Recruits from Charlie Company take a moment to rest after completing their last event at The Crucible, Dec. 14, 2012, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Griffin.

In 1848, Horace Mann, the godfather of the modern public school system, wrote that education is "the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery." But is that still true today? Reuters followed two high school students in Massasschusetts, home to the nation's top public school system, and found evidence that our schools are becoming the opposite of what Mann envisioned: another source of division between the wealthy and everyone else.

If Black Friday shopping trends are any indication, the gift of cold, hard steel will be more popular than ever this holiday season. According to USA Today, on that day dealers called the FBI with a total of 154,873 background check requests for shoppers seeking to buy firearms. That's 20 percent more than last year's record of 129,166 calls in one day. Sixty-two percent of the Black Friday requests were for long guns like shotguns or rifles, such as the Bushmaster .223 reportedly used by the suspect in today's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (a state where you don't need a permit to carry a rifle).

The FBI doesn't keep track of guns sold—only the background requests it fields—but that number is almost certainly higher than the number of calls received, given that consumers can buy more than one firearm per request. Overall, background requests have jumped 32 percent since 2008 (PDF). As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out, gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson reported a record number of sales for their last quarter, up nearly 50 percent from the year before. The rise in gun sales doesn't necessarily mean that there are more first-time gun owners, though: A CNN investigation in July showed that fewer people own more and more weapons. 

Gun purchases always rise as the holidays approach. This year, though, the Christmas rush might not be the only thing prompting people to buy firearms. In the weeks after President Obama won a second term, background checks spiked, just as they had after he was elected back in 2008. In a New York Times op-ed about this, columnist Charles M. Blow quoted a National Rifle Association spokesperson who said that "gun sales are undoubtedly going up because gun owners know that at best President Obama wants to make guns and ammunition more expensive through increased taxes and regulation, and at worst he wants to make them totally illegal."

19-year-old Lydia Brown, an autistic undergraduate at Georgetown, says she fits the media stereotype of a mass shooter "perfectly."

In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, journalists rushed to pathologize whatever drove Adam Lanza to mow down 20 children and six adults with a semi-automatic rifle. Perhaps, they implied, it was his alleged Asperger's Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder characterized by difficulties in interpreting social cues and communicating emotion.

For example, sources speaking with the New York Times, described Lanza as an intelligent, friendless loner, with a "flat affect" who never showed any "emotions going through his head." He was, said a doctor on Fox News' Hannity, "out of touch with reality" and "didn't have empathy." Like other autistics, Lanza, said a psychologist on CNN, was "missing something in the brain." (It's worth noting neither of the networks' "experts" specialize in neurological disorders, like autism.)

For people in the autism community, their response to the media's portrayal of the gunman's diagnosis was frustration—and anger. This again?

"We are a community that faces tremendous stigma and prejudice, and unfortunately when this happens, the mainstream media presents stereotypes and inaccurate information about autism and disability that only make that stigma and prejudice worse," says Ari Ne'eman, who is the president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and himself autistic.

Although there's no evidence suggesting autistic people are more violent than the general population—in fact, studies show the opposite may be true—this isn't the first time journalists have made the specious connection between autism and heinous criminal acts. The Monday after the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough speculated on-air that shooter James Holmes was "somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale" and "more often than not," mass murderers are autistic.

Earlier this summer, the Daily Mail perpetuated two other common myths about autistic people when the UK paper described Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who fatally shot 69 people at a summer camp in July of 2011, as having a "rare, high-functioning form of Asperger's that has left him incapable of empathy or real friendship." While that might be true of Breivik, the notions that autistics are incapable of feeling empathy and avoid human companionship have been repeatedly debunked.

"We want to hunt for explanations. We want reasons for horrible things that happen," says Steve Silberman, a Wired reporter who's currently writing a book about autism and neurodiversity. "The problem is that people tend to go for these sort of pre-packaged, stereotypical explanations …and that's one way we make people who commit these acts seem not like us…and somehow less than human."

This shoddy reporting, particularly from influential and far-reaching news outlets, has real consequences in shaping the public’s perception of autism and other disabilities, Ne'eman explains.

"We're like anyone else. We're people who apply for jobs, look for places to live, apply to colleges. We're generally looking to be included in society and when there is a myth out there that we're people you have to be afraid of, that has a practical impact," he says. "We talk to a lot of people, for example, who are discriminated against in the workplace after they disclose their diagnosis."

Lydia Brown, an autistic 19-year-old sophomore at Georgetown University, worries that stereotypes about autistic people will affect her employment opportunities. Despite an impressive resume, Brown is admittedly socially awkward. In high school, after another student overheard her telling a joke about one of her novels, a school administrator called her into his office and accused her of plotting a school shooting.

