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."
The memorial to Steve Jobs in St. Petersburg, Russia
Russian media is reporting that a memorial to Steve Jobs in St. Petersburg was dismantled on Friday, one day after current Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay.
A group of Russian companies called the Western European Fiscal Union (ZEFS) erected the more than six-foot tall monument, shaped like an iPhone and featuring an interactive screen that showed information about the Apple founder, in January of 2013, outside of an IT research university in St. Petersburg.
The ZEFS press office said the monument was taken down in order to comply with Russia's law prohibiting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" a broadly-worded law passed in June 2013 that effectively criminalizes most LGBT expression.
ZEFS noted in their statement that the memorial had been "in an area of direct access for young students and scholars."
"After Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly called for sodomy, the monument was taken down to abide by the Russian federal law protecting children from information promoting denial of traditional family values."
Shortly after Cook wrote publicly about being gay, famously anti-gay St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov suggested that Cook be banned from Russia forever, because he might bring Ebola, AIDs, and gonorrhea into the country.
According to Russian media reports, ZEFS gave a second reason for the monument's removal: revelations by Edward Snowden that Apple sends information about its users to America's National Security Agency. (When these revelations first came to light, Apple denied having knowledge of the NSA's surveillance.)
Russian media also reported that the head of ZEFS said he wouldn't be opposed to re-installing the monument, provided that it had the capability to send a message to the US rejecting all Apple products.
So the next logical step here would be for Russia's elite to give up their personal iPhones, right? Well, fat chance.
No election cycle in recent memory has seen the guns issue heat up the way this year's has. The National Rifle Association, continuing a long-running strategy of campaign spending, earmarked over $11 million for this year's elections—but for the first time in decades the nation's leading gun lobby is facing some truly formidable opposition. Americans for Responsible Solutions, launched by former congresswoman and mass shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety, bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have spent millions of their own to try to vanquish the NRA's influence. How will it play out? Here are key races to watch on Tuesday:
Spending by gun control groups: Everytown/Bloomberg, $2.6 million; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1 million. [Update: A new press release from Everytown lists their total Washington spending at $4 million.]
The showdown: In perhaps the most-watched race on guns, voters will decide on two competing ballot measures on the issue of background checks. Initiative 594 would expand background checks for gun purchases online, at gun shows, or through private transactions, closing the so-called loophole in federal law. The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is leading the campaign for I-594, has received financial support totaling more than $2.5 million from both Everytown for Gun Safety and from Bloomberg personally. Bill and Melinda Gates also gave more than $1 million.
The gun lobby counterattacked with Initiative 591, sponsored by Alan Gottlieb, president of the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. I-591 would prohibit the state from requiring background checks unless a "uniform national standard" for those checks is created. If passed, I-591 could create several confusing legal scenarios: This sort of state-level prohibition could contradict federal law, which already allows states to mandate additional background checks. And if both I-591 and I-594 pass, they may negate each other and lead to a protracted legal battle.
Ricochet: Speaking out against I-594 in July, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Washington state, Brian Judy, raised the specter of, what else, Nazi Germany. Referring to venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who pledged $500,000 to back I-594 and who is Jewish, Judy said: "Now, he has put half-a-million dollars toward this policy, the same policy that led to his family getting run out of Germany by the Nazis...It’s like any Jewish people that I meet who are anti-gun, I think, 'Are you serious? Do you not remember what happened?'"
The showdown: The NRA has spent millions on Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina house and GOP candidate for US Senate. That's the case despite the fact that Tillis' opponent, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, has been a strong supporter of gun rights, having voted against bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. She did, however, vote for the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks. The two candidates are in a tight race that could decide control of the Senate. In September, the NRA made a $1.4 million TV ad buy highlighting Tillis' record on Second Amendment issues.
