Daily Archives: January 13, 2013

Sales of Guns Soar in U.S. as Federal Government Seeks to Capitalize on Newtown Shooting

gun sales
At a gun store in Casper, Wyo., late last month, a wall that typically displays about 25 military-style rifles was almost bare. Alan Rogers/Casper Star-Tribune, via Associated Press

“They can’t make guns fast enough.”

nytimes.com | Jan 11, 2013

By MICHAEL COOPER

As Washington focuses on what Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will propose next week to curb gun violence, gun and ammunition sales are spiking in the rest of the country as people rush to expand their arsenals in advance of any restrictions that might be imposed.

People were crowded five deep at the tiny counter of a gun shop near Atlanta, where a pastor from Knoxville, Tenn., was among the customers who showed up in person after the store’s Web site halted sales because of low inventory. Emptying gun cases and bare shelves gave a picked-over feel to gun stores in many states. High-capacity magazines, which some state and federal officials want to ban or restrict, were selling briskly across the country: one Iowa dealer said that 30-round magazines were fetching five times what they sold for just weeks ago.

FBI data confirms spike in gun sales following Newtown, Conn. massacre

Gun dealers and buyers alike said that the rapid growth in gun sales — which began climbing significantly after President Obama’s re-election and soared after the Dec. 14 shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., prompted him to call for new gun laws — shows little sign of abating.

December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they had never seen such demand.

“If I had 1,000 AR-15s I could sell them in a week,” said Jack Smith, an independent gun dealer in Des Moines, referring to the popular style of semiautomatic rifle that drew national attention after Adam Lanza used one to kill 20 children and 6 adults at a Newtown school. “When I close, they beat on the glass to be let in,” Mr. Smith said of his customers. “They’ll wave money at me.”

Mr. Smith said many people were stocking up on high-capacity magazines in anticipation that they might be banned. Two weeks ago, he said, a 30-round rifle magazine was $12, but it now fetches $60. Popular online retailers were out of many 20- and 30-round rifle magazines.

In Washington, Mr. Biden said the task force he leads is “shooting for Tuesday” to make its recommendations to President Obama about preventing gun violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s leading gun control groups, said its top priority was to close the loopholes that currently allow 40 percent of gun sales to be made without background checks.

Some groups that support gun control urged the White House not to focus too much energy on an assault weapons ban, which they said could be hard to persuade Congress to pass. Officials at Third Way, a left-leaning research group in Washington, urged the president to save his political capital for higher-priority goals like universal background checks and cracking down on gun trafficking.

Outside Greta’s Guns, a gun store in Simi Valley, Calif., about an hour northwest of downtown Los Angeles, several customers said that they opposed any assault weapons ban, but would support more thorough background checks.

George Gray, 60, who said that he already owned “more arms than arms to bear them,” said that he was in favor of more background checks. “If you own a weapon, you should be stable,” said Mr. Gray, who said he had come from Los Angeles to buy a gun for his daughter. “You should be accountable for your actions. I don’t mind stricter background checks. What we’ve done with the mental health in this country — these people used to get care and were in facilities. And in most of these instances, it’s been people with mental problems.”

Some customers at Greta’s said that they wanted to buy guns before any new gun control measures made it more difficult. Bob Davis, 64, said that he wanted a new pistol. “They want to take guns out of citizens’ hands,” he said. “So as a consequence I ordered a gun. And they’re not going to be able to get me a gun for like six months, because of the backlog. They can’t make guns fast enough.”

The gun industry expected a surge in sales even before the Newtown shooting. Gun sales rose after President Obama was first elected in 2008, and many manufacturers expected an increase in gun sales in the event of his re-election. “We believe the continued economic uncertainty and the outcome of the 2012 presidential election is likely to continue to spur both firearms and ammunition sales,” the Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster, the company that makes the rifle used in Newtown, wrote in a financial report on the quarter that ended Sept. 30.

The possibility that the federal assault weapons ban — which lasted from 1994 to 2004 — might be reinstated was enough to spur sales of semiautomatic rifles with military-style features.

Dale Raby, who manages one of two Gus’s Guns shops in Green Bay, Wis., said his inventory of guns and ammunition was almost cleaned out, and that most of the interest was in AR-15-style rifles.

