• Travel banTrump's travel ban “unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam”: Court

    The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday described the latest version of Donald Trump’s travel ban as “unconstitutionally tainted with animus toward Islam.” In a 9-4 vote, the federal appeals court said the ban on travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries is unconstitutional because it discriminates against people based on their religion. In its ruling, the 4th Circuit said the presidential proclamation imposing the ban has a “much broader deleterious effect” than banning certain foreign nationals. The ban, the court said, “denies the possibility of a complete, intact family to tens of thousands of Americans.” “On a fundamental level, the Proclamation second-guesses our nation’s dedication to religious freedom and tolerance,” Chief Justice Roger Gregory wrote for the court in the majority opinion.

  • GunsWhy American teenagers can buy AR-15s

    Nikolas Cruz was too young to buy a pistol at a gun shop. But no law prevented the teenager from purchasing the assault-style rifle he allegedly used to kill at least 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Florida is not unique. In most states, people can legally buy assault-style weapons before they can drink a beer. Federal law stipulates that gun stores and other licensed dealers may not sell a handgun to anyone under the age of 21, but they can sell long guns — that is, rifles and shotguns — to anyone who is at least 18. Twenty-three states have set minimum age requirements for the ownership of long guns, ranging from 14 in Minnesota to 21 in Illinois and Hawaii.

  • Quick takes // By Ben FrankelCompeting rights: Florida shooting highlights tension between two rights

    Many Americans accept the current gun trade-off: Much easier access to guns relative to other advanced societies – with a far larger number of gun fatalities relative to these advanced societies. Unless this general acceptance of the current trade-off changes – and this would amount to a cultural change — we are not going to see any meaningful legislative changes to the issue of access to guns. But the question that events such as the Florida school shooting raises should still be considered: It has to do with the clash between two constitutionally protected rights: The right to bear arms and the right for life and liberty. Americans have the right to bear arms, but they also have a fundamental right to life, that is, the right to live, which also means the right not to be killed by another human being. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s words (in his “All the laws but one” response to Chief Justice Taney): Should we be so adamant and so narrowly restrictive in our refusal to read the Second Amendment more broadly, even if the result of this absolutism is that other rights – fundamental rights, like the right to life —are being eroded?

  • Truth decayPoland's president to sign Holocaust bill into law

    Polish President Andrzej Duda says he will sign a controversial Holocaust bill into law, despite protests from Israel, the United States, and Ukraine. The measure would set fines or a maximum three-year jail term for describing Nazi Germany’s extermination camps in the country as “Polish death camps” or for suggesting “publicly and against the facts” that the Polish nation or state was complicit in the genocide committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. Poland’s right-wing government says the law is necessary to protect the reputation of Poles as victims of Nazi aggression.

  • Gun safetyThe ATF received 36,000 comments on bump stocks. They’re overwhelmingly anti-regulation.

    By Sean Campbell and Daniel Nass

    In the week following the Las Vegas massacre on 1 October, polls showed that nearly 75 percent of registered voters in gun-owning households supported a ban on bump stocks. Yet despite the public sentiment, an analysis of comments submitted in response to a government proposal to regulate bump stocks shows that 85 percent of commenters opposed the measure.

  • Safeguarding democracyThe big squeeze on American democracy

    The weakening and sometimes collapse of liberal democracies around the world has long been a focus of research for Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, but the Harvard professors of government only recently felt compelled to turn their analysis to this country. In their new book How Democracies Die (Crown), Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy in the United States faces threats that parallel those that led to its diminishment and demise in other nations. Political polarization has risen dangerously high over race, religion, and culture. While the ascent of President Trump is a particular focus now, the authors argue that the nation’s drift toward authoritarianism, including the breakdown of political norms, predates his rise to power.

  • GunsProsecuting background check, straw purchase violations depends on state laws

    A new study found that prosecutions in Pennsylvania for violating the state’s straw purchase law increased by nearly 16 times following the 2012 passage of a law requiring a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for individuals convicted of multiple straw purchase violations.  So-called straw purchases involve a prohibited person, such as someone with a criminal record, enlisting the aid of another person to buy the firearm on their behalf.

  • Designer pathogensStep-by-step horsepox study intensifies dual-use research debate

    The publication last week of a research paper offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus has been harshly criticized by both scientists and biosecurity experts as reckless and dangerous. The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. “The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset,” says one expert. Analysts say that the publication further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. “As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk,” says the expert.

