Prison overcrowding at the California Institution for Men in 2006
It sounded like a throwaway line. Toward the end of a four-hour Senate hearing on gun violence last week, Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president of over two decades, took a break from extolling the virtues of assault rifles and waded briefly into new territory: criminal justice reform. "We've supported prison building," LaPierre said. Then he hammered California for releasing tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders per a Supreme Court order—what he'd previously termed "the largest prison break in American history."
But California's overflowing prisons, which the Supreme Court had deemed "cruel and unusual punishment" in 2011 because of squalid conditions, were partly a product of the NRA's creation. Starting in 1992, as part of a now-defunct program called CrimeStrike, the NRA spent millions of dollars pushing a slate of supposedly anti-crime measures across the country that kept America's prisons full—and built new ones to meet the demand. CrimeStrike's legacy is everywhere these days.
CrimeStrike arose out of necessity. The NRA had come into its own as a political power during the Reagan era, but by the early 1990s, it was strapped for cash. The organization ran up a $9 million deficit in 1991 and was on pace for a $30 million shortfall in 1992, even as it was preparing to go to the mattresses over assault weapons and background checks. The NRA needed a shot in the arm.
The first wagon trains left in January. There were just a few in the beginning, and they proceeded with caution, fording the San Joaquin River, navigating the canyons and switchbacks of the high Sierras, and traversing the salt flats and creosote scrub of the Great Basin before descending, at last, over the rocky peaks and into the the fertile loam of the southern plains. What they couldn't carry with them—ocean-going yachts, car elevators, labradoodles—they'd simply discarded. Someday, maybe, when the time was right, they would return to the California they'd fled, to the Ocean-front estates and climate-controlled wine cellars they'd left behind. But for now, their sights were set on a new homeland where men, and sometimes even women, were free. Texas.
Or something like that, anyway. Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) ratcheted up his longstanding feud with California by purchasing radio ads in the Golden State urging businesses to pack up their things and come to Texas. "Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible," Perry said. "I have a message for California businesses: Come check out Texas." California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) responded as well as you might expect from someone who had just been trolled by Rick Perry. The ad was "barely a fart," Brown said at a press conference, while working in a dig at "Lubbock, or whatever those places are that make up that state."
And now the New York Times has entered the fray with the provocative headline, "Millionaires Consider Leaving California Over Taxes." But the article mentions just one Californian, golfer Phil Mickelson, who has recently considered leaving over taxes, and Mickelson later apologized for even talking about the idea. There's also this, from Stanford sociology professor Cristobal Young:
"I suspect the accountants are busier this year, but I don’t think the moving companies are getting a boost," Mr. Young said. "Moving out of state is actually one of the most costly responses they could make. California's high-income earners are clustered in coastal cities far from state borders. Moving to Nevada or Texas or Florida is a very big life change, and means leaving behind family, friends, colleagues and business connections."
Reuters highlighted Young's research in a similar piece last fall, concluding that tax hikes had no impact on where millionaires chose to live:
In fact, more millionaires came to the state than left after California's so-called Millionaire's Tax was introduced in 2005 - adding 1 percentage point of tax to incomes over $1 million. A 1996 cut to taxes for those earning $110,000 and up did not spur migration into the state, either.
The number of millionaires has risen or fallen by about 10,000 a year, but that change has been almost entirely due to the state economy, not wealthy people coming into or leaving the state. Such migration accounted for about 47 people, net, on average.
That's because, high taxes notwithstanding, California still has many things going for it, including science classes that teach science, the ability to drink at a bar without being hauled off in handcuffs, and—this can't be overstated—proximity to California.
On Tuesday, after a handful of Republican candidates with statewide name recognition had signaled they weren't interested, Massachusetts state Rep. Dan Winslow announced he was forming an exploratory committee for the special election to replace former Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Winslow, who is pro-choice and has been previously endorsed by gay rights groups, has been viewed as a rising star in the state party for a few years now (see this profile in Commonwealth magazine in 2011), but would face an uphill challenge if he runs. Reps. Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are vying for the Democratic nomination.
Prior to launching his exploratory committee, though, Winslow's most noteworthy political move was becoming perhaps the only pol in American history to hold a photo op while playing beer pong. The "Beer Pong and Politics Networking and Fundraiser," held at Boston's Battery Park Bar and Lounge in September 2011, gave attendees a chance to mingle with their representative while partaking in the national sport of 18–24-year-olds. As Winslow told the Medfield Press, "The idea is to encourage participation by people not typically involved in politics. It's as much a 'friend-raiser' as a 'fund-raiser'"—hence the low ticket price ($25, open-bar included). Per the Press, Winslow played with water in his cups instead of beer.
Here's the logo for the event, per its Facebook page:
Winslow isn't the only Republican interested in the race. The Hillreported that the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has also approached former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez about running for the seat.
Winslow hasn't responded to a Mother Jones inquiry about the his pong skills, but we'll update if we hear back.
The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is Barry Manilow with a microphone.
Back in September, in an effort to prove...we're not exactly sure what, the National Rifle Association published a list of some several-hundred non-profits, celebrities, companies, and news organizations that "have lent monetary, grassroots or some other type of direct support to anti-gun organizations." Daily Kos, which drew attention to the list Friday morning, calls it "nuts," which is certainly one way of looking at it.
