Mojo - December 2012

John Kerry, Reporting for Duty

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 12:08 PM PST
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Sen. John Kerry got his wish. On Friday, one week after United Nations ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration, President Barack Obama nominated the Massachusetts Democrat for secretary of state. If confirmed, he'll replace the retiring Hillary Clinton in January.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former presidential nominee whose name has been floated as a candidate for the top Foggy Bottom job for years, has been a loyal soldier for the administration's international priorities as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He whipped Republican colleagues to support the New START Treaty during the 2010 lame duck session, and most recently led the fight—albeit unsuccessfully—for the ratification of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons With Disabilities. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, James Traub described Kerry as "a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team, which has dispatched him to face one crisis after another in danger zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan."

In brief remarks at the White House, Obama cited Kerry's work with Sen John McCain to restore relations with Vietnam in the 1990s—a notable shout-out given the Arizona Republican's role in squashing Rice's candidacy for secretary of state. "John has earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world," Obama said. "He is not going to need a lot of on the job training."

But Kerry's nomination comes with a potential consequence for Democrats. Although Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick will choose an interim replacement, Kerry's seat will be filled by special election—and the most likely candidate to replace him is Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated at the polls in November. As Nate Silver points out at the New York Times, Brown, a moderate, leads his prospective Democratic challengers in head-to-head matchups. Brown, who has not ruled out another bid, has played his hand carefully since November, most recently coming out in support of an assault weapons ban post-Sandy Hook.

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NRA Blames Violent Video Games for Newtown, But Partnered With Company That Makes Them

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 11:42 AM PST

A still from the 2006 game, NRA Gun Club.

In his first public comments since last Friday's shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre sought to place the blame for gun violence where it truly belonged: the makers of video games. "There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse," LaPierre said.

But LaPierre's speech left out a key detail: His own organization has a video game, too. It's called NRA Gun Club, it was released in 2006 for PlayStation 2, and according to the top-ranked review on Amazon, it "could very well be the single worst game in the history of games." The game, which was rated "E" for kids 10 and older, featured a handgun on the cover with four bullets and consisted entirely of various target-shooting exercises. Gamers can shoot inanimate objects like watermelons, bottles, and clay pigeons, using one of over 100 different kinds of brand-name, licensed firearms like Beretta.

NRA Gun Club didn't have the kind of blood-and-guts violence LaPierre specifically attacked in his speech—but it was made by a company that makes its money off exactly that. Crave Entertainment, which produced NRA Gun Club, also released a game called Trigger Man, which, as the name suggests, is about a mob hit-man. IGN notes that as part of the game, players "will need to outfit themselves with the tools of the trade from body armor and over 14 weapons, to silencers to make the 'hit.'" Another release from Crave is Bad Boys: Miami Takedown. As you could probably guess from the Will Smith movie that inspired it, there's a lot of shooting—and not of the clay pigeon variety:

Bad Boys: Miami Takedown. Crave Entertainment

On the other hand, if the reviews were any indication, NRA Gun Club may have been its own form a gun control. As Ed Lewis wrote for the gaming website IGN, "The only time that this game inspired me to want a real gun was when I took the disc out of my PS2. Seeing this digitized crap explode into a hundred silvery slivers would have been the only bit of satisfaction it could ever deliver." Or as Game Spot's Jeff Gerstmann put it, "you're bound to rip the disc out of your PlayStation 2 and fling it across the room almost immediately after putting it in."

NRA Chief Calls for More Guns Everywhere

| Fri Dec. 21, 2012 11:20 AM PST

At the National Rifle Association's first press conference since the Newtown massacre that killed 27 people, most of them elementary school children, the gun lobby's CEO Wayne LaPierre said the solution is more guns. 

"There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people," said LaPierre. He was talking about the entertainment industry, not groups such as the NRA that lobby for laws that allow people to get away with murder. Rolling out a list of 1990s-era conservative cultural shibboleths, LaPierre blamed a coarsening culture, and violence in movies, video games, and music for mass shootings—that is, everything but the deadly weapons the killers have used to slaughter people. 

LaPierre's "solution" is for Americans to arm themselves, and for the government to place armed guards at every public school in the country: "I call on Congress today to act immediately, to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school—and to do it now, to make sure that blanket of safety is in place when our children return to school in January." LaPierre did not note that Columbine High School had an armed guard when two students went on a murderous shooting rampage there in 1999, and that Virginia Tech had an armed police force with its own SWAT team equivalent when one of its students killed 33 people in 2007

The head of the nation's most powerful gun rights organization laid out a vision of a paramilitary America, where citizens are protected by armed guards until they are old enough to walk around with their own firearms on the off-chance they might need to pump a few rounds into a fellow citizen. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said LaPierre. "Would you rather have your 911 call bring a good guy with a gun from a mile away ... or a minute away?" Yet outside of video games, civilians rarely stop mass shooters.

