wrote to his Facebook followers last Wednesday. "Over the last 48 hours as I have taken on Washington and the liberal Obama/Clinton policies of Gun Control I have become the target of a well organized liberal machine." He implored his supporters, "I need your help combating those who would tear our constitution to shreds."
Evers, a Republican candidate for Congress from Florida, had just launched the "Homeland Defender Giveaway" on his Facebook campaign page, offering an AR-15 rifle to one randomly chosen resident of his district. The gun, similar to the assault rifle recently used to kill 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, "proudly displays the 2nd amendment [sic] on the right side of the receiver," read a press release from the Evers campaign.
Evers didn't get the response he was expecting. The "well organized liberal machine" he referred to is the disparate collection of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to flood Facebook with reports of suspected gun sales and get the site to take down posts promoting unlicensed firearms transactions. Severalofthem took issue with Evers' AR-15 giveaway, seeing it as callous move in the wake of the Orlando massacre.
"I report these sites because I'm really, really, really fucking angry. Why isn't Facebook policing their backyard?"
"I want it to be hard to get a gun. I'm opposed to how easy it is to take out 50 people in a two-minute period. And I'm pissed off at how little our government has done about it," says Mike Monteiro, a web design director in San Francisco whose Twitter feed has become a repository for his and others' handiwork in getting groups where guns are sold kicked off of Facebook for violating the site's rules. He estimates that he and his "army of little miscreants" have gotten at least 400 groups banned.
"We found something simple that we could do," Monteiro says. "I don't know how big of an effect it's having. Probably very fucking little, but it's at least something." He is unapologetic about reporting Evers to Facebook. "He was offering a free AR-15," he notes. "I love that we pissed off some Congressman. I hope we ruined his dinner."
In January, when Facebook banned private sales of guns and ammunition, it was assumed buying a gun on the site would become significantly more difficult. For years the social network had unintentionally facilitated unregulated weapons sales. (There were some limits. In 2014, Facebook restricted posts discussing firearms sales to users over 18 and warned sellers to abide by state and federal laws.) Now, six months after the ban went into effect, it's clear that Facebook continues to host a bustling arms marketplace, where everything from handguns to rifles are easy to procure, often without a background check.
A Facebook group flagged for violating the site's ban on private gun sales
The anti-gun Facebook vigilantes readily recount their scores. Malachi Smith says that he's gotten 93 groups removed, and has "30+ reports in the queue for review right now. My success rate is over 80%," he wrote in an email. Chris Tacy has taken 74 groups down. Jough Dempsey claims 18 takedowns, including that of a group with 11,000 members. Some discuss their numbers as if they're setting exercise records. "I have to stop for the day, but hit pers best, 48," tweeted John Sibley, who has also written a guide to "chasing guns from Facebook." Gun violence prevention advocates affiliated with groups like Everytown for Gun Safety have reported thousands more removals.
A few months after it implemented its gun-sale ban, Facebook rolled out a feature that makes it easier for users to report posts or pages that describe "the purchase or sale of drugs, guns or regulated products." But enforcement of the ban is entirely reliant on user reporting. Monteiro and others recount Facebook telling them that flagged groups had not violated its community standards, only to see that determination reversed as more people reported the same groups. One group called Sell Guns for Cash was not removed after being flagged, nor was another group with posts showing images of firearms with prices on them. "When we found out that Facebook had this policy, we thought it was great. We were going to use it to get rid of this stuff. But it's frustrating how inconsistently it's being supported," says Monteiro.
Facebook is erratic in following its own guidelines. Yesterday I was told 9 groups with "gun sales" in the name were within guidelines.
Overzealous gun-group flaggers sometimes hit the wrong targets. The gun-sale ban only affects sales between individuals, not sales by federally licensed firearms dealers. But Facebook has no way of vetting licensed gun sellers. According to Monteiro, pages for brick-and-mortar gun shops have been taken down wrongfully at times.
Gun-selling Facebook groups have found ways to circumvent the site's restrictions. In March, Forbes reporter Matt Drange found that some groups were becoming private to avoid scrutiny. Others switched from "closed" to "secret," a status that's all but invisible to users not already in the group or invited by current members. Some sellers use codes when listing weapons for sale.
