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Anyone With a Concealed Carry Permit Can Now Come Dangerously Close to the White House

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 4:16 PM EDT

A federal judge has ordered the District of Columbia to stop enforcing its restrictions on carrying handguns on the streets of the nation's capital. The decision also forced the District government to allow out-of-state concealed carry and open carry permit holders to wield their weapons within steps of the White House.

Senior District Court Judge Fredrick Scullin Jr., ruling from his regular post in Syracuse, New York, said that the case is a no-brainer. Based on the US Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in DC v. Heller, which validated the individual right to bear arms, Scullin said the city's gun laws were clearly unconstitutional. He sided with the plaintiffs, who argued that while the city passed a law requiring a permit to carry a handgun in public, it then refused to grant them to anyone who planned to carry their weapons outside their homes, a move that violated the Second Amendment.

The Heller case, spearheaded by Alan Gura, the same lawyer who won this weekend's ruling, struck down DC's long-standing ban on the ownership of handguns. But in complying with the ruling, the city passed new laws in 2008 that were so restrictive that, the court said, they still prevented virtually anyone from getting a license to carry a handgun outside of their homes. And that, Scullin said, just won't fly.

The potential implications of the decision are enormous, should it be allowed to stand. The District of Columbia is unlike any other American city. It's filled with important federal agency buildings, monuments, courthouses, not to mention the White House. Visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and many members of Congress travel its streets on a daily basis.

DC is also home to large public events attended by all manner of VIPs, including presidential inaugurations, which are difficult enough to secure without the prospect of gun-toting citizens joining the fray. The security apparatus in DC is intense. And assassination attempts aren't unheard of. Former Mayor Marion Barry Jr. was shot in 1977 in the DC Council building. John Hinckley Jr. shot President Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton. There was also the 2013 Navy Yard shooting that left 12 people dead. DC is a magnet for crazy people with guns, something law enforcement officials have long recognized.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier testified before Congress in 2008 against a bill pending in the House that would have accomplished what Scullin's ruling effectively did, overturning the city's gun laws. She noted that in order to watch the oral arguments in the Heller case, she had to leave her gun behind. No weapons are allowed inside the very building where the justices decided that the city's gun restrictions were just too restrictive.

Many of those type of restrictions in DC will remain in place, regardless of Scullin's ruling. Both DC and federal laws will still allow the government to bar the bearing of arms in certain places, including federal buildings, schools, the Capitol, etc. Traversing the District without encountering terrain that prohibits guns would be difficult. Just crossing the trendy DuPont Circle neighborhood might entail stepping foot on federal parkland, where guns are barred.

Even so, the ruling, which took effect almost immediately, could put a lot more guns into a city that's spent untold millions trying to secure and defend against terrorist and other public safety threats. The plaintiffs in the case that prompted Scullin's ruling, Palmer v. DC, argue that DC's gun laws need to be overturned for the benefit of law-abiding citizens. The plaintiffs are all described as upstanding folks just looking to defend themselves on the mean streets of DC (or at least not get arrested for having a gun in the car, as one of them did). But, as any number of recent gun-related massacres can attest, not all legal gun owners are sane, stable, or well intentioned.

The Violence Policy Center has been keeping a running tally of all the people in the US who've been killed by people legally carrying a concealed weapon. Since 2007, that figure has reached 644, and it includes 14 law enforcement officers. Fewer than 20 of those deaths were deemed lawful self-defense. There's a good reason why DC has banned the open or concealed carrying of weapons by ordinary citizens for 150 years. But thanks to the US Supreme Court, and now Judge Scullin, those common sense practices may go out the door. 

Scullin's ruling, at least in the near-term, is likely to be short-lived. The District has asked the court to stay its decision and let the city's current laws stand until it can formally appeal the ruling or until it can revise its laws to meet constitutional scrutiny.

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House Republicans Pass Bill to Lower Taxes on the Rich and Raise Taxes on the Poor

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 2:12 PM EDT

So what are Republicans in the House of Representatives up to these days? According to Danny Vinik, they just passed a bill that would reduce taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor.

I know, I know: you're shocked. But in a way, I think this whole episode is even worse than Vinik makes it sound.

Here's the background: The child tax credit reduces your income tax by $1,000 for each child you have. It phases out for upper middle-income folks, but—and this is the key point—it phases out differently for singles and couples. The way the numbers sort out, it treats singles better than couples. This is the dreaded "marriage penalty," which is bad because we want to encourage people to get married, not discourage them.

So what did House Republicans do? Naturally, they raised the phase-out threshold for married couples so that well-off couples would get a higher benefit. They didn't have to do this, of course. They could have lowered the benefit for singles instead. Or they could have jiggled the numbers so that everyone got equal benefits but the overall result was revenue neutral.