While encouraging Americans to buy more guns—which would enrich the companies that fund the NRA—and station gun-toting guards at all schools, LaPierre declined to support any compromise on gun restrictions. And he engaged in a brazen act of hypocrisy. He warned of a society "populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them." He went on:

They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment? How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame—from a national media machine that rewards them with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave—while provoking others to try to make their mark? A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?

Brushing aside the disturbing implications of a national database of the "mentally ill," LaPierre and the NRA have done everything in their power to ensure that people who might be credibly identified as "deranged" can easily purchase guns without a background check. The gun lobby has fiercely opposed vetting private sales of firearms outside of licensed gun stores. Creating a national database of "monsters" would mean little if mentally ill people could still acquire guns by other means without undergoing checks. It seems unlikely that LaPierre, having thwarted basic background checks, sincerely supports the much more intrusive approach of a national database. Given that he refused to take questions at the press conference, none of the reporters there could call him out.

LaPierre also neglected to mention the high-powered, military-like rifles that three spree killers have used this year or the high-capacity magazines that have allowed these criminals to murder large numbers of people without having to stop to reload. 

This press conference was bizarre. LaPierre was defiant and defensive in attacking straw men, and he refused to engage with the national debate concerning the availability of guns of tremendous lethality. He showed no signs of any willingness to engage in compromise or even a discussion with those who are now questioning US gun policies—signalling to Republicans in Congress that they shouldn't either.

As LaPierre was speaking, there were reports of another shooting spree.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 21, 2012

Fri Dec. 21, 2012 8:51 AM PST
Marines with Lima Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, fire M777A2 Lightweight Howitzers aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Dec. 11, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl Jason Morrison.

After Newtown, Will NRA Still Demand a Ban on Docs Asking Kids about Guns?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 11:10 AM PST

For years, the National Rifle Association, the nation's mighty gun lobby, has pushed legislation that would ban doctors from asking their patients about guns in the home. Just as a pediatrician might ask a young patient about how much he or she exercises or what's going on in school or in his or her social life, that doctor might also ask about a patient's home life and if there are guns in the home. The NRA's "Firearms Owners' Privacy Act" would block that, despite the obvious First Amendment problems such a bill raises. Critics of the NRA-authored ban have dubbed the fight "Docs vs. Glocks."

The killing of 26 people, including 20 first graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by 20-year-old Adam Lanza has reinvigorated the debate about the presence of guns in American life. Who should be allowed to own guns? How should guns be stored? What types should be available to the average consumer? How many guns should one person be able to own? You've heard these question before: They were raised after the Columbine killings in 1999, the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, the Aurora, Colo., movie theater killings in July, and on and on. 

Here's another question worth asking: In the wake of the Newtown killings, as advocates and lawmakers search for ways to stop future gun violence, will the NRA keep up its fight to block doctors from asking about guns? The NRA broke its silence after the Newtown killings with a statement saying it was "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." The group did not offer specifics, and NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam did not immediately respond to a request for comment. (We'll update this post if he does.) 

There is a real health issue here: As Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein points out, research shows that even law-abiding citizens and their families who keep guns in the home are at a greater risk for getting killed by gunshot. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2009, one in five deaths among people under the age of 20 was caused by a firearm-related injury.  

With the NRA's help, six states—Alabama, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia—have tried to pass the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act. None have succeeded. Florida's GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-controlled legislature have brought the NRA the closest to victory in the Docs vs. Glocks fight.

The NRA launched Docs vs. Glocks in Florida after hearing of an Ocala resident had asked a young patient's mother whether she owned any guns; the mother wouldn't answer, and so the doctor declined to treat her kid. The NRA and its Florida-based super-lobbyist, Marion Hammer, then crafted the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act, allowing doctors to ask about guns in the home only when they deeply believe such questions matter to "the patient's medical care or safety, or the safety of others."

Scott signed the bill in early June 2011, on one of the first days of National Home Safety Month.

The state's pediatricians soon sued to stop the law, which a Miami circuit judge did months later, saying the law violated doctors' First Amendment rights. The state of Florida has appealed the decision.

The NRA also features the Docs vs. Glocks fight in its political candidate questionnaires. A July 2011 NRA questionnaire for Virginia candidates for office includes this question:

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages its members to ask many intrusive questions of their patients under the ruse of preventing "gun violence." In doing so, doctors—particularly pediatricians—have been questioning patients about the presence of firearms in one's home. Do you believe firearm ownership is your personal matter and doctors should stop questioning patients about firearm ownership?"