"I'm actually pretty terrified," Brown said when asked if she was concerned about the media's depiction of mass murderers like Lanza. "Because I’m the kind of person who fits this profile perfectly."

In the days following the Newtown shooting, Brown said her blog picked up traffic from more than a dozen different Google search terms linking autism and murder. The searches were all along the lines of "are autistic people more likely to kill", "how many mass shooters were autistic," and "are people with autism dangerous."

"It's really bothersome that we have to even be having this conversation," says Shannon Des Roches Rosa, an editor for The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism whose 12-year-old son, Leo, is autistic. "We don't want to go out there and have to defend them as [not being] murderers or [ourselves as] parents of murderers. We should be talking about gun control, better mental health support. We should be joining everyone in mourning."

In his response to the Newtown mass shooting, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre slammed ultraviolent movies and video games for celebrating killing and catering to our antisocial fantasies. Not surprisingly, he did not mention the abundance of paraphernalia marketed to law-abiding gun owners that glorifies firearms and minimizes gun violence. Ten t-shirts that exemplify the uglier side of pro-gun gear:

"AR-15 Asshole Remover"
That's the same rifle that was used to remove 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"Guns don't kill people. I do."
For the rare sociopath with a sense of personal responsibility.

"When Democracy Becomes Tyranny / I STILL Get to Vote."
This is exactly why we need voter ID laws.

A warning to women and girls everywhere, via the AP:

A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an "irresistible attraction," even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.


Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.

He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, "that's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."


Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman...Knight is a very religious and moral individual, and he sincerely believed that firing Nelson would be best for all parties, [his attorney] said.

(Read the whole AP story, which is equal doses tragic and hysterical. Read the court's decision [PDF].)

Sadly, this nonsense isn't anything new. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously upheld a business owner's right to fire an employee because the business owner's wife found her threatening. And a couple of years ago, a woman named Debrahlee Lorenzana sued a Citibank branch in Manhattan, alleging that her superiors canned her for looking too much like a supermodel.

Just to be clear, the lesson here is that if you are an accomplished, intelligent, diligent, and thoughtful female professional who's done absolutely nothing wrong, and you happen to look like this:

attractive woman

...and you work for this:

...then this can legally happen to you:

fired woman
 Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock

This is the legal reality of fireable hotness in America today.

President Barack Obama's message to Congress on Friday was straightforward. "Pour some egg nog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones," he said at a press conference at the White House—and don't mess up the economic recovery. In his first public statements on the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations since the collapse of the Republican alternative "Plan B," Obama hinted at a more piecemeal package than had initially been discussed, with Congress working on a compromise plan on the Bush tax cuts next week.

On Thursday night, shortly before Congress adjourned for Christmas, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) canceled a scheduled vote on "Plan B" (which among other things extended the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year while raising the top tax rate to Clinton-era levels) because he didn't have the votes for it within his own caucus. The demise of Plan B, which Boehner had personally lobbied for on the House floor, was a victory for the party's most conservative members, and almost immediately sparked speculation about whether Boehner's days as Speaker are numbered. (National Review's Robert Costa has the best play-by-play of the chaos at the Capitol I've seen.)

So what's next? Congress has until Dec. 31 to take some sort of action. Or it could just go off "the cliff"—in which case all the Bush tax cuts will expire and massive spending cuts scheduled as part of 2011's debt ceiling deal would go into effect.

In the meantime, enjoy your egg nog, I guess.

You can watch the president's statement right here:

'Tis the season to give to charity. But a new report from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman finds that many of the donations New Yorkers are giving to charity are mostly going to line the pockets of telemarketing firms. The report found that more than 60 cents of every dollar raised by a professional telemarketing firm for charity goes to the firm itself. Out of 602 fundraising efforts examined, only 49 returned more than 65 percent of the money raised to the nonprofit. More than a third of the fundraising attempts returned less than 30 percent of the donor money to the charity, and in 76 of the campaigns, charities actually lost money hiring the telemarketers. Schneiderman has issued subpoenas to some of the entities in the report in an investigation into whether repeat offenders are breaking New York fundraising laws with their money-losing telemarketing schemes.

Consumer advocates have been saying for years that a lot of charitable fundraising doesn't go to the needy. But the New York AG's report comes at an interesting time, when Congress and the president have been discussing whether limiting the $50 billion in annual tax deductions Americans claim for charitable donations is a good way to shore up the nation's finances. Nonprofit groups have risen up en mass to oppose the idea, but the AG's report shows that despite claims by conservatives, the private sector is not especially efficient when it comes to serving the less fortunate. And since many of the beneficiaries of charitable donations (the telemarketers) are not even nonprofits, it's not clear why such donations are tax-deductible in the first place.

