Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Dec. 19 2014 4:41 PM

Appeals Court Rules People Institutionalized for Mental Illness Still Have Right to Guns

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati has ruled unanimously that a federal law barring people who have been committed to mental institutions from owning guns is unconstitutional. The court found that the ban, which prevented 73-year-old Michigan resident Clifford Charles Tyler from owning a gun because he was institutionalized for a month in 1986, is a violation of his Second Amendment rights. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The government’s interest in keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is not sufficiently related to depriving the mentally healthy, who had a distant episode of commitment, of their constitutional rights,” wrote Judge Danny Boggs, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, for the panel.

Laws limiting mentally ill individuals' access to guns generally face the opposition of both gun rights activists and advocates for the mentally ill, who worry that bans will intensify the stigma people with psychiatric issues face in society. (Advocates of the laws point out that while it may not be a perfect predictor, serious mental illness has been found to correlate with an elevated likelihood that someone will engage in violent behavior.) The appeals court