Thomas Julin, a South Florida attorney who represented several doctors' associations in fighting the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act, wrote in a July op-ed that the law's real intent was to "censor doctors who might advocate gun control legislation the NRA opposes." But the NRA's politically motivated attack on doctors' free speech rights, Julin writes, misses the benefit of a simple question or two. "Doctors who see children bearing bullet holes on a regular basis," he writes, "can be very powerful advocates."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2012

Thu Dec. 20, 2012 10:08 AM PST
Marines from Company C, 1st Tank Battalion, prepare their tank for the day’s attack on Range 210 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 11, 2012, during Steel Knight 13. US Marines photo.

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Boehner's Plan B: "For Backing Out"

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 8:52 AM PST

On Monday, President Obama rolled out his latest deficit deal compromise, which would reauthorize the Bush tax cuts for those making under $400,000, extend unemployment benefits, and cut Social Security spending. It's pretty close to the deal House Speaker John Boehner offered last Friday. But on Tuesday, Boehner pulled out a not-so-fun sounding "Plan B," which involves letting tax cuts expire for those with income above $1 million...and then just not really dealing with the rest of that fiscal cliff thing.

Democrats say Plan B is a signal that Boehner has backed out of negotiations over the fiscal cliff. And now the center-left Center for American Progress has taken a look at Plan B, and found it wanting.

Military Women Get (Slightly) More Access to Abortion

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 2:20 PM PST

Lawmakers have produced a conference report reconciling the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. The report indicates that the final bill will retain a measure that will allow women in the military to use their Defense Department health insurance to pay for abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

The measure, which was introduced by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), allows military women to use their government-issued health care to pay for an abortion if they are raped, just like any other woman who works for the federal goverment is already allowed to do. For years, military women have had tight restrictions on their ability to use their health benefits for abortions, and were only allowed to do so if their lives were in danger. That this provision made it into the final bill is a big deal, as House Republicans were expected to block it.

Reproductive rights groups praised the change. "For too long, servicewomen and military dependents have been denied an important aspect of health care coverage," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "It was unconscionable that women who survived rape or incest were forced to pay out-of-pocket for an abortion."

Defense Bill Nixes Ban on Indefinite Detention for US Citizens

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 1:41 PM PST

In a closed-door negotiation, top Republican and Democratic lawmakers have killed a ban on detaining American citizens without trial.

The Senate approved the ban, a bipartisan effort led by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), as an amendment to the 2013 defense spending bill in a vote last month. But once the House and Senate met to negotiate the differences between their versions of the bill, the ban was scrapped. 

Of the four main negotiators on the defense bill, only one of the Democrats, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), opposes domestic indefinite detention of Americans. The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), believes detaining Americans without charge or trial is constitutional, and only voted for the Feinstein amendment because he and some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate convinced themselves through a convoluted legal rationale that Feinstein's proposal didn't actually ban the practice. Both of the main Republican negotiators, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) believe it's constitutional to lock up American citizens suspected of terrorism without ever proving they're guilty.

Civil liberties groups aren't shedding any tears over the demise of the Feinstein-Lee amendment, either, though. They believed that because Feinstein's proposal only guaranteed due process for US citizens and legal residents, instead of all persons within the United States, that it was ultimately unconstitutional anyway. 

"I was saddened and disappointed that we could not take a step forward to ensure at the very least American citizens and legal residents could not be held in detention without charge or trial," Feinstein said in a statement to Mother Jones. "To me that was a no-brainer."

The demise of the Feinstein-Lee proposal doesn't necessarily mean that Americans suspected of terrorism in the US can be locked up forever without a trial. But it ensures that the next time a president tries to lock up an American citizen without trial—as President George W. Bush previously tried—it will be left up to the courts to decide whether or not it's legal.

CHART: How Taxpayer Dollars Were Wasted on Afghanistan's Electrical Grid

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 11:32 AM PST

One important part of the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is beefing up the country's power grid, run by the state-owned utilities company, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat. As of July 2012, only a third of Afghanistan had access to regular power, and a former UN advisor for Afghanistan told NPR that "energy remains a huge constraint for development of the country." 

The United States is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the country to help the country commercialize its electricity, but a portion of that money is being squandered. A new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released on Tuesday, shows that expensive electrical equipment purchased by the Pentagon is sitting unused in a warehouse near Kandahar. SIGAR also found that USAID paid a contractor $5.76 million contractor for a contract that was never completed.

SIGAR John F. Sopko wrote that both of these issues "warrant immediate attention." Here's the breakdown of the numbers: