• Another mass shooting: An update on U.S. gun laws

    “The problem of mass shootings has been effectively addressed in other countries, with Australia being the most notable success story,” says Stanford Law Professor John Donohue III. “After a devastating mass shooting in 1996, Australia banned all semi-automatic rifles (a move far more stringent than the U.S. federal assault weapons ban), with no grandfathering of existing weapons––it was a real ban. The result is that Australia, which had been averaging close to one mass shooting a year over the prior fifteen years (a rate that was higher than the U.S. rate of mass murder at the time when adjusted for population), has now gone almost twenty-two years without a mass shooting––an astonishing achievement of public policy.” Donohue adds that Australia took many additional gun control steps, such as banning “personal protection” as a reason for obtaining a gun permit. “Importantly, their rates of homicide, suicide, and robbery have all trended down contrary to the assertions and predictions of the NRA,” Donohue says.

  • Federal judge rules White House can continue building border wall

    U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who the president once asserted could not be fair to Trump because of Curiel’s Mexican heritage, has ruled in favor of the White House in a lawsuit over construction of a border wall.

  • Supreme Court declines to enter DACA fray

    The Supreme Court announced today (Monday) that it will not, at least for now, enter the legal fight over the Trump administration’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The court’s decision to allow the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to resolve the legal challenges to the administration’s plan  means the administration cannot proceed with its plan to end the DACA program until the end of a few more months of appeals, that is, past the 5 March deadline the administration had set to for the 800,000 “Dreamers” who arrived in the country illegally as children.

  • Deep Fakes: A looming crisis for national security, democracy and privacy?

    Events in the last few years, such as Russia’s broad disinformation campaign to undermine Western democracies, including the American democratic system, have offered a compelling demonstration of truth decay: how false claims — even preposterous ones — can be disseminated with unprecedented effectiveness today thanks to a combination of social media ubiquitous presence and virality, cognitive biases, filter bubbles, and group polarization. Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron write in Lawfare that the resulting harms are significant for individuals, businesses, and democracy – but that the problem may soon take a significant turn for the worse thanks to deep fakes. They urge us to get used to hearing that phrase. “It refers to digital manipulation of sound, images, or video to impersonate someone or make it appear that a person did something—and to do so in a manner that is increasingly realistic, to the point that the unaided observer cannot detect the fake. Think of it as a destructive variation of the Turing test: imitation designed to mislead and deceive rather than to emulate and iterate.”

  • The NRA’s journey from marksmanship to political brinkmanship

    The mass shooting on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida, ripped at the hearts of Americans in a way perhaps not seen or felt since the Sandy Hook Elementary School bloodshed in Newtown, Connecticut six years earlier. But so far, the largest and oldest U.S. gun group is doubling down on its sweeping opposition to restrictions on gun ownership. After spending decades researching and writing about how and why the NRA came to hold such sway over national gun policies, I believe it might not be as invincible at this point in its history as the interest group’s reputation suggests.

  • How the Fix NICS act could strengthen the gun background check system

    After a weekend of protests and vigils following the massacre at a Florida high school that left 17 dead, President Donald Trump signaled support on Monday for bipartisan legislation aimed at improving records reporting to the federal gun background check system. Launched in 1998, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is used by federally licensed firearms dealers to check whether a person who is trying to buy a gun is legally permitted to do so. The gun background check system is only as strong as the records it contains. States voluntarily supply records to the databases that make up the NICS system, and they do a spotty job of it. Some records never make it into the databases, and others are incomplete or unclear.

  • Trump'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.

  • Why 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.

  • Competing 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?

  • Poland'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.

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

    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.

  • The 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.

  • Prosecuting 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.

  • Step-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.

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

    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.