In the past month, towns across Pennsylvania have been scrambling to scrap their gun laws. Clairton, Allentown, and West Mifflin have rescinded rules banning guns in city parks or requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen weapons. Other localities, like Reading and College township, have announced plans to imminently repeal all laws regulating firearms.
Some of the city councilmembers and officials behind the repeals are doing so grudgingly. "It's not something I ever intended to do," one Munhall councilman told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after the town decided to undo a local gun law. Homestead's mayor called the entire thing "absolutely ridiculous." "We're basically being forced to repeal these laws at gunpoint," Doylestown's council president wrote on his Facebook page. "Every local gun law must go!"
The statewide shakeup is the result of a law that morphed from a sleepy anti-theft bill into a blatant attempt to roll back gun control across the Keystone State. In January 2013, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced House Bill 80, a bipartisan measure to create penalties for stealing scrap metals. It passed the state House handily and headed to the state Senate. But last October, the bill took a detour: With Republican Gov. Tom Corbett facing a tight reelection race, GOP lawmakers tacked a stalled four-year-old gun bill onto HB 80 in the final hours of the legislative session. The bill passed by a wide margin. A few days later, Corbett signed the bill before a room ofgun lobbyists and activists at a sportsmen's club. Nobody mentioned scrap metals. "By signing this, we are helping protect the rights of hunters and other sportsmen and sportswomen," said Corbett.
When Kseniya, the head of a lesbian night club in St. Petersburg, Russia, and her partner boarded their flight home from Moscow this week, they weren't expecting to run into one of their local politicians—much less the lawmaker who's been trying to make their lives hell. The women realized that Vitaly Milonov, a key architect of Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" bill, was sitting one row behind them on their Aeroflot flight, and decided this would be the perfect moment for a kissing selfie (Milonov is the redhead with the glasses):
A photo posted by моябесконечность (@infinitykseniya) on
The caption says: "Who's that behind us??? MILONOV! And we don't give a shit! We're flying to our favorite nightclub, 'Infinity'"
In a statement to AFP yesterday, Milonov said the couple's selfie "shows that all LGBT people are mentally ill." (Yes, solid reasoning.) Kseniya later posted more information about the encounter, along with more photos, on her Vkontakte page:
"Lots of people are asking me about my last post: Did we really go and kiss in front of Milonov? Was it really Milonov? Maybe it was just somebody who looked like him? What was the flight like? And so on. Here are my answers: Yes it was really Milonov! As fate would have it, he was sitting in the row right behind us. The whole flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Milonov said nothing to us. We staged the photo shoot in front of him, and he hid behind his tablet when he realized. We're all super happy. Him—probably not so much."
In August of last year, a 16-year-old high-schooler in Summerville, South Carolina, turned in a creative writing assignment about shooting his neighbor's pet dinosaur. The school's "zero tolerance" policy for guns prompted a search of the student's belongings that turned up no weapons. Nonetheless, he was arrested and suspended for what he said was a joke, if one in questionable taste.
South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons hopes to use that incident to force public schools to dedicate three weeks each year to teaching a gun-focused curriculum developed or recommended by the National Rifle Association. Traditionally, zero tolerance policies have applied to students bringing weapons to school or simulating their use with toys or hand gestures—not to academic discussion of guns. Still, in the bill Clemmons filed in the state legislature last month he states that these NRA-approved lessons are needed to combat an "intolerance for any discussion of guns or depiction of guns in writing or in assignments in public schools, which is an affront to First Amendment rights and harshly inhibits creative expression and academic freedom."
"If anything comes up in a school setting that has to do with firearms, then it's a suspendable offense and criminal charges could ensue," Clemmons told WMBF News. "The second amendment should be freely debated in schools and instead the second amendment is being squelched in our schools."
If passed, the Second Amendment Education Act would require that three consecutive weeks of each year in elementary, middle, and high school be spent studying the second amendment. As Ian Millhiser at Think Progress points out, that's an enormous chunk of the school year, especially given that some South Carolina schools devote just two weeks to slavery and a week and a half to World War II.
"Even amongst a conservative constituency in South Carolina, I think they can rate that they have more abiding problems than this."
The law would also require that every December 15—the day after the anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook school in Newtown—be designated "Second Amendment Awareness Day." To celebrate the occasion, schools will be required to hold mandatory poster or essay contests at every grade level, with the theme "The Right To Bear Arms; One American Right Protecting All Others." The South Carolina Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus will be in charge of choosing first, second, and third place winners in both contests.
Both chambers of South Carolina's legislature are Republican-controlled, and Gov. Nikki Halley has an A+ rating from the NRA. Still, this bill may be too extreme to pass:
"Even amongst a conservative constituency in South Carolina, I think they can rate that they have more abiding problems than this," says Dr. Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University who's long served as a political consultant to Republican candidates in South Carolina.