These workarounds may indicate something more significant than loopholes in the site's policy. Chuck Rossi, Facebook's director of engineering, has become an advocate for gun groups within the company and has helped reinstate gun groups. As also reported by Drange at Forbes, some of the groups Rossi has helped rescued from removal have continued to be forums for private gun deals. Rossi also became the leader of a secret group of administrators for gun pages called "Admin Contact." According to Forbes, in February Rossi wrote to the group's members: "I am 100% laser focused on getting your groups back to you so you have a chance to get them to comply with the new policy. It is my sole freaking purpose in life until it is done." His efforts have helped many groups get out of what's known as "Facebook jail."
In a statement to Mother Jones, a Facebookspokesperson emphasized that "The purchase, sale or trade of firearms, ammunition and explosives between private individuals isn't allowed on Facebook… When a reported post violates Facebook's policies, that post will be removed, however the group it appeared in will not necessarily be taken down."
"I report these sites because I'm really, really, really fucking angry. Why isn't Facebook policing their backyard?" says one flagger, who wishes to remain anonymous. "Why is it still so easy to get a gun? Why can they sell and swap in the open using dirty loopholes? It was maddening to see people pricing, bargaining, and exchanging weapons in the open. The goal of this was to do something—anything."
As often happens after mass shootings, gun company shares soared on the first day of trading following the Orlando massacre that left at least 49 dead on Sunday. But the frequency and brutality of these attacks could also lead to further divestments from the gun industry.
Following the Newtown massacre, in early 2013 the board of California's public pension plan announced it would yank its investments in Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger. The $5 million divestment was a symbolic gesture for the $254 billion fund, but it was a reminder that many investors could walk away from their gun stocks without hurting their bottom lines. As California Treasurer Bill Lockyer noted, "There's only one way that we speak and that's with money." Gun stocks could lose their luster for other reasons. In March 2016, New York's public advocate urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Sturm Ruger for allegedly failing to inform its investors about liability risks stemming from its products.
Here are the holdings of some top institutional and fund investors in publicly traded gun companies:
Among the weapons used in Sunday's devastating mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando was a rifle similar to an AR-15, the civilian version of an assault rifle originally designed for the US military. The immense popularity of the AR-15 is just one chapter in the recent rise of the American gun industry. As the National Rifle Association, bankrolled by the nation's biggest gunmakers, has fanned fears of an imminent crackdown on gun owners, a buying spree has put ever more deadly weapons into Americans' hands.
1980: American gun companies manufacture 5.6 million firearms.
1981: The Glock, the first pistol with a plastic receiver, is introduced. After fears subside that it could go undetected by X-ray machines, it becomes one of the hottest handguns for police officers and civilians.
1982: A "handgun freeze" proposition in California is defeated following a $5 million NRA campaign funded by gun companies, including Sturm Ruger and Smith & Wesson.
1990: Colt first introduced a civilian model of its military AR-15/M16 rifle in the 1960s, but it failed to patent its design. As other companies produced similar rifles, sales started to rise in the early '90s. By 2011, Americans had bought more than 7 million "modern sporting rifles," as pro-gun groups prefer to call these military-style weapons. Their owners spend an average of $436 on accessories and customization.
1992: More than one-third of all handguns are made by the "Ring of Fire"—six Southern California gunmakers known for their "Saturday night specials": small, inexpensive pistols frequently linked to crimes.
1994: Congress passes a 10-year assault weapons ban, with former President Ronald Reagan among the leaders voicing support.
AP Photo/Mark Wilson
1995: NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre calls federal law enforcement agents "jack-booted government thugs." President George H.W. Bush resigns his NRA life membership in response to this "vicious slander on good people."
1996: Congress bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from doing any research that could be used to "advocate or promote gun control," effectively ending federally funded public health research on gun violence.
1997: The Clinton administration negotiates a deal with eight gunmakers to include trigger locks with their handguns.
1998: "I'm not a gun nut. I'm not even a member of the NRA," says Colt's CEO, who advocates the creation of federal gun permits.
AP Photo/Greg Gibson
1999: Colt develops a smart-gun prototype. It later abandons the project after the NRA threatens a boycott.
2000: Smith & Wesson agrees with the Clinton administration to enact various safety regulations. The NRA leads a boycott. The company's sales drop 40 percent; it later backtracks.
2003: Congress passes the Tiahrt Amendment, blocking the ATF from releasing information on guns used in crimes. The data had been used to identify unscrupulous gun sellers and manufacturers.
2004: The federal assault weapons ban expires.
2004: Bushmaster Firearms and a gun dealer agree to a $2.5 million settlement with victims of the DC Beltway snipers, who used a rifle designed to bypass the assault weapons ban.
