Update (2/18/2014): This afternoon, a federal judge in Knoxville, Tennessee, sentenced Sister Mary Rice to 35 months in prison. Her accomplices, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, each received 62 months. "For now, their bodies remain in prison," said Rice's friend Ralph Hutchison, "but their voices are free, reminding us that…as long as the government continues to produce thermonuclear weapons of mass destruction in Oak Ridge or anywhere, people are required to resist."
Nestled behind a forested ridgeline on the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, is the sprawling Y-12 National Security Complex, America's "Fort Knox" of weapons-grade uranium. The complex's security cameras and machine gun nests are designed to repel an attack by the world's most feared terrorist organizations, but they were no match for Sister Megan Rice, an 83-year-old Catholic nun armed with nothing more than a hammer and bolt cutters.
In the dark morning hours of July 28, 2012, Rice and two fellow anti-war activists bushwhacked up to the edge of Y-12, cut through three separate security fences, and sprayed peace slogans and human blood on the wall of a building that is said to hold enough weapons-grade uranium to obliterate human civilization several times over. (Click here to get the backstory on the blood.) They remained inside Y-12 for more than an hour before they were detected.
"The security breach," as the Department of Energy's Inspector General later described it, exposed "troubling displays of ineptitude" at what is supposed to be "one of the most secure facilities in the United States." At a February hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, multiple members of Congress thanked Rice for exposing the site's gaping vulnerabilities. Eleven launch officers were targeted in a separate investigation of illegal drug use. But that didn't deter federal prosecutors from throwing the book at Rice and her accomplices: Greg Boertje-Obed, a 57-year-old carpenter, and Michael Walli, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran. They now sit in Georgia's Irwin County Detention Center, awaiting a January 28 sentencing hearing where a federal judge could put them in prison for up to 30 years. (See update above.)
AR-15s were produced and engraved for Redditors by an Arizona gun manufacturer.
Since 2011, part of the popular online forum Reddit has grown into an active marketplace for assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and other powerful firearms, according to an investigation by Mother Jones. In the last six months alone there have been more than 1,000 listings posted by more than 400 Redditors on the GunsForSale subreddit, one of thousands of niche communities on the sprawling discussion site. Not only has Reddit allowed a gun market to thrive, it has also literally put its stamp on it: Gun purchases brokered through the site have included nearly 100 AR-15s engraved with Reddit's alien logo, which was used on the assault rifles with explicit permission from the company—while it was owned by media giant Condé Nast—according to email correspondence obtained by Mother Jones.
In May 2011, a Redditor organizing a bulk order of AR-15s asked the company about a plan to engrave the logo and replace the standard "SAFE/FIRE" markings on the weapons' safety selectors with "UPVOTE/DOWNVOTE." Within a few days of the request, a Reddit business staffer working in the New York City headquarters of Condé Nast granted permission to use the logo in an email sent from a Condé Nast account. The staffer did note that for the safety selectors, "we would prefer that you keep the SAFE/FIRE language…to ensure the safety of all people who may come in contact with these guns." (See the document containing the full correspondence below.)
A Condé Nast spokesperson declined to comment, saying only that Reddit is "completely separate" from Condé Nast. (Reddit was spun off in 2012, about a year after the logo was licensed for the guns.)
In a statement provided to Mother Jones, Reddit's communications director, Victoria Taylor, confirmed that the logo was licensed to the gun group in May 2011. She said that Reddit was "allowed to operate independently" under Condé Nast, but that during that period "all Reddit employees were also technically Condé Nast employees."
"I know dealers that operate exclusively without doing any background checks," said one Redditor.
The Reddit-branded AR-15s represent just a sampling of the powerful firearms purchased through the site, which has tens of millions of users and often drives major traffic to other websites. Many listings have offered guns in quantity: In September, for example, an active seller and Redditor who goes by the handle "FirearmConcierge" advertised an inventory of black SCAR 16s, a combat assault rifle made for US Special Operations forces. "UPS freight just dropped 19 of them off," the listing read, pricing them at $2,300 a piece. According to his online postings, FirearmConcierge is a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) operating in Florida.
Instructions posted by the moderators of the GunsForSale subreddit warn users to comply with federal and state laws, and many sellers on the site say that they transfer guns through FFLs, which conduct background checks on buyers. But some user comments suggest that sellers may be exploiting a loophole in federal law to traffic firearms—including talk of licensed dealers selling guns without conducting background checks, which in some circumstances would be illegal.