The NRA doesn't offer any explanation of its selection process, or why they think it's a compelling argument to call attention to the fact that the Civil Rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. opposes what the NRA does. But maybe they're on to something.
Here are 12 of the most terrifying people and groups on the NRA's list:
Carrie Fisher. Daughter of a Jedi.
Henry Winkler. Literally jumped a shark one time.
Mennonite Central Committee. You know who else had a central committee?
Barry Manilow. Is Barry Manilow.
The Temptations. Deliver us from them.
Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine. Basically what it sounds like.
Central Conference of American Rabbis. Ditto.
Mary Lou Retton. Her medal may be gold, but her bullets are lead.
Tara Lipinski. Actually wears knives on the bottom of her shoes.
Boys II Men. [sic]
Bob Barker. QED:
Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We don't actually have a joke here. How can you put the SCLC on your enemies list?
Gary Marbut has a dream: a single shot, bolt-action, made-in-Missoula, .22 caliber rifle called the Montana Buckaroo. For the time being, the Buckaroo, adapted from an expired 1899 patent and intended for use by small children, exists only on paper. "Our attorneys have insisted that I NOT complete EVEN ONE Buckaroo," Marbut told me in an email on Monday.
That's because Marbut's real target isn't the 5- to 10-year-old demographic*—it's the United States Supreme Court. His goal is to effectively nullify decades of federal gun law, and he thinks he's found a trick no one else has tried. In 2009, Marbut pushed a law through the Montana Legislature asserting the state's partial immunity from federal gun regulations, and then sued the Department of Justice for the right to follow through. Under his scheme, the federal government would be helpless to regulate firearm production or distribution—so long as the guns in question never cross state lines.
Lawmakers in 34 states have introduced copycat versions of Marbut's Firearms Freedom Act, six of them in the five weeks since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. All told, nine state attorneys general have signed onto an amicus brief supporting him; eight governors have signed it into law. The National Rifle Association supports Marbut's law; so does the Cato Institute.
A gun safety instructor who manufactures shooting targets for use by police departments, Marbut moonlights as an unpaid lobbyist in Helena—an incredibly successful unpaid lobbyist. As president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, he has personally written 58 pieces of legislation that have been signed into law dating back to 1987, ranging from a measure removing wolves from the state's protected species list to a law guaranteeing the "immunity of certain firearms safety instructors" from liability. But the Montana Firearms Freedom Act is by far his most ambitious project.
Marbut's basic argument is that the federal government cannot regulate firearms manufactured and retained in a single state, because there is no "interstate" commerce involved. Therefore, under the 10th Amendment, only Montana—not Washington, DC—has the power to regulate these guns. (His argument doesn't hold for sales across state lines.) That in itself is extraordinarily literal, and—as Marbut readily acknowledges, quite radical; even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinks the federal government can regulate the plants you grow in your backyard.
Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes"—a clause that has been used by the federal government over the last century as a means to regulate everything from medical marijuana to health insurance to, yes, guns. To win his case, Marbut has to convince the courts to ignore all that.
Shortly after his law passed in 2009, Marbut informed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives of his desire to begin manufacturing the Montana Buckaroo. After the ATF told him he couldn't move forward without a federal license, he filed suit against Attorney General Eric Holder, arguing that the ATF was breaking the law by preventing him from making the Buckaroo. He lost in district court, but immediately appealed.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, joined by a coalition of law enforcement groups, argued against Marbut's law on appeal, calling it a "dangerous threat to public safety and national security." If the law held, they contended, it would allow Montanans to skirt the federal background check system, thereby making it easier for prohibited persons to obtain firearms. It would also allow in-state manufacturers to make and sell armor-piecing bullets, because Montana doesn't have a law of its own prohibiting them.
The odds of a court coming over to Marbut's side are daunting, for sure. Although he was heartened by Chief Justice John Roberts' narrow reading of the Commerce Clause in validating the Affordable Care Act (for which Marbut submitted his own amicus brief), he concedes that upholding his law would entail a reversal of eight decades of established precedent.
In January, as state legislatures pushed ahead on Marbut-like draft legislation, Marbut got some good news: The 9th Circuit will hear oral arguments on his appeal in March. He doesn't think the appeals court will accept his argument, but it doesn't matter. It brings him one step closer to his ultimate goal—the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, he's fast at work on a pair of new projects—two bills that would prohibit state and local law enforcement officials from enforcing any new executive orders on guns, and legislation to ban federal officers from seizing guns in Montana without permission from a county sheriff. He also recently developed a type of nonlethal "pillow" ammunition (comprised of bean-bags filled with lead shot) that he says is ideal for fighting off bears. But after a wildlife biologist inquired about purchasing the pillow ammo, Marbut turned him down. "I said, 'No, I can't because I don't have a federal license for making and selling ammunition,'" he recalls.
There's nothing legally preventing him from obtaining such a license. It's just a matter of principle.
*Correction: This article originally suggested the Montana Buckaroo might be used for skeet-shooting. It is exceedingly difficult to shoot skeet with a rifle; the weapon of choice is a shotgun.