  • Designer pathogensThe synthesis of horsepox virus and the failure of dual-use research oversight

    By Gregory Koblentz

    On 19 January 2018, the open access scientific journal PLOS One published an article that describes the de novo synthesis of horsepox virus, the first ever synthesis of a member of the orthopoxvirus family of viruses that includes the variola virus that causes smallpox. This research crosses a red line in the field of biosecurity. Given the high degree of homology between orthopoxviruses, the techniques described in this article are directly applicable to the recreation of variola virus. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. The reemergence of smallpox would be a global health disaster. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, more people than all the wars of the twentieth century combined. Based on these considerations, the horsepox synthesis research is all risk and no reward. Given the known risks of this research for pioneering a technique that can be used to recreate variola virus and its questionable benefits, the publication of this article represents a failure of PLOS One to exercise its responsibility to carefully consider the biosecurity implications of the research it publishes.

  • Election securityTime for election reform

    By Grant M. Lally

    Congressional investigations have uncovered extensive interference - attempted fraud - by Russia and other foreign agents, including attempts to hack electronic voting machines, attempts to hack voter rolls to add or delete voters, targeted internet advertising, and targeted fake news and trolling. Here are five obvious reforms to strengthen the “critical infrastructure” of our democracy.

  • The Russia connectionSputnik partner “required to register” under U.S. Foreign-Agent law

    State-supported Russian media outlet Sputnik says its U.S.-based partner company RIA Global LLC has been ordered to register as a foreign agent by the U.S. government. According to Sputnik, the Justice Department said that RIA Global produces content on behalf of state media company Rossiya Segodnya and thus on behalf of the Russian government.

  • Food safetyFDA indefinitely delays enforcing 4 FSMA provisions

    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that, for now, it will not enforce four rules related to the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a law passed in 2011 that signaled the biggest overhaul in the U.S. food safety laws in seventy years. The provisions the FDA does not intend to enforce include aspects of the “farm” definition, requirements related to written assurances from a manufacturer’s customers, requirements for importers of food contact substances, and requirements related to certain human food by-products for use as animal food within three of FSMA’s rules that relate to human and animal food safety, foreign supplier verification, and growing standards for human food.

  • Mental health & gunsAllowing mentally ill people to access firearms is not fueling mass shootings

    By Miranda Lynne Baumann and Brent Teasdale

    As has been the case with the overwhelming majority of other mass shootings in recent memory, media and political coverage focus on his mental health status of the shooter. This narrow focus on mental illness reignited calls for broader restrictions on firearm access for people with mental illnesses, despite evidence that mental illness contributes to less than 5 percent of all violent crimes and that most individuals with severe mental illness do not behave violently. Still, these calls beg the question: Are mentally disordered people with access to firearms really driving America’s gun violence problem? Our study finds that the reality of firearm-related risk among individuals with mental illness lies not in the potential for harm to others, but in the risk of harming oneself. There is certainly an argument to be made for the temporary removal of firearm access for individuals actively experiencing mental health crises. However, the threat of permanent loss of one’s Second Amendment right could cause harm, as people might avoid treatment for fear of losing their guns. One of the most disturbing aspects of our study is that it emerges from what amounts to an empirical vacuum. The 1996 passage of the Dickey Amendment effectively prohibits federal funding of gun violence research. Since its enactment, scholars have been unable to conduct comprehensive research projects to better understand gun violence. The Dickey Amendment is also the reason that no comprehensive, nationally representative studies have been conducted in recent years to examine the causes of gun violence. As a result, gun lobbyists have been free to compose the narrative of their choice, namely that mass shootings are a mental health problem. We just don’t have enough data to know the causes.

  • War crimesThree new war crimes recognized by ICC

    On Thursday 14 December, in New York, the Assembly of State Parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC) added three new war crimes to the Rome Statute: the use of biological and toxin weapons; the use of weapons causing injuries by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays; and the use of laser weapons causing permanent blindness.

  • BiosecurityU.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday announced it was ending its three-year moratorium on funding of gain-of-function research, that is, research which aims to make extremely dangerous viruses even more dangerous in order to find a vaccine or cure for them. The U.S. government instituted the ban in 2014, against the backdrop of rising worries that these “gain-of-function” studies would allow scientists to increase the ability of the infectious disease to spread by enhancing its pathogenicity, or its ability to cause disease. Scientists who supported continuing research involving enhancing the transmissibility of infectious disease were not helped by a series of safety mishaps at federal research facilities.