“I had almost fistfights over the remaining inventory of that type gun,” he said.

Joel Alioto, 44, an Iraq war veteran who lives in the area, said he recently sold an AR-15 rifle at a gun show for $1,700, more than three times what he had paid for it. “I think the shooting in Connecticut was a terrible thing,” said Mr. Alioto, who is unemployed. “But before the shooting the gun was worth 500 bucks. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I wanted to get my teeth done, get a computer and pay for my first year of Bible college.”

Brad Williamson, one of the owners of Quint’s Sporting Goods in Saraland, Ala., said the waiting lists for some products are double what they normally are — especially for guns that are mentioned in the gun control debate. “Whenever there’s a blip on the news about a particular model, the next day people want to come in wanting whatever they named,” he said. “When Biden makes his recommendation next week, you’re going to see another surge.”

At Georgia Arms in Villa Rica, Ga., west of Atlanta, the ammunition business was brisk, with dozens of the yellow bins that usually held ammunition empty. The Rev. Laurence Hesser, a pastor at Memorial United Methodist Church near Knoxville, stopped by because he had been unable to buy ammunition on the shop’s Web site, which halted sales because inventory was so low.

He likened the current run on ammunition to the rush to buy Twinkies last year after its maker, Hostess Brands, announced it was closing. “It’s the same thing,” he said. “When you are threatened with the possibility that you are going to lose something, you get a bunch of it.”

Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz dies at age 26, allegedly by suicide

Aaron-Swartz-in-Miami-Bea-007
Aaron Swartz pictured in Miami Beach, Florida in 2009. Photograph: Michael Francis Mcelroy/New York Times / Redux / eyevine

Aaron Swartz, internet activist and builder of Reddit, dies at 26

Advocate of freedom of information who faced trial over hacking allegations reported to have killed himself in New York

Aaron Swartz Killed By The Dark Cabal?

guardian.co.uk | Jan 12, 2013

by Paul Harris and Matt Williams in New York

Aaron Swartz, a celebrated computer activist and builder of the popular internet community website Reddit, has died. It is believed that the 26-year-old killed himself in New York City on Friday.

A committed advocate for the freedom of information over the internet, Swartz had been facing a trial over allegations of hacking related to the downloading of millions of documents from the online research group JSTOR. Swartz pleaded not guilty last year; if convicted, he could have faced a lengthy prison term.

The MIT university newspaper The Tech received an email from Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot R Peters, which confirmed the news. The newspaper reported the email as saying: “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true.”

Aaron Swartz, American hero

Aaron Swartz dies at 26; Internet folk hero founded Reddit

Swartz dedicated much of his time to fighting internet censorship and his court case had become a cause célèbre for many similar-minded figures. A social-justice lawyer, Bettina Neuefeind, had established a website to raise money for his defence.

The organisation Demand Progress, which Swartz helped to found, had compared the activities of which he was accused to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library”.

David Moon, programme director at Demand Progress, told the Guardian that he was “shocked and saddened” by the news of his colleague’s death.

He added that the organisation would pay “proper homage to Aaron at the appropriate time” but for the time being it was “simply spending the moment reflecting on his life and work”.

As news of Swartz’s death spread online, numerous tributes were posted. The author and web expert Cory Doctorow, who was a friend of Swartz, posted a tribute on the website Boing Boing. Doctorow wrote that Swartz may have been afraid of the idea of imprisonment but that he had also suffered with bouts of depression. He also paid tribute to the young activist’s achievements and dedication to his causes. “We have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it,” he wrote.

Swartz regularly blogged about his own life on the website aaronsw.com. In a post written in January 2007, he discussed the nature of suicide.

“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent,” he wrote.

White House brushes secession petitions aside, says no escaping “universal law and perpetual, permanent Union”

great-seal

White House responds to secession petitions, calls for unity

thehill.com | Jan 11, 2013

By Alexandra Jaffe

The White House has responded to a handful of petitions calling for various states to be given the right to secede from the United States, calling for unity and participatory government instead.