At least 159 transactions have been completed on GunsForSale since last June, according to more than 100 Redditors who reported them using the subreddit's automated system for verifying sales and rating sellers. The number of completed transactions may be higher, because some deals arranged through private messaging on the site and completed face-to-face likely go unreported.
Reddit CEO Yishan Wong did not respond to a request for comment. Taylor, the communications director, told Mother Jones: "Reddit neither condones nor does not condone the buying and selling of firearms through the site, as long as users are not using the site to violate applicable US laws."
Reddit does not know, however, if the gun sales done through its site are done legally: The company does not track commercial transactions between its users, according to Taylor.
Personal privacy is prized among Redditors, most of whom participate on the site anonymously. A fervent pro-gun constituency among them makes the market opportunity for gun dealers all the more attractive. The primary subreddit on the topic, /r/Guns, currently has more than 154,000 subscribers, and GunsForSale, created in March 2011, has doubled in size in the last year, with more than 7,200 subscribers. Gun dealers using the site indicate that they've enjoyed a spike in demand in the past year, after the Sandy Hook massacre ignited a national debate and pro-gun activists whipped up fears about a regulatory crackdown.
Three days before the anniversary of the massacre in December, Redditor and gun dealer FirearmConcierge put it this way on Twitter: "Listen, I'm not saying I want to see Sandy Hook Part II but another 20 or 30 dead kids would really dress out my balance sheet."
A few days later, in a blog post about gun dealing titled "Sandy Hook and the Economics of Mass Murder," FirearmConcierge said, "High net worth individuals and well-financed speculators run the table in a post Sandy Hook market environment."
From July through mid-December, FirearmConcierge posted 268 listings on the GunsForSale subreddit, offering hundreds of assault rifles and related components, hundreds of ammunition magazines containing 30 or more rounds, and hundreds of handguns, silencers, flash suppressors, and other weaponry.
Data on gun listings and transactions was provided by a Redditor who goes by the name "Townsley" and moderates a subreddit, GunsAreCool, whose contributors criticize pro-gun Redditors and advocate for stricter gun regulations. Mother Jones independently verified and analyzed the data, and conducted additional research into gun-related activity on Reddit.
Many Redditors are careful to advertise that they comply with the law when shipping across state lines. But in-state sales are another matter—including the potential to exploit a well-known loophole in federal law, which exempts "private transactions" from background checks. The guidelines page for GunsForSale instructs Redditors to suffix the title of their posts with the states they operate in, noting: "Sellers can prefer not to ship a firearm out of state, but do an in-state face-to-face transaction."
In 2011, a Lamborghini-driving 26-year-old named Dhar Mann became a national media sensation when he partnered with a Morgan Stanley investment banker in an audacious plan to create weGrow, a vertically integrated marijuana conglomerate better known as the "Walmart of Weed." Shortly after I wrote the first detailed profile of Mann, however, he split with Morgan Stanley's Derek Peterson amid mutual accusations of unpaid debts and financial shenanigans. Peterson charged Mann with running "a fucking hydroponzi scheme."
Now it looks like he wasn't exaggerating by much. Yesterday, Mann pleaded "no contest" to five felony counts of defrauding the City of Oakland, the Oakland Tribunereports. The scion of a wealthy taxi monopolist and a major local political donor, Mann was accused of pocketing some $44,000 in city redevelopment funds that he was supposed to use to fix up several of his properties. According to court documents, Mann submitted checks to the city that he'd supposedly written to contractors but that were in fact redeposited into his own bank account.
Mann won't face jail time, but still must resolve an Oakland civil suit seeking $345,000 in civil penalties and damages.
Though weGrow got a lot of media attention, it was never very popular among the Bay Area's pot cognoscenti, who saw the company's materialistic and confrontational image as a liability to their wider goal of a truce in the drug war. But now it looks like it was Mann himself, not anti-drug crusaders in the federal government, who planted the seeds of his demise.
Last December, four days after Adam Lanza murdered 20 first graders and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Cerberus Capital Management pledged to sell the Freedom Group, the company that manufactured the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle that Lanza used. The announcement helped tamp down a rising PR disaster for the Manhattan private equity firm, placating major investors such as the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS), which had said it was "examining" its $750 million stake in Cerberus after the massacre. The New York Times described the move as "a rare instance of a Wall Street firm bending to concerns about an investment's societal impact."
