Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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The NRA Wants the Law Protecting Trayvon Martin's Killer in All 50 States

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 6:27 PM EDT

The National Rifle Association continues to press more states to adopt Florida-style "stand your ground" laws like the one that's made it difficult to prosecute George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in late February. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense despite the fact that Martin was unarmed. Since "stand your ground" laws allow people who feel threatened to use deadly force—even if they have an opportunity, as Zimmerman did, to safely avoid a confrontation—Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged. (If you haven't heard about the Martin case, get the full rundown in our explainer.)

The proliferation of these laws is part of a deliberate lobbying campaign by the NRA. In 2005, at the NRA's urging, Florida became the first state to pass a "stand your ground" law. Before that, most states required you to retreat from a confrontation unless you were inside your own home. Now 25 states have these "stand your ground" laws, which critics call "shoot first" laws (Gawker's pseudonymous blogger "Mobuto Sese Seko" calls the laws "a great, legally roving murder bubble") because they authorize citizens to use deadly force even if the person who makes them feel threatened is, like Martin, unarmed. Here's a map of the current situation:

Prosecutors hate "stand your ground" laws because they make it much harder to successfully prosecute people who claim self-defense. In Florida, a defendant doesn't have to actually prove he acted in self-defense—the prosecution has to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that he didn't do so, a very high bar to clear. The upshot? In 2010, the Tampa Bay Times reported that "justifiable homicides"—i.e., killings that were deemed legitimate—have skyrocketed in Florida over several years since the "stand your ground" law went into effect:

That's how you end up with stories with headlines like "How to Get Away With Murder." But the NRA continues to forge ahead, pushing to expand the legislation to even more states.

On March 1, just days after Martin was killed, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action posted a blog post urging Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) to sign a bill bringing a Florida-style law to his state. Dayton vetoed the bill, noting that law enforcement officials had complained it would make it harder for them to do their jobs. Over at Media Matters, Matt Gertz notes several other examples of the NRA pushing these laws in recent weeks:

  • On March 16, the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) criticized the Judiciary Committee chairman of Iowa's state Senate for failing to hold hearings on "NRA-initiated HF 2215, the Stand Your Ground/Castle Doctrine Enhancement." According to NRA-ILA, the bill would "remove a person's 'duty to retreat' from an attacker, allowing law-abiding citizens to stand their ground and protect themselves or their family anywhere they are lawfully present." The group urged supporters to contact state senators and tell them to support the bill. NRA-ILA previously told supporters to contact Democratic members of the Iowa House after they "left the Capitol building in an attempt to block consideration of these pro-gun bills" on February 29.
  • On March 14, NRA-ILA urged Alaskan supporters to contact their state senators and tell them to support House Bill 80, which it termed "important self-defense legislation that would provide that a law-abiding person, who is justified in using deadly force in self-defense, has 'no duty-to-retreat' from an attack if the person is in any place that that person has a legal right to be." NRA-ILA also promoted the bill on March 5March 8, and February 29

The Massachusetts legislature's joint committee on the judiciary held a hearing on yet another similar law in February.

A Stupid, Costly Regulation Obama Should Kill

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:15 AM EDT

Barack Obama is on the hunt for stupid, unnecessary regulations that the government should get rid of, Politico's Playbook reported Tuesday morning. I have a suggestion: kill the rule that is forcing everyone, including the government (and, by extension, taxpayers), to pay way more for life-saving asthma inhalers than we did ten years ago.

In 2009, at the urging of the drug lobby, the EPA started banning asthma inhalers that run on ozone-depleting CFC aerosols. As a result, inhaler prices jumped from as little as $5 to as much as $60. The drug companies were thrilled—they got a new round of patent protection (and got to charge higher prices) for non-CFC inhalers that dispense exactly the same medicine as their CFC-based predecessors. But everyone else got screwed. By 2017, the switch to the new inhalers will cost consumers, taxpayers, and the government some $8 billion, according to the EPA's own estimates, just to avoid a tiny amount of CFC emissions.

Asthma is a big deal—it's responsible for one quarter of all emergency room visits in the United States"It's just absurd to think that this is anything that could have a measurable impact," Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy research, told me for an article on this subject last year. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a law that raised costs so much for such a nonexistent benefit to the environment."

The EPA will probably argue that it's not as simple as scrapping the rule—the US has treaty obligations that are forcing us to do this. That's not good enough. The Obama administration should renegotiate the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty on the use of ozone-depleting CFCs, to include a common-sense exception for CFC-based medical inhalers. Even that can't possibly cost more than the $8 billion-plus that is being sucked out of taxpayers' pockets and into the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry for an almost negligible environmental benefit.