Among the worst offenders on the AG's list are some familiar organizations, many of which are politically involved. Among them is Tea Party Patriots, a group that has long had unusually high administrative and fundraising costs. Schneiderman found that in 2011, Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest grassroots tea party organizations to have come out of the movement, collected nearly $2 million in donations through telemarketers. Just $54,000 of that—less than 5 percent—went back to the organization. The telemarketers kept the rest. Also, it seems that tea partiers are good at promising telemarketers they'll donate, but not so good about actually paying up. The report shows that Tea Party Patriots had $850,000 in pledges that went uncollected. For an organization that promotes fiscal responsibility, it's not setting an especially good example.

(Note to conservative activists: If you're looking to give to a tea party group over the phone, you're probably best off giving to FreedomWorks, which was until recently run by a professional lobbyist and former member of Congress. FreedomWorks was one of the few groups examined by New York that got 65 percent of the money it raised through telemarketers. Of course, what it did with that money is another issue.)

The Family Research Council Action, Americans United for Life (an anti-abortion group), Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the Concerned Women of America Legislative Action Committee, which ended up nearly $175,000 in the hole from one of its fundraising efforts, all had pretty bad records. But more liberal groups weren't that much better. NARAL, the ACLU, and People for the American Way all ended up at the bottom of the report: their telemarketing efforts ended up costing them more than they made. It's all just one more reason to hang up on telemarketers and send your donations through the mail. 

"Our Second Amendment rights are hanging by a thread. President Obama just announced he's on the warpath... [T]his is an all-out EMERGENCY." So reads a fundraising email blasted out Wednesday by the National Association for Gun Rights.

Since Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and 7 adults in Newtown a week ago, gun control is on the national mind more than any time since probably 1994. Several pro-gun lawmakers and public figures have had a change of heart in recent days. And on Wednesday, Obama came out in support of renewing a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and requiring background checks on all gun sales. That is bad news for gun rights groups all over the country. But it sure helps them raise money.

"Natural Born Killers" (1994).

On Friday morning, National Rifle Association executive VP Wayne LaPierre—the guy who once accused the Clinton administration of tolerating gun violence in America so that Clinton could bolster the case for gun control legislation—held a press conference (finally) in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. LaPierre called on the government to pay for an armed police officer in every public school in America.

He also made a series of dated and often bizarre cultural references in large chunks of the speech. Here are some of the things he blamed for gun violence in our country:

Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse. And here's one: it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It's been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn't or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?

Then there's the blood-soaked slasher films like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers that are aired like propaganda loops on "Splatterdays" and every day, and a thousand music videos that portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life. And then they have the nerve to call it "entertainment." But is that what it really is? Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?

This all begs the question of what year LaPierre's speech was written.

Of all these specific references, Bulletstorm (2011) and Grand Theft Auto are the most recent—but the debate over the GTA video game series' content has been raging since 1997.

A rundown of why these references were so strange:

  • Bulletstorm was the center of an entirely Fox News-driven controversy. (The video game hasn't been the center of any other major controversy or crime, and the hysterical video-games-will-turn-you-into-a-rapist coverage by Fox probably helped sales.)
  • Mortal Kombat was first controversial when George H.W. Bush was president.
  • Splatterhouse—in which the gamer plays a dude named Terror Mask who fights demons in order to save his lover—was first released when Ronald Reagan was in office.
  • Kindergarten Killers is a pathetic and perverse internet cartoon game that virtually no one has ever heard of or played.
  • While there were widely publicized—and even academic—controversies surrounding both Bret Easton Ellis' novel (1991) and the film adaptation (2000), American Psycho isn't actually known for causing or inspiring murders.
  • The Oliver Stone hyper-violent satire Natural Born Killers is still fairly controversial, particularly for the copycat killings it has allegedly motivated. The film is somewhat of a relic of the mid-'90s.
  • "Splatterdays" refers to the Saturday night double-feature of horror movies that airs on The Movie Channel. Selected films often involve zombies and killers with large knives. "Splatterday" has been at the center of precisely zero controversies, in this country or any other.

So this is where the NRA is today—doing what they typically do when in damage-control mode: Painting arcade games, books, and "Splatterday" as the "filthiest form of pornography," and then blaming them for national tragedy. Click here for things the NRA didn't blame for mass murder in America today.