A year after the Newtown tragedy, however, Cerberus has not sold Freedom Group (also known as Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), the nation's largest firearms and ammunition conglomerate. After buyers failed to materialize early this year, Cerberus CEO Stephen Feinberg announced he and a small group of individuals would seek to buy the company, which also owns brands such as Remington, Marlin, and Dakota Arms. But in July, the Wall Street Journal reported that Feinberg was dropping his bid amid increasingly attractive offers from outside investors. "Cerberus initially planned to seek around $1 billion for the company," the Journalreported, citing an anonymous source, "but now wants more."
Business has boomed for Freedom Group in the year since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012. For the full year ending December 31, Freedom Group estimates that its net sales will be up 34 percent to $1.25 billion, according to a financial disclosure (PDF) released Monday. Though Freedom Group doesn't release sales figures specifically for the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle, that weapon and similar models reportedly flew off retailers' shelves in the weeks after Sandy Hook, snatched up by firearms enthusiasts who feared the guns would soon be outlawed.
"It's difficult because we represent the futures of teachers. Teachers were killed at Sandy Hook, and that gun was made by a company that we partially own."
According to the Freedom Group's third quarter report, this year's earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of "centerfire rifles," a category which includes the XM-15. The report further notes that Freedom Group's leading sellers were "modern sporting rifles"—the firearms industry's euphemism for assault weapons. "Consumer concern over more restrictive governmental regulation on the federal, state, and local levels has contributed to this increase in demand," the report says. The company would have sold even more guns, the report adds, if not for "sales demand being greater than our current production capacity in many categories."
"We wish that this anniversary were not coming and that we were not holding Freedom Group," said Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for CalSTRS, adding that the teachers pension fund is prohibited by its investment contract with Cerberus from discussing financial details. "It's difficult on all of us because we represent the futures of teachers. Teachers were killed at Sandy Hook, and that gun was made by a company that we partially own. We all feel that."
Note: Some opening times may vary by region. Chart by AJ Vicens
In case you haven't noticed, Black Friday isn't just on Friday anymore. The retail industry's high-density mass of starry lights, Santa dioramas, and door-buster shopping deals really ought to be renamed the Black Hole—it just keeps sucking up everything around it. That holiday known as Thanksgiving? Pretty much gone. Especially if you work for one of the nation's largest retailers.
In 2006, Bart Reed, Best Buy Co.'s consumer marketing director, told the Charleston Gazette that the company had decided not to open its stores any earlier than 5 a.m. on Black Friday because it wanted to give its employees a "work-life balance." Then, five years later, Best Buy moved its Black Friday opening back to Thursday at midnight. This year, for the first time, it will open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Best Buy is far from alone in its cold-hearted greed. The chart above shows how America's biggest retailers have competed in recent years to appeal to crazed shoppers at the expense of their employees—not to mention the one holiday where we're supposed to contemplate being grateful for what we've got, rather than just coveting more stuff.
The undisputed leader in the assault on Thanksgiving is cleary Kmart, which has opened its doors on Turkey Day for the past 22 years. Yet this sad legacy hasn't stopped Kmart from finding ways to make its workers even more miserable. For Thanksgiving 2010, Kmart closed at the arguably reasonable hour of 9 p.m. In 2011, it closed at 4 p.m. and then reopened four hours later, before closing at 3 a.m. on Black Friday. That must not have been crazy enough, since this year Kmart will open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and stay open for 40 hours straight, not closing until 11 p.m. on Black Friday.
That sounds pretty bad, until you consider that for years many Walmart stores have been open 24 hours a day, including Thanksgiving. This year Walmart will roll out its Black Friday specials at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, when it will presumably need to bulk up its stores with more associates who'd normally be eating turkey with their families. At least some 24-hour Walmarts used to close on Thanksgiving Day: "Local Wal-Marts open at 5 a.m. [on Black Friday], with 24-hour stores closing for Thanksgiving and reopening then," reads a 2006 story from California's Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
At least one mega-retailer has resisted the Black Hole: Costco. The unionized big box chain will remain closed on Thanksgiving and open on Friday at its regular hour of 10:00 a.m. The company wants it workers to be able to spend time with their families, Costco CFO Richard Galanti told me. "It's pretty straightforward: It's a major holiday with family and friends, our employees work hard, and it's the right thing to do," he said. "Black Friday used to open at 6 a.m., then at 3 a.m., then at 12:01 a.m.—when does it stop?"