But they didn't. They chose the path that would increase the benefit—and thus lower taxes—for married couples making high incomes. The bill also indexes the credit to inflation, which helps only those with incomes high enough to claim the full credit. And it does nothing to make permanent a reduction in the earnings threshold that benefits poor working families. Here's the net result:

If the House legislation became law, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that a couple making $160,000 a year would receive a new tax cut of $2,200. On the other hand, the expiring provisions of the CTC would cause a single mother with two kids making $14,500 to lose her full CTC, worth $1,725.

So inflation indexing, which is verboten when the subject is the minimum wage, is A-OK when it comes to high-income taxpayers. And eliminating the marriage penalty is also a good idea—but again, only for high-income couples. Which is crazy. I don't really have a firm opinion on whether the government should be in the business of encouraging marriage, but if it is, surely it should focus its attention on the people who need encouragement in the first place. And that is very decidedly not the upper middle class, which continues to get married at the same rate as ever.

So we have a deficit-busting tax cut. It's a cut only for the upper middle class. It's indexed for inflation, even though we're not allowed to index things like the minimum wage. And the poor are still scheduled for a tax increase in 2017 because this bill does nothing to stop it. It's a real quad-fecta. I wonder what Paul Ryan thinks of all this?

Why on Earth Are Argentine Bonds So Hot Right Now?

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 1:11 PM EDT

What's the hottest ticket in the global bond market right now? That's right: Argentine bonds. They're on a tear. But why? Didn't Argentina just lose—once and for all—its court case against vulture funds who own old Argentine bonds and are refusing to accept partial payment of the kind that everyone else accepted after Argentina's default a decade ago?

Why yes, they did lose. Argentina now has to pay the vulture funds—which is politically unthinkable for any Argentine politician who wants to avoid being tarred and feathered—or else it has to default on all its bonds, including the restructured "exchange" bonds that it issued in 2005. So why are these exchange bonds becoming more valuable? Argentina has always been willing to pay those bonds, so it's not as if the court ruling has made default less likely. The risk of default was already close to nil. So what's up?

Felix Salmon, having gotten tired of financial journalists offering up bizarre theories to explain this, tells us today that it's probably all simpler than it seems. In fact, the odds of default have gotten higher, just as logic dictates, but this might actually be a good thing for bondholders. Normally, he points out, there's no upside to bonds: you get the coupon payment, but you never get anything more. In Argentina's case, however, that might not be true.

First off, there's something called a RUFO clause. This means that if Argentina does eventually settle with the vulture funds, it has to offer the same deal to all the other bondholders.

Obviously, Argentina doesn’t have the money to pay out the exchange bondholders in full according to that clause. But if Argentina is paying out billions of dollars to vultures who deserve much less than they’re getting, and if those payments create a massive parallel legal obligation to the bondholders who cooperated with the country and did everything they asked, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that Argentina might end up paying something to the exchange bondholders, if doing so would wipe out any RUFO obligations.

Then there are interest payments:

The second way that exchange bondholders could get more than 100 cents on the dollar is, paradoxically, if there is a default. The minute that Argentina goes into arrears on its coupon payments, the clock starts ticking. From that day onwards — and actually, that day has been and gone already — bondholders are owed not only those coupon payments but interest on those coupon payments. And the interest accrues at the standard statutory rate of 8% — a massive number, these days.

So there you have it: a paradoxical case in which bonds might be viewed as more valuable if the odds of default are higher. Salmon admits that he's just speculating here, since no one knows for sure why the market is so hot for Argentine bonds in the wake of Argentina losing its court case. But this is at least a reasonable guess. And a fascinating one.

Congress Might Actually Pass a Bill to Address VA Problems

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 11:38 AM EDT

Since I've been griping for a long time about Congress being unable to pass so much as a Mother's Day resolution these days, it's only fair to highlight the possibility of actual progress on something:

House and Senate negotiators have reached a tentative agreement to deal with the long-term needs of the struggling Department of Veterans Affairs and plan to unveil their proposal Monday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who lead the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committees, continued negotiating over the weekend. Aides said they "made significant progress" on legislation to overhaul the VA and provide funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals. Sanders and Miller are scheduled to discuss their plan Monday afternoon.

We don't have all the details yet, and the bill hasn't actually passed or anything. There's still plenty of time for tea partiers to throw their usual tantrum. And there's also plenty of time for the House GOP leadership to respond to the tantrum by crawling back into its cave and killing the whole thing. It'll be President Obama's fault, of course, probably for attending a fundraiser, or maybe for sneezing at the wrong time.