“In a nation of 300 million people — each with their own set of deeply-held beliefs — democracy can be noisy and controversial. And that’s a good thing. Free and open debate is what makes this country work, and many people around the world risk their lives every day for the liberties we often take for granted,” writes Director of the Office of Public Engagement Jon Carson.

“But as much as we value a healthy debate, we don’t let that debate tear us apart,” he adds.

A handful of “We the People” petitions calling for the government to allow various states to secede cropped up following President Obama’s reelection. The White House has responded to all those which received more than 25,000 signatures within a month, the minimum required to get a response.The states included in the response are Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. The Texas petition received over 125,000 signatures, more than any other.

The response was also issued, ironically, to a petition calling for the deportation of all those who signed secession petitions.Carson goes on to argue for a united nation based on the Founding Fathers’ intentions, with the “right to change our national government through the power of the ballot.””But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, ‘in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual,'” Carson writes.

He adds that the Civil War “vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States.”

Instead of seceding, Carson says, citizens of the U.S. should engage with the government.

“Whether it’s figuring out how to strengthen our economy, reduce our deficit in a responsible way, or protect our country, we will need to work together — and hear from one another — in order to find the best way to move forward,” he writes.

The “We the People” site has received a number of bizarre petitions since its inception, including one to give Vice President Joe Biden a television show, and one calling for the administration to build a Death Star.

The latter petition received a response from the White House this week. As with the secession petitions, the White House let down those hoping for a Death Star.

Paul Shawcross, chief of the White House Office of Management and Budget’s science and space branch, wrote that the proposal was simply too expensive.

TSA Once Again Considering Using Commercial Data To Profile Passengers

tsa

ACLU | Jan 11, 2013

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project

The TSA has issued a “Market Research Announcement” in which the agency expresses a desire to expand its Pre-Check whitelist program by allowing private companies to carry out risk analysis of Americans that would determine whether they are “trusted” enough to participate in the trusted traveler program. This would be a major step toward turning the agency’s Pre-Check whitelist into the insidious kind of passenger profiling system that was proposed under the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11, and a confirmation of our longstanding warnings that the logic of the risk-assessment approach to security will drive the government toward the use of more and more data on individuals. It would be the most significant of the new initiatives the TSA is looking at this year.

Currently, under Pre-Check, travelers who have attained a certain level within the frequent flier programs of six airlines can apply for the program by providing the government with certain information and, if they are accepted, receive access to expedited security lines. Department of Defense personnel and those with certain security clearances may now also join—and future expansions are inevitable. Although it is currently limited in scope, we have been warning that this kind of program points us down the road of engaging in background checks and discriminatory profiling of passengers. The concept raises knotty questions about fairness; we don’t know who is approved for this program and who is rejected, and based on what data, or what criteria for evaluating that data.

Defenders of Pre-Check point out that it is voluntary. However, as the agency explicitly states in this new document, “TSA desires to maximize appropriate participation in expedited screening initiatives.” In short, it hopes to lighten the screening load as much as possible by enrolling as many people as it can in Pre-Check. That means that ultimately, we face the prospect of a two-class airline security system, or even a system in which simply everyone has a Pre-Check ID, and the hapless group who can’t get one become a security underclass. Then the Pre-Check is adopted for all kinds of other purposes by piggybacking organizations, and like a “voluntary” credit card, it becomes impossible to fully participate in American life without one, and those who are shut out—and they won’t know why—face all kinds of obstacles and disadvantages.

As I discussed in this post, the Bush program, called CAPPS II, would have tapped into commercial data sources to perform background checks on every air passenger, and crunched that data to produce a profile of each traveler’s “risk to aviation.” The initial vision seemed to be to measure individuals’ “rootedness in their community,” measuring such things as how long a person has lived at their current address, held their current job, held a credit rating, etc. Among the numerous problems with this concept, it would have been enormously discriminatory in its impact (African-Americans, for example, tend to move more often than whites), and would have been grossly ineffective in spotting terrorists. (As Bruce Schneier has long pointed out, the danger is that to the extent you exempt some groups from security measures, you open up a pathway for terrorists to join or recruit their way into the program.)