"Most people are more concerned with math and science, and the fact that historically, South Carolina's rankings in education have been abysmal. Nobody, I think, would say 'The best way to improve education is to have a three-week segment on the Second Amendment. Boy, that'll move us up in the national rankings!'" says Woodard.
The bill includes a list of gun-related topics that must be worked into the curriculum. Several—including the individual right to bear arms—are straight out of the revisionist interpretation of the Second Amendment that the NRA and its supporters have helped popularize since the 1970s.
The curriculum would require students from first grade and up to get into the weeds of constitutional scholarship on the Second Amendment. Students will be asked to study Supreme Court cases "including the United States v. Cruikshank, the United States v. Miller, the District of Columbia v. Heller, and McDonald v. Chicago." (The majority arguments in Heller and McDonaldgrew out of the push by pro-gun researchers to redefine the Second Amendment.) The bill also mandates that students learn about "the constitutionality of gun control laws," the causes of mass shootings, and "the impact of legislative reactions to gun violence on Constitutional rights and the impact on reducing gun violence, if any."
Clemmons identifies as a Second Amendment advocate. He has repeatedly received an A rating from the NRA, and has taken part in events with the group in his state. In 2013, he was featured on the NRA's website after taking a trip to Connecticut to convince gun manufacturers, put off by tightening gun control legislation in the state post-Newtown, to move their operations to South Carolina.
It's unclear if Rep. Clemmons or his cosponsors have hashed out the logistics of the NRA's involvement in developing or approving a curriculum: Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA, tells Mother Jones that the NRA has not made any recommendations on the syllabus envisioned by the bill, nor have South Carolina legislators made plans with the NRA about the group's future role. Attempts by Mother Jones to contact Rep. Clemmons have not been answered, but we will update this story if we receive a response.
The death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.
Update (12/12/2014): On Thursday, the Ohio Senate approved HB663 with a 20-10 vote. Next week, the bill will return to the Ohio House for consideration of the Senate's changes, and will then go to Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to sign it into law.
The execution of Dennis McGuire on January 16 of this year did not go as planned. Injected with an untested cocktail of drugs, the Ohio death row inmate gasped, choked, and writhed in his restraints. McGuire was declared dead after 26 minutes, having endured the longest execution in the state's history.
"To a degree of medical certainty, this was not a humane execution," an anesthesiologist testified in a subsequent federallawsuit against the state's execution team. The lawsuit, filed by McGuire's children, declares the execution method used on McGuire cruel and unusual and seeks to block its further use in Ohio.
Yet state lawmakers are now rushing to pass a "secret executions" bill that would make it harder to know what really happens in the death chamber. If passed, HB663 will drop a veil of secrecy over the death penalty byexempting anyone participating in a lethal injection from public records requests that might reveal their identities or duties. It would apply to medical and nonmedical staff, companies transporting or preparing supplies or equipment used in executions, and the providers of the drugs used in the lethal injection.
Introduced just two weeks ago in a lame-duck session, the bill sailed through committee and was passed by the state House last Thursday, 62 to 27. The bill now moves to the Senate, which could vote on it as early as the first week of December. Most of the measure's support comes from Republicans, who control both chambers of the legislature. It is not clear whether Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who supports the death penalty but has been generous in granting clemency, will sign the bill if it comes to him. The Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that the bill's sponsors have claimed that they have Kasich's support.
"This is the most extreme lethal injection secrecy bill that we've seen nationwide."
After McGuire's botched execution, a federal judge issued a moratorium on capital punishment in Ohio until January 2015. The state's next execution is scheduled for February. This imminent deadline is part of what's driving the legislature's urgency to pass the execution secrecy bill. The European suppliers of the state's preferred execution drug, pentobarbital, now refuse to sell it for use in executions. Lawmakers hope that the promise of anonymity will goad local compounding pharmacies into providing the drug.
If it goes into law, the bill would make it exceedingly difficult for the public or the press to investigate executions. Under the law, participants in executions may be sued if they reveal any confidential information or identities. The law also would undermine prisoners' due process rights, according to the ACLU: Byexempting the participants in lethal injections from subpoenasand discovery proceedings, the law would make it virtually impossible for inmates' lawyers or courts to depose or question anyone with knowledge of a particular execution or death-penalty protocol. A late amendment to the bill does make limited room for disclosure through private judicial hearings.
Thirteen other states have passed or tried to pass these sorts of gag rules. The bills are also growing more broad."The trend we see in the more recent confidentiality statutes is an enhancement of both the breadth and depth of secrecy surrounding execution procedures," notes Megan McCracken, an attorney at the death penalty clinic at the University of California-Berkeley law school.
But Ohio's bill goes even further. First, it would void any contract, domestic or international, that would hinder the state's ability to obtain execution drugs. It also extends professional immunity for participants in executions, stating that licensing organizations can not "take any disciplinary action against" physicians, pharmacists, or other staff. Many professional associations' codes of conduct prohibit participation in capital punishment, and the Ohio State Medical Association has expressed concerns about the bill's "intent to statutorily void" parts of the medical ethics code. "I think this is the most extreme lethal injection secrecy bill that we've seen nationwide," says Brickner.
