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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Weapon Background Checks Hit Record High in US

Jason Zielinski shows a customer a selection of AR-15 style rifles being offered for sale at Freddie Bear Sports sporting goods store on December 17, 2012 in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Last month, the FBI ran a record 2.8 million background checks on those wishing to purchase firearms in the US, with most of those checks occurring after the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Background check applications for firearm purchases have been on the rise for years, but spiked dramatically after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows that the agency performed 2.78 million background checks in December, which is up from the 2.01 million conducted during the previous month, which was the first to exceed two million.

The states that saw the largest background check increases from the previous month were Georgia (66.3 percent), Oregon (63. 1 percent), New Hampshire (60.7 percent), Texas (60.2 percent), and Montana (58.3 percent).

While the figures do not indicate the number of new guns sold, they give an approximation of the number of Americans wishing to purchase firearms. Depending on state law, buyers are often allowed to purchase multiple guns under one background check.

December’s 2.8 million background checks are up 50 percent from December 2011, when the FBI performed 1.86 million checks. In total, 19.6 million background checks were performed in 2012, which is not an annual record but is an increase of 19 percent from 2011.

Even though the background checks cannot predict the firearms sold, gun sales also increased in December. Every US state saw a greater number of gun sales last month than in November, with 48 of 50 states also seeing an increase in total firearm sales in 2012. Washington, DC saw the largest year-to-year increase in gun sales, rising by 49.7 percent.

“Handgun sales are up substantially and modern sporting rifles are up astronomically,” Karl Durkheimer, owner of the gun shop Northwest Armory, told The Guardian.  “The people you see are twofold. There are first-time buyers who are in fear of what the future will bring. But most of what you saw is people hedging their bets that there might be a political policy put forward by the liberal side of the government.”

The FBI did not suggest reasons behind the rise in gun sales and background checks, but some attribute the change to fear of tighter gun control regulations in light of the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn. Gun sales and background checks typically also increase during the holiday season.

Past data indicates that mass shootings frequently prompt Americans to stock up on weapons in fear of gun control laws. After 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 and injured 58 in a shooting in Aurora, Colo., applications to buy guns rose by more than 40 percent in a week. After Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, there was a 60 percent increase in gun sales in a single day in Arizona.

While Americans mourned the death of the 20 children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month, many more headed to their local firearms’ dealer to stock up on handguns and hunting rifles, in the case that Congress passes legislation restricting or limiting eligibility for such purchases.

The FBI background investigations are required under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which was signed into law by former President Bill Clinton and went into effect on November 30, 1998. During the program’s first month of operation, 871,644 background checks were performed by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is about a third of the number performed this year.


White House Wins Fight to Keep Drone Killings of Americans Secret

Reuters / Pascal Lauener
A federal judge issued a 75-page ruling on Wednesday that declares that the US Justice Department does not have a legal obligation to explain the rationale behind killing Americans with targeted drone strikes.

United States District Court Judge Colleen McMahon wrote in her finding this week that the Obama administration was largely in the right by rejecting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times for materials pertaining to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to execute three US citizens abroad in late 2011 [pdf].

Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US nationals with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, were killed on September 30 of that year using drone aircraft; days later, al-Awlaki’s teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was executed in the same manner. Although the Obama administration has remained largely quiet about the killings in the year since, a handful of statements made from senior White House officials, including Pres. Barack Obama himself, have provided some but little insight into the Executive Branch’s insistence that the killings were all justified and constitutionally-sound. Attempts from the ACLU and the Times via FOIA requests to find out more have been unfruitful, though, which spawned a federal lawsuit that has only now been decided in court.

Siding with the defendants in what can easily be considered as cloaked in skepticism, Judge McMahon writes that the Obama White House has been correct in refusing the FOIA requests filed by the plaintiffs.

"There are indeed legitimate reasons, historical and legal, to question the legality of killings unilaterally authorized by the Executive that take place otherwise than on a 'hot' field of battle," McMahon writes in her ruling. Because her decision must only weigh whether or not the Obama administration has been right in rejecting the FOIA requests, though, her ruling cannot take into consideration what sort of questions — be it historical, legal, ethical or moral — are raised by the ongoing practice of using remote-controlled drones to kill insurgents and, in these instances, US citizens.

"The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me; but after careful consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules — a veritable Catch-22,” she writes. “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reason for their conclusion a secret.”

Throughout her ruling, Judge McMahon cites speeches from both Pres. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in which the al-Awlaki killings are vaguely discussed, but appear to do little more than excuse the administration’s behavior with their own secretive explanations.