We and others fought this terrible idea, and over several years of battles in Congress and the media, it was renamed “Secure Flight” and basically reduced to watch list checks. A victory of sorts—although the watch list system underpinning Secure Flight continues to be a mess.

Now it is clear that our concerns about Pre-Check sliding back towards some kind of CAPPS II-like profiling system have been warranted. In particular, the agency appears never to have lost its fixation with partnering with private-sector data aggregators to evaluate American citizens. The TSA writes:

TSA is particularly interested in techniques that … use non-governmental data elements to generate an assessment of the risk to the aviation transportation system that may be posed by a specific individual, and to communicate the identity of persons who have successfully passed this risk based assessment to TSA’s Secure Flight.

As I understand it, the concept here is that a company such as a data broker would sift through the enormous volumes of data they store on Americans and come up with a proposed algorithm for judging “the risk to the aviation transportation system” of any given individual. TSA would examine that algorithm, and upon the agency’s approval, the company would be authorized to sell Pre-Check memberships using that algorithm applied to its own data.

For now, the TSA says it “is seeking white papers that successfully demonstrate sound, well-reasoned concepts … to identify ‘known travelers’ pre-screened to a high degree of confidence.” The agency says it wants to allow “entities latitude to do what makes the most sense for them”:

TSA will specify a few common core requirements for process and algorithm content, while encouraging innovation by allowing participating entities to include additional elements in their algorithms as they see fit (as long as they are legal). These hybrid algorithms would have to meet certain performance criteria, described below.

Those criteria include:

  • An enrollment process that is convenient and user friendly
  • A proposal that “presents an effective process for gathering required personal information from potentially large numbers of prospective enrollees”
  • Handling travelers’ personal information with various security and privacy safeguards
  • “Has identified and obtained access to specific sources of current, accurate, and complete non-Governmental data that can be used to support effective screening of prospective travelers”
  • An algorithm “that produces dependable results”

The agency outlines a three-phase process for turning these white papers into functioning part of our security system. Phase 1 (30 days) is selection of promising submissions, phase 2 (45-60 days) is prototype implementation, and phase 3 (4-6 months) will be live prototyping on actual passengers at an actual airport.

Major problems

Aside from the fundamental effectiveness questions of this concept, there are a number of major problems with it from a civil-liberties point of view:

  • Unfair effects. It is likely to have an unfair impact on the American public. As I mentioned above it could easily be discriminatory in its application, or otherwise unfair depending on the data sources used. For example, see this story about a man having problems with his credit score precisely because he had always been careful not to go into debt. The data aggregators are subject to no rules regarding data quality, and their databases are rife with errors, as are the credit ratings agencies’ (despite their being subject to some regulations).
  • Secrecy. We probably won’t even know about such unfair effects because the system will be wrapped in secrecy. The TSA’s document specifies that “The specific sources and types of information employed for pre-screening purposes under this initiative may not be publicly disclosed.” It also contains a long section specifying that any private partners of the TSA will be subject to the agency’s Sensitive Security Information (SSI) rules.
  • Private-sector delegation. Delegating security assessments to a private company raises significant issues. We have always believed that it’s a foolish idea to start building an algorithm-based system for “rating” Americans on their security “trustworthiness,” which is then used to curb people’s rights (such as the right to travel). If we must have such ratings performed, that would at least be an inherent law enforcement function. We shouldn’t have private, profit-oriented companies making those designations, any more than such companies should be deciding who to prosecute. Having private companies make the ratings, and the government acting upon them, may be pretty close to the worst of all worlds. In addition, much of the corporate world operates on relationships and favors—not to mention money; it’s not clear how the TSA would regulate these companies to ensure they won’t engage in corruption or abuse or systematic bias when deciding who can get a Pre-Check pass. Especially given that the TSA won’t routinely have access to the underlying data.
  • Access to data. However, the agency does state that while it won’t “generally” access the personal information about an individual used by a company, it may do so during audits. Also, the “results of the pre-screening process” will be shared with the TSA “upon request”; it’s not clear to me what the agency means by “results” here.