2005: Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which blocked liability suits against gunmakers and sellers. Cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and New York had sued over the effects of gun violence, rattling the industry. In 1999, NRA President Charlton Heston assured gun execs, "Your fight has become our fight." The PLCAA shut down the ongoing litigation. The law reemerged as a major issue in the 2016 Democratic primary, with Hillary Clinton pressing Bernie Sanders to justify his vote for it. Sanders has argued gunmakers should not be held liable for the actions of "somebody who is crazy or a criminal"—but he has also said the current law should be repealed.
2008: The "Barack Boom" begins, with gun sales spiking in tandem with President Barack Obama's election. A gun industry newsletter reports "incessant consumer demand for high-capacity pistols and military-style rifles."
2009: Remington CEO George Kollitides runs for the NRA board. He doesn't succeed, but he gets a seat on the organization's powerful nominating committee, which controls who can run.
2013: America's largest outdoor-sports show bans AR-15s and other military-style rifles out of deference to grieving Newtown families. After the NRA boycotts the show, it shuts down. The NRA then takes over the show and brings it back in 2014—with AR-15s.
2015: Walmart says it will no longer carry AR-15s or other military-style rifles, claiming they sold poorly. The NRA says it's "disappointed" but stops short of calling for a boycott.
2015: Former Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), who wrote the 1996 measure that killed the CDC's research on gun violence, says he regrets the move. Regarding the lack of reliable data, he adds, "The status quo is not acceptable."
2016: The Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle, which can shoot through concrete blocks at a range of 3,000 feet, is named the state gun of Tennessee.
2016: Requests for FBI background checks on prospective gun buyers, an indicator of demand, reach record levels. Since 2008, gunmakers have produced or imported more than 75 million firearms for sale in the United States.
The controversial weapon is known for indiscriminately killing civilians.
Bryan SchatzMay 31, 2016 3:10 PM
In a rare display of wariness over civilian casualties in Yemen, the United States is halting the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, according to Foreign Policy. Last week, an unnamed American official said that the move comes amid rising concerns that Riyadh's US-backed air campaign in Yemen has been dropping cluster bombs "in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present or in the vicinity."
Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian areas and civilian infrastructure in its conflict with Houthi rebels in Yemen, resulting in the death of hundreds of noncombatants, many of them children. Remnants of American-made cluster bombs have been found near civilian areas. Since the war in Yemen began in March 2015, the United States has sold weapons and provided intelligence, support, and aerial refueling to the Saudi-led coalition backing the government.
Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or "bomblets", that spread over large areas before detonating. Bomblets that do not explode or self-destruct when they're deployed become de facto land mines. They remain on the ground until, as Megan Burke, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, told Mother Jones last year, "someone or something comes along and triggers that explosion." In 2008, an international treaty banned the weapons. The United States and other major arms exporting countries refused to sign it.
A 2008 Pentagon policy directive states that the weapons can only be used against "clearly defined military targets." But, Burke said, "Once you give a weapon to another country, you lose control over how they're going to use it."
"Once you give a weapon to another country, you lose control over how they're going to use it."
The suspension of cluster munition transfers applies specifically to the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, manufactured by the Rhode Island-based Textron Systems. In 2013, Textron landed a $641 million contract to supply Saudi Arabia with 1,300 of the controversial weapons. In production tests, the CBU-105 cluster bombs met the Pentagon's requirement that 99 percent of bomblets explode, but Human Rights Watch has documented unexploded CBU-105 submunitions, also called "skeets" in their case, in multiple areas in Yemen. "We have a photo with one of the canisters sitting on the ground with four skeets just sitting there. They never deployed," Steve Goose, the director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, told Mother Jones. "According to Textron, that could never happen."
It is unclear whether the export hold will affect ongoing shipments from the 2013 arms deal or if it will only affect future requests from Saudi Arabia. Matthew Colpitts, a spokesman for Textron Systems, told Foreign Policy that the company "does not comment on delivery dates with our customers." Neither does the United States government.
The couple who had panicked the nation's right-wing politicians and pundits sits on a couch in a spartan ground-level apartment on the outskirts of San Bernardino, California. Thirty-two-year-old Samer is in a blue sweatshirt and jeans, lounging next to his wife, Sara. He has a round face and relaxed eyes; she is more angular, her eyes more direct. They're both wearing ankle monitors. Ever since they were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention two months earlier, they've kept a low profile. It took me weeks to contact them, and now they've agreed to tell their story. But they have some caveats: no real names, not too many details. They don't want to stir up any more trouble than they've already been through.