The original version of the bill,sponsored by state Rep. Jim Buchy (R-Greenville), sought to ensure permanent blanket secrecy. An amended version requires individuals and companies involved in executions to opt-in for anonymity, and would make their identities public 20 years after they finish their business with the state. "20 years later is a rather pointless exercise," says Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the ACLU of Ohio. "If the company has a 10-year contract, you wouldn't see that information in your lifetime."
With four botched executions in the last eight years, Ohio's use of the death penalty has come under increasing scrutiny. Beyond practical considerations regarding lethal injection, the legislature's rush may also be an attempt to quiet the debate on capital punishment, notes Brickner. Yet it may have the opposite effect. "This bill is fundamentally broken," says Brickner. "There will be no shortage of lawsuits challenging it."
90-year-old Arnold Abbott retrieves his driver license to present to police during an altercation over Fort Lauderdale's new law restricting distributing food to the homeless.
Last week, 90-year-old World War II veteran Arnold Abbott made national headlines when he got busted by cops in Fort Lauderdale, Florida twice in one week—for giving out food to homeless people. While serving a public meal on November 2, Abbott told the Sun-Sentinel, "a policeman pulled my arm and said, 'Drop that plate right now,' like it was a gun." Abbott runs a nonprofit group that regularly distributes food in city parks. Because of an ordinance the city passed this October that restricts feeding the homeless in public, his charity work is now potentially illegal.
Abbott was cited again three days later in a different city park. Now the retired jewelry salesman is facing up to 60 days in jail or a $500 fine. And he's not the only one risking jail time forgenerosity: 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Coalition for the Homeless
The number of cities trying to pass these so-called "feeding bans" is on the rise, says Stoops. An October report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that since January of 2013, 22 cities have successfully passed restrictions on food-sharing, and the legislation is pending in nine other cities. (Fort Lauderdale's measure passed a few days after the Coalition's report published.)
Most of these measures regulate public property use, especially parks, by either requiring permits to share food on public property or banning the practice altogether. Citations for violating these laws are not uncommon. In Orlando in 2011, more than 20 activists got arrested while ladling food for about 35 people in a park, in violation of the city's restrictions on feeding the homeless. In 2013, police threatened to arrest members of a Raleigh, North Carolina church group who regularly hand out coffee and sausage biscuits to the needy on weekend mornings. Just this May, six people in Daytona Beach, Florida were fined more than $2,000 for feeding homeless people at a park. (The fines were ultimately dropped.)
"They don't want the homeless in the downtown areas. It interferes with business."
A few cities have imposed food safety precautions, like requiring charities to get a food handler's permit,or mandating that they only serve hot food prepared in approved locations or in the form of pre-packaged meals. These sorts of restrictions regularlyshut out donated meals. And in many cases, they seem to be unfairly targeting the homeless: When the issue of food safety was raised during a court hearing on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina's food-sharing law, the legal director of the state's ACLU chapter pointed out that similar restrictions weren't being levied against family reunions in parks, for instance, and that it had never received a single report of homeless people getting sick from the food. A Utah state representative said the same thing about Salt Lake City's food-sharing law.
Stoops says that the uptick in food-sharing restrictions is driven in part by what cities perceive to be the rising visibility of the homeless. "They don't want the homeless in the downtown areas. It interferes with business," Stoops says. "Cities have grown tired of the problem, so they think by criminalizing homelessness they'll get rid of the visible homeless populations."
South Carolina's ACLU chapter pointed out that it had never received a single report of homeless people getting sick from the food.
Data doesn't back up the notion that homelessness has grown more apparent: Between 2007 and 2014, homelessness decreased by 11 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's point-in-time counts, considered the most scientific census of the homeless. Numbers of the unsheltered homeless, who are typically more visible, fell by 23 percent between 2007 and 2013.
Still, visibility persists as an oft-cited motivator for those who support these measures. "The food sharing itself was not necessarily the issue, but there was a host of ancillary behaviors when people gathered after the food sharing," Kelly McAdoo, the assistant city manager of Hayward, California, told NBC after the city enacted restrictions for food-sharing on public property this past February. She said people would stay in the public park drinking, relieving themselves, and fighting; other residents "wouldn't feel comfortable coming to these parks."
Others say that food-sharing should be curbed because it enables homeless people to stay homeless. Stoops disagrees with that view. He notes that challenges like lack of job opportunity and mental or physical disability are what cause homelessness—not the occasional free meal.
For now, all eyes are still on Fort Lauderdale. Abbott has gotten calls from all over the world, and he confronted the city's mayor on live TV this past Sunday. Now he's bracing himself for more altercations with police. Last weekend, Abbott promised to returnto the park where he's served meals to the homeless for more than two decades: "We will continue as long as there is breath in my body."