Ultimately, the core problem with Pre-Check remains: it is (as I said here) caught between two possibilities: collecting so little information that it’s useless as a security measure, or so much that it is scarily intrusive. The TSA wants to take a long stride toward the latter. True, by outsourcing the data-crunching function to a private company, the agency won’t be collecting the information itself. That certainly ameliorates some of the privacy problems with the concept—but if anything worsens the other concerns, such as fairness, accuracy, due process, and the role of for-profit companies in providing what are essential government functions. Thwarted in its efforts to tap private databases a decade ago, the agency seems to be edging back toward that concept via a classic Surveillance-Industrial Complex strategy.

Former TSA Officer Sentenced for Taking Bribes from Drug Trafficker

wsj.com | Jan 11, 2013

By Samuel Rubenfeld

tsaA former Transportation Security Administration officer based in a Florida airport was sentenced to more than five years in prison for taking cash in exchange for helping move narcotics through airport security without being detected.

Christopher Allen, who worked at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., pleaded guilty in April 2012 to one count of extortion and one count of receiving a bribe. He was sentenced Friday in Connecticut federal court to 68 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.

“Corruption within the ranks of those who are entrusted with the responsibility for screening air travelers and their baggage can never be tolerated,” said David B. Fein, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, in a statement.

Allen’s case stemmed from “Operation Blue Coast,” a probe headed by a task force based in Bridgeport, Conn., that focused on the large-scale trafficking of oxycodone pills from Florida to Connecticut.

California prepares for coldest weather in years

Associated Press | Jan 12, 2013

By JULIE WATSON

SAN DIEGO — Zookeepers turned up the heat for chimpanzees and strawberry growers covered their crops as Californians braced Friday for three days of freezing temperatures.

The cold snap is expected to last through the weekend.

Morning temperatures fell into the 20s and 30s in many areas, and much lower in the mountains. A low of 12 degrees was recorded in the Big Bear mountain resort east of Los Angeles.

In Sonoma County, homeless shelters started handing out extra warm clothes to protect people from below-freezing overnight temperatures.

Central Valley citrus growers watched as temperatures dipped into the 20s Friday. Napa, in wine country, and Sacramento, farther north, both recorded 27.

High temperatures in the Central Valley over the weekend were forecast for 50 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

In the south, forecasters warned that a low pressure trough sinking over San Diego County and parts of neighboring Orange County could keep nightly temperatures below the freezing point in coastal areas, the low deserts and inland valleys, threatening orange and avocado orchards and other sensitive plants. The coldest nights were expected to hit Friday and Saturday.

Farmers prepared to pull out giant fans to circulate the air and keep it from settling on their citrus trees, said Eric Larson of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

California hit by big freeze with temperatures as low as 12 degrees

“These guys are going to be up all night watching thermometers,” Larson said.

Workers at SeaWorld in San Diego planned to crank up the heat for their macaws, toucans and parrots. San Diego zookeepers were also heating rooms for chimpanzees, apes and other tropical animals.

“They’ll probably be huddling together and not be in areas where people will be able to see them,” zoo spokeswoman Christina Simmons said.

Authorities on Friday reopened a 40-mile stretch of a major highway north of Los Angeles — some 17 hours after snow shut the route and forced hundreds of truckers to spend the cold night in their rigs.

The California Highway Patrol shut the Grapevine segment of Interstate 5 on Thursday afternoon. Officers began escorting traffic southbound early Friday and then opened northbound lanes about an hour later.

The shutdown severed a key link between the Central Valley and Los Angeles.

“There must have been 1,000 Mack trucks lined up,” said traveler Heidi Blood, 40.

Blood and her three youngsters had been visiting Orange County and set out at 4:30 a.m. for their home in Kentfield when they found the road closed.

“I usually watch the news but I went to a spin class instead. I learned my lesson,” Blood said.

Blood had to give an insulin shot in the car to her 13-year-old blind, diabetic dog, Barney.

To pass the time, the family watched movies and read on their iPads, turning on the car every 30 minutes to use the heater.

“We’re watching ‘Nannie McPhee’ in the car right now,” Blood said. “I only have enough juice for another three hours.”

The highway through Tejon Pass rises to 4,100 feet in the Tehachapi Mountains and frequently is closed in winter by blowing snow and treacherous black ice on the roadway.