Ricochet: Tillis has an A+ rating from the NRA, not least because he supports the NRA's agenda of legalizing guns all over the place. During his tenure in the North Carolina house, Tillis helped pass a bill expanding concealed carry in North Carolina to school parking lots, public parks, and restaurants serving alcohol.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $272,000
Bill Gold/ Warner Bros./ Wikipedia
The showdown: The NRA has worked vigorously against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in another of this year's key senate battlegrounds. A week after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Udall came out in favor of stricter gun control legislation, and he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill the following April. His opponent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, is decidely pro-gun rights; the NRA spent $1.3 million on a TV ad supporting Gardner. For its part, Americans for Responsible Solutions has targeted voters with digital and direct mail ads in support of Udall.
Ricochet: So-called "Make My Day" protections seek to allow Colorado homeowners to use deadly force if they feel threatened—and as a state representative, Gardner introduced a "Make My Day Better" law (a term he coined) no less than four times. Had it passed, it would have extended these self-defense protections to business-owners and employees.
The showdown: The NRA has spent big on this key Senate race, investing in Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, with $1.4 million going towards TV ads. In 2013, Cotton co-sponsored "The National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act," which would have allowed concealed carry license holders to pack heat in all states that permit concealed carry.
Ricochet: In 2013, the NRA ran radio ads praising Cotton's opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, after he voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill, which Pryor did in spite of direct pleas from family members of Sandy Hook victims. But gun control groups generally have not targeted Pryor for that vote, given his vulnerability in a deep-red state. (Everytown ran a TV ad in Arkansas criticizing Pryor shortly after his vote against Manchin-Toomey, but an Everytown spokesperson told Mother Jones that the group hasn't taken any action against Pryor this election season.)
Spending by the NRA: $663,000 (House) + $3.4 million (Senate)
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $269,000 (House) + $470,700 (Senate)
The showdown: The third congressional district race in Iowa is one of the most heated with respect to guns, with both Americans for Responsible Solutions and the NRA making six-figure buys for TV attack ads. The Republican candidate, David Young, helped block the Manchin-Toomey bill while working as Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) chief of staff. An ARS ad focuses on how that makes it easier for domestic abusers to get guns:
Young's challenger, former state Sen. Staci Appel, by contrast, voted for a law prohibiting gun possession by perpetrators of domestic violence in 2010. The NRA's ad goes after her by linking her with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In the state's tight Senate race, the NRA has so far spent more money against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley than on any other candidate this year, throwing its support behind Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst has consistently voted for pro-gun policies. The NRA recently aired a provocative ad in her support: A mom is putting her kids to bed and texting with her spouse, who is on his way home from the airport. Suddenly a man breaks in, and the clip cuts to yellow caution tape, while a narrator intones, "Bruce Braley voted to take away your gun rights."
Americans for Responsible Solutions fired back a few days ago with its own ad, which features a county sheriff and highlights Ernst's opposition to universal background checks.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.8 million
The showdown: Gabby Giffords represented Arizona's 2nd congressional district before she was shot in the head during a community event in Tucson in January 2011. Now, in what is shaping up to be one of the nation's tightest House races, Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions has spent more money opposing Republican Martha McSally than it has spent on any other candidate. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Ron Barber beat McSally in the 2012 House race. Barber had served as Giffords' district director,and was also wounded in the 2011 mass shooting.
ARS aired two commercials in September highlighting McSally's opposition to closing the loophole on background checks at gun shows and online. The group debuted another ad this week.
Ricochet: In September, ARS ran a controversial ad criticizing McSally's stance on laws that would have made it harder for convicted stalkers to get a gun. ARS yanked the ad after McSally announcedthat she had been a stalking victim and would support laws that would make it illegal for misdemeanant stalkers to buy guns.
Spending by gun control groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions, $1.1 million
The showdown: In the first and second congressional districts, ARS has spent big on TV ads that highlight former Republican Rep. Frank Guinta and state Rep. Marilinda Garcia’s opposition to universal background checks. While in Congress, Guinta cosponsored a bill for reciprocity of conceal carry permits across state lines.
Ricochet: In 2011, Republican congressmen read the Constitution aloud in its entirety on the House floor for the first time. Guinta read the Second Amendment, to the envy of some colleagues.