*Update, 7:45 p.m. EST: A reader writes to say that I should probably note, as I did in tweets about this story, that I have asthma, and so this affects me personally. Of course, it affects you, too. Medicaid and Medicare, which you pay for in your taxes, pay more for inhalers than they did prior to this rule.

Document: What One Witness Would Have Said at GOP's "Sausage Fest" Birth Control Hearing

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 1:45 PM EST

When Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the House GOP's designated White House watchdog, held a hearing earlier this month on the Obama administration's requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers birth control, Democrats and women's groups complained that the first panel of witnesses to testify was composed entirely of men. My colleague Stephanie Mencimer dubbed it a "religious freedom sausage fest." A second, later panel featured two women, neither of whom supported the birth control rule. So it was no surprise that the general message of the hearing was that requiring employers to provide insurance plans that cover birth control infringed on religious freedom. (Following outcry from religious groups, the Obama administration modified the rule.)

Later, Democrats held their own, unofficial hearing featuring Sandra Fluke, who would have been their witness at the Issa hearing if he had permitted it. "My testimony would have been about women who have been affected by their policy, who have medical needs and have suffered dire consequences," Fluke told the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff. Last week, Mother Jones caught up with Yonit Lax, a medical student at George Washington University who the Democrats also considered as a potential witness. She agreed to provide her draft testimony, which you can read below. Here's a short intro she sent me:

Early last week, I had a conversation with the Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They were looking for a medical student to testify at an upcoming hearing on contraception—would I be that student?

Ultimately, the Committee chose to invite a student at Georgetown Law Center as their witness—but neither of [us] was given a chance to address the Committee. Chairman Darrell Issa refused to seat Sandra Fluke because, in his view, the hearing was "not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration's actions." The hearing was quite clearly a reaction to the Obama Administration’s decision to require church-affiliated organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Ms. Fluke would have been the only woman on the panel.

I suspect that, even if I had been invited, I would not have had the opportunity to address Congress. But if I had, here is what I would have said:

 

Obama Didn't Cave on Birth Control

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 1:56 PM EST
President Barack Obama speaks on his birth control policy Friday afternoon.

So did Barack Obama fold?

On Friday, after taking heavy criticism from Catholic groups and the political right over a regulation that would have required religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities (not churches) to offer their employees health insurance that covers birth control (with no copays), President Barack Obama went on live television to announce a shift. Now, insurance companies will have to offer employees of religious organizations the birth control coverage directly, without charging extra for it. (The details of the new birth control coverage plan are here.)

Some media outlets will no doubt call this a surrender by the president. But it's not. Here's why:

  • Everyone who was going to get birth control coverage before will still have access to it. Employees of Catholic schools and hospitals aren't always Catholic, and most sexually active women who aren't trying to get pregnant use birth control. The new rule will not allow the religious views of the leadership of religiously-affiliated organizations to dictate whether birth control is provided to their employees. The intent of the first version of the rule was to make birth control easier to get. The new rule will achieve that goal. "No woman's health should depend on who she is, where she works, or how much money she makes," Obama said in his statement. This policy ensures that.
  • The coverage will still feature no copayments. The insurance companies that are being required to offer birth control coverage directly to the employees of religious organizations will have to offer it for free. There will be no difference in cost between the plan that covers birth control and the plan that doesn't. The Obama administration justifies this by noting that studies suggest that covering birth control is cost-neutral or even saves money for health insurers because it's cheaper than pregnancy; it spaces out pregnancies, leading to healthier kids, and has other beneficial health effects.
  • The policy change still won't satisfy the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposed the birth control provision from the start. It's not a cave if your opponents aren't getting what they actually want. What the bishops desire is for the entire birth control rule to be repealed. They believe that no employer—religious affiliation or not—should be required to offer birth control coverage. UPDATE, Friday 3:45 EST: The bishops have released a statement on the policy change that says they're "studying" it and it's a "first step in the right direction." It's unclear whether they'll ultimately retreat from their original position or simply say this attempt is a good step but not sufficient. 
  • The most important reproductive rights groups—Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and so on—all support the policy shift. You can bet that these politically savvy groups would be hollering to high heaven if they thought that women had been betrayed.
  • This whole scuffle was an intriguing policy dilemma, pitting women's health advocates versus faith leaders waving the banner of religious freedom. But with this move, Obama has demonstrated that it's possible to sidestep the red-hot politics of the dispute and work out a reasonable policy outcome that's backed by reproductive rights groups and the Catholic Health Association. It's not likely, though, that the social conservatives who have bashed Obama as an implacable foe of religious freedom will give it a rest.
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