The months since the Newtown massacre have seen an explosion of gun and ammo giveaways on Facebook. For some gun enthusiasts, scoring a free AR-15 assault weapon has been as easy as clicking a "like" button on the Facebook page of a firearms marketer such as 556 Tactical, Pittsburgh Tactical, or AR15News.com. Since December, the number of gun and ammo giveaways on the social networking site has increased seven-fold, according to research by the media startup Vocativ:
Facebook has allowed companies to give away guns as sweepstakes prizes since 2011. However, a Facebook spokesperson told Vocativ that the sweepstakes in question are technically ads, and therefore still violate a Facebook policy banning "the promotion and sale of weapons." As of yesterday, the Facebook pages of the three major firearms marketers had been taken down, though Facebook apparently still allows assault weapons giveaways as long as they aren't used as tools for selling guns.
The author tests an AR-15 at the Alameda County NRA Members Council "fun shoot."
"By now it's well known," a grim-faced President Obama intoned last Wednesday after the Senate killed a package of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence, "that 90 percent of the American people support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. We're talking about convicted felons, people convicted of domestic violence, people with a severe mental illness. Ninety percent of Americans support that idea."
Those Americans, however, were in short supply on a recent evening at Rickey's Sports Theatre & Grill in San Leandro, California, in whose parking lot one could spot jacked-up pickup trucks with bumper stickers like: "Liberal: A person so open minded that their brains have fallen out."
I showed up at the bar to check out the monthly meeting of the NRA Members Council of Alameda County, a county that swings liberal, to say the least: the Free Speech Movement. People's Park riots. Anti-war protests. The Black Panthers. Barbara Lee. Occupy Oakland. Berkeley. Quasi-legal pot. Alameda County has it all. If it were any further to the left, it might fall into the Pacific Ocean. Which is why it struck me as an unlikely home base for the National Rifle Association's most prolific grassroots recruiter—by a long shot.
Few ideas have more support from voters and less from national politicians than legalizing marijuana. While major polls now show that most Americans back the concept, the president and leaders in Congress won't touch the issue except to laugh it off.
Like pothead soccer dads in the sitcom Weeds, however, some of the biggest backers of legalization are turning up where you'd least expect them. Take, for example, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who last week introduced a bill designed to prevent the feds from arresting pot growers and tokers in states where the drug is legal. "This approach is consistent with responsible, constitutional, and conservative governance," the 13-term congressman from California's ultraconservative Orange County told me.
"The federal government's total prohibition of marijuana has been neither effective nor efficient."
Until recently, Republicans who supported ending pot prohibition were about as common as unicorns. There were US Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and, well, some prominent former Republicans such as New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. After ditching her Alaska governor job for a Fox News gig a few years ago, Sarah Palin finally stuck her neck out: "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else any harm," she said on Fox's Freedom Watch in 2010, "then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in, and try to clean up some of the other problems that we have in society."
Back then that was crazy talk. Now it's mainstream enough that Rohrabacher's new marijuana bill has already attracted two other Republican cosponsors: Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Don Young of Alaska.
Rohrabacher got turned on to marijuana activism about 10 years ago, when he had to spoon-feed his dying mother because she'd lost her appetite. He learned that medical marijuana might help her eat. "My interest has evolved from there," he says.
One of the gun lobby's favorite talking points is that America's arsenal of 300 million civilian firearms makes us safer by preventing millions of crimes. This contentious idea has taken fire as of late for relying on bogus stats and ignoring that most criminal shootings involve people who know each other, not gun-toting homeowners and midnight intruders. A new report from Violence Policy Center shoots even more holes in the argument that a well-armed society is a safer society.
The report finds that less than 3 percent of gun-related homicides are committed in self-defense (mouse over charts for the raw numbers):
The gun lobby often claims that firearms are used for self-defense an estimated 2.5 million times a year. But according to the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey, the actual number is just a fraction of that:
Guns are used for self defense (both successfully and unsuccessfully) by less than 1 percent of all violent crime victims:
The typical gun is more likely to be stolen than to be used in an attempt to stop a crime:
*Average per year, 2007-2011 / **Average per year, 2005-2010
In another twist on the self-defense argument, the NRA likes to claim that women in particular need guns to guard against bullies and rapists. But crime statistics unearthed by the Violence Policy Center indicate that only about 10 percent of those who shoot people in self defense are women:
If you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area or a handful of big cities, you probably haven't noticed the revolution in the taxi and livery cab businesses. In the Bay Area, local startups Uber, SideCar, and Lyft have made it a breeze to snag a ride in a taxi, a limo, or even your neighbor's aging Honda Civic. All it takes is firing up one of their apps on your smartphone. These companies' GPS-based dispatch systems allow almost anybody with an Android or iPhone and a clean driving record to make money as a quasi-legal gypsy cab driver. This ride revolution has made getting around town cheaper and easier, but has sapped the livelihoods of traditional cabbies and raised safety and security concerns.
Uber now operates in dozens of cities, and SideCar isn't far behind, having expanded its gypsy cab (or "ride-sharing") service last month to Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC. Lyft's trademark pink mustache, meanwhile, has become a pop culture meme. But the success of these alt-taxi firms may ultimately depend on whether California regulators put the kibosh on them—since other cities and states could well follow California's lead.
Today, the California Public Utilities Commission will hold a workshop aimed at drafting new regulations for the companies, which it deems "new online-enabled transportation services." Up for discussion will be whether these services must play by the same rules as traditional transportation companies—which include hefty insurance requirements, handicap accessibility, and set safety standards.
Many taxi and limo drivers, and even some of Uber's own "partners" (drivers) think they should. I caught up with both sides at Uber HQ, where an ad hoc group of UberBlack drivers calling themselves Limounion was holding a protest, claiming Uber was taking a cut of their tips—a skirmish I wrote about here.