“The Constitution’s guarantee of due process is ironclad, and it is essential — but, as a recent court decision makes clear, it does not require judicial approval before the President may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war — even if that individual happens to be a US citizen,” McMahon quotes Mr. Holder as saying during a March 2012 address at Chicago’s Northwestern University. “Holder did not identify which recent court decisions so held,” the judge replies, “Nor did he explain exactly what process was given to the victims of targeted killings at locations far from ‘hot’ battlefields…”

And while both Mr. Holder and Pres. Obama have discussed the killings in public, including one appearance by the president on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Justice Department insists that going further by releasing any legal evidence that supports the executions would be detrimental to national security.

While Judge McMahon ends up agreeing with the White House, she does so by making known her own weariness over how the Obama administration has forced the court to rely on their own insistence that information about the attacks simply cannot be discussed.

“As they gathered to draft a Constitution for their newly liberated country, the Founders — fresh from a war of independence from the rule of a King they styled a tyrant — were fearful of concentrating power in the hands of any single person or institution, and most particular in the executive,” McMahon writes.

Responding to the decision on Wednesday, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer issued a statement condemning the White House’s just-won ability to relieve itself from any fair and honest explanation as to the justification of Americans.

“This ruling denies the public access to crucial information about the government’s extrajudicial killing of US citizens and also effectively green-lights its practice of making selective and self-serving disclosures,” Jameel writes. “As the judge acknowledges, the targeted killing program raises profound questions about the appropriate limits on government power in our constitutional democracy. The public has a right to know more about the circumstances in which the government believes it can lawfully kill people, including US citizens, who are far from any battlefield and have never been charged with a crime.”

The ACLU says they plan to appeal Judge McMahon’s decision and are currently awaiting news regarding a separate lawsuit filed alongside the Center for Constitutional Rights that directly challenges the constitutionality of the targeted kills.

“The government has argued that case should also be dismissed,” the ACLU notes.

In a Wednesday afternoon statement from the Times, assistant general counsel David McCraw says the paper will appeal the ruling as well.

"We began this litigation because we believed our readers deserved to know more about the US government's legal position on the use of targeted killings against persons having ties to terrorism, including US citizens," McCraw says.

Although she ruled against the plaintiffs, Judge McMahon, says McCraw, explained "eloquently … why in a democracy the government should be addressing those questions openly and fully."


This is How the Food Industry Makes Americans Fat and Hungry

Reuters / Rick Wilking
Inundated with foods and drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, the US food industry is largely at fault for driving up obesity rates, since the cheap sweetener inhibits the brain from regulating the body’s appetite.

From soda to ketchup, many processed foods and beverages contain fructose, which affects the region of the brain that regulates appetite, according to a study by the Scientific American, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers measured the hypothalamus, which regulates hunger-related signals, of 20 healthy adult volunteers to study their responses to consuming sweetened beverages.

Upon receiving a 300-calorie drink sweetened with 75 grams of fructose, the volunteers had a more active hypothalamus and showed greater signs of hunger. When the volunteers received a similar drink that was instead sweetened using glucose, their hypothalamus was less active and the participants showed signs of fullness.

Drinking glucose “turns off or suppresses the activity of areas of the brain that are critical for reward and desire for food,” Yale University endocrinologist Dr. Robert Sherwin, who was involved with the study, told the Associated Press.

With fructose, “we don’t see those changes,” he added. “As a result, the desire to eat continues – it isn’t turned off.”

Glucose and fructose are metabolized differently, and the excessive use of fructose in American food staples is taking its toll. Even table sugar, which some incorrectly believe is made up solely of glucose, is half fructose. And the US uses lots of it. Researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Oxford found that out of 42 countries studied, the US has the highest per-capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

The US also has the highest obesity rate in the world, with more than one-third of adults (35.7 percent) being classified as ‘obese’ by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This increased intake of added sugar containing fructose over the past several decades has coincided with the rise in obesity in the population, and there is strong evidence from animal studies that this increased intake of fructose is playing a role in this phenomenon,” said Dr. Jonathan Purnell of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, who co-authored an editorial that accompanied the study. Purnell said that while the findings show a link between fructose consumption and obesity, there are a number of other environmental and genetic factors that also contribute.

Nutritionists recommend that Americans keep away from food and beverages that contain high-fructose corn syrup, and instead look for those that contain glucose. Foods and drinks particularly high in fructose include sodas, condiments, frozen foods, boxed breakfast cereals, canned foods, boxed dinners, breads and crackers, commercially-prepared baked goods, salad dressings and ready-made drinks.

“Things as subtle as a change in sweetener can have an impact on how full somebody feels, and could lead to an increase in calorie intake and an increasing pattern in obesity seen in this country,” Dr. Louis Aronne, founder and director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told HealthDay.

A high-fructose diet makes it more difficult to control ones appetite, leading to obesity, type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and other consequences that result from being overweight.

“It’s clear that being obese is not healthy – it increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many other health problems. Small, sustainable increases in physical activity and improvements in nutrition can lead to significant health improvements,” said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.