Eight months before I met them, they were in Syria, on the phone with a smuggler. ISIS fighters were on the fringes of their small Christian village, firing mortars into it. Samer and Sara knew if the village fell there was a good chance they'd be abused or executed. There was no power, no work, and the price of food was punishing. Part of their home was blown up. Their little boys, two and five years old, were "afraid all the time," Sara recalls. They almost never ventured outdoors. Of Syria, Samer says, "It is not a life." So they decided to seek a new one—in America, where they hoped to join Samer's parents and sister, who live in California.
The smuggler told them he could help, in exchange for everything they had—a valuable tract of land, the remains of their home, and all its contents. The smuggler's network stretched across the globe, and he arranged to get them to Lebanon, then Turkey, where they waited three months before being supplied with expertly forged European passports—they won't say which nationality—and plane tickets to Brazil. From there, they traveled north. The smuggler told them where to go, whom to meet, when to take a car, and when to fly. The passports worked at every checkpoint, border, and airport.
Donald Trump tweeted that the family might be terrorists: "ISIS maybe? I told you so."
On November 17, Samer, Sara, and their two little boys walked across the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, and turned themselves in to American immigration officials. Samer remembers, "I was so happy. I finally arrived here to have a safe life, a good life for my children."
They didn't realize they were stepping into a firestorm of anti-refugee hysteria. Four days before their arrival, ISIS-backed terrorists had attacked in Paris. After Samer and Sara entered the United States, the conservative website Breitbart proclaimed—falsely—that they and another Syrian family who had crossed with them were "illegal aliens" who had been "caught" sneaking into the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a link to the story. Ben Carson said their arrival could be a sign that "our worst nightmare may be unfolding before our eyes." Trump tweeted that they might be terrorists: "ISIS maybe? I told you so. we need a big & beautiful wall!" In the days that followed, more than 30 governors said they did not want Syrian refugees settling in their states.
Almost immediately after requesting asylum, Sara and the boys were put in one ICE detention center, Samer in another. They went through the extensive asylum interview process and were determined to have "credible fears of persecution or torture" in Syria. Within two weeks they were approved for release. ICE officials told Samer's family in California to buy airline tickets for them. But the day before they were set to depart, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino. ICE told Samer's family to cancel the flights to California, and Samer and Sara were denied parole. The only explanation was a vague declaration of "law enforcement interests."
During their weeks of detention, Samer was allowed to speak to Sara only once on the phone. The boys cried every night, asking Sara where their father was. As Christmas approached, the children had been held for nearly 40 days, despite a mandate that most migrant kids should be released after three to five days. "The look on their face is a look of terror," their lawyer, Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, told me after visiting Sara at the time. "The look and the panic of a person pinned down on a hospital gurney."
"I definitely thought America would accept me," Samer told the Guardian. "If I had known that it was so terrible here I wouldn't have brought my family." On Christmas Eve, the family was finally released, reunited, and put on a flight to California.
Samer, Sara, and their two boys walked across the border at Laredo, Texas. "I was so happy. I finally arrived here to have a safe life, a good life for my children."
That's where I meet them two months later, in the warm and tidy apartment where Samer's parents live. A cross hangs above the kitchen doorway. We drink tea in the living room as Samer and Sara lay out the terms for sharing their story. They're wary: They don't want to be back in the headlines, and they worry more press could endanger Sara's mother and sister, still trapped in Syria. "They didn't have a chance to leave," she says. ISIS is still on the outskirts of their village.
They talk about life before the war, of their town—a small community speckled with trees and fields of crops. Sara doesn't want to dwell on how the war has changed it. "The way the village looks is not important," she says. "It is like all of Syria," a landscape of broken concrete and twisted rebar.
Their troubles aren't over. The asylum process, as Ryan puts it, is "designed so that people fall into the cracks, lose their cases on a technicality that would drive any sports fan nuts."
But for now, Samer and Sara are piecing together a normal life. "My son started school," she says, beaming. "Preschool. Just five years old, but he is a big boy. He is starting to learn English." The boys, who have been playing in the living room, disappear into the kitchen and return proudly carrying potted flowers. "They bought this flower for their grandma," Sara explains. Next they walk out holding a bag of peanut M&Ms with pleading eyes, grinning and squirming. They can play outside now. But not today. "It's too windy!" Sara says with a laugh.