But maybe not! Maybe they really will pass this thing. It would provide vets with more flexibility to see doctors outside the VA system, which is a bit of a Band-Aid—but probably a necessary one—and it provides additional funding for regions that have seen a big influx of veterans. On the flip side, I don't get the sense that the bill will really do much to fix the culture of the VA, which becomes a political cause célèbre every few years as we discover that all the same things we yelled about the time before are still true. But I guess that's inevitable in a political culture with the attention span of a newt.

All things considered, it would be a good sign if this bill passed. The VA, after all, isn't an inherently partisan issue. Just the opposite, since both parties support vets about equally and both should, in theory, be more interested in helping vets than in prolonging chaos for political reasons.

In other words, if there's anything that's amenable to a basically technocratic solution and bipartisan support, this is it. In a way, it's a test of whether our political system is completely broken or just mostly broken. "Mostly" would be something of a relief.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 28, 2014

Mon Jul. 28, 2014 9:43 AM EDT

US Marines take cover behind a barrier after tossing a grenade at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2014. (Photo by Sgt. Sarah Dietz.)

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens' "Cold World" Brings the Spirit

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens
Cold World
Daptone

Naomi Shelton Cold WarIf you pick up Cold World, get ready to do some foot-stomping. Like her more secular labelmate Sharon Jones, Naomi Shelton sings with a gritty warmth that will rouse believers and nonbelievers alike, while her Gospel Queens serve as a stirring foil, locating that sweet spot where church music and old-school R&B intersect. This isn't a mere exercise in nostalgia for purists, however: Exciting tracks like "Get Up, Child" and "Bound for the Promised Land" boast propulsive grooves that will keep any party cooking with funky grace.

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Fast Tracks: Imelda May's "Tribal"

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 3

"It's Good to Be Alive"

From Imelda May's Tribal

VERVE

Liner notes: Riding an exuberant rockabilly groove, the Irish shouter delivers a message of hope.

Behind the music: A veteran of Jeff Beck's guitar sessions, May wrote this exhilarating tune the day after giving birth to her first child.

Check it out if you like: Big, confident voices, from Wanda Jackson to Connie Smith to Neko Case.

This review originally appeared in the July/August 2014 Issue of Mother Jones.

Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 5:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

PETA's Five Most Tone-Deaf Stunts

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 4:23 PM EDT

Proving once again PETA is unfamiliar with how to a deliver meaningful publicity campaign, the animal rights group is now looking to score a win off poor people's thirst.

Some background: The bankrupt city of Detroit has been shutting off its tap water to thousands of poor residents in order to force them to pay for nearly $90 million in overdue water bills. Advocates have slammed the move, calling out the city for eliminating a basic human right. The NAACP recently filed a lawsuit calling the shut down discriminatory, as most of Detroit's low-income residents are overwhelmingly black.

It takes a certain type of callousness to look at this situation and see anything other than misfortune. PETA saw an opportunity! The animal rights group has made an offer to poor Detroit residents: Be one of 10 families to denounce meat and they'll put an end to your family's thirst. PETA will even throw in a basket of vegetables for the effort.

"Vegan meals take far less of a toll on the Earth’s resources," PETA wrote in a recent press release. "It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce just a pound of meat but only about 155 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat."

This seems like as good a time as any to look back on PETA's misguided and often times exploitative PR campaigns of the past:

1. "Boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me." (2012)

Enhance your sex life by encouraging your boyfriend to go vegan. He'll transform into a "tantric porn star," breaking your neck and causing your body to go limp. The sex will be so mind-blowing, in fact, you'll wander aimlessly in just a bra, as you reflect on the violent sex you had the pleasure of subjecting yourself to the evening prior.

2. "Holocaust on your plate." (2003)

Here the group matches photos of factory farms with Holocaust inmates. The display was promptly banned in Germany—a move PETA found absurd considering a Jewish PETA member happened to fund the campaign.

3. Too fat for Plan B? Try "Plan V." (2013)

Jumping on news Plan B may not work as well for women over 165 pounds, PETA urges women to shed a few pounds by going vegan.

4. Dog breeding is for Nazis. (2014)

Again conjuring up the atrocities of the Holocaust, which lets keep in mind systematically killed 11 million people, the group equates dog breeding to Hitler's plan to bring about a pure Aryan race.

5. Don a fur coat and you'll be beaten. (2007)

The disturbing video above even seems to justify senseless violence.

Detroit has already severed off the tap water supply to nearly 125,000 people, with thousands more likely to have their resources shut down in weeks to come. And anyone with a remote interest in current events understands most Detroiters are low-income residents, many of whom could not afford to have a vegan diet.

Nice going, PETA.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

Say hello to Mozart, the latest addition to the Drum family menagerie. One of my mother's neighbors found him wandering around, so naturally he ended up at my mother's house. He's a very sociable cat and appears to be very pleased with his choice of home. To celebrate his appearance, today you get two catblogging photos: one that shows his whole body and one that's a close-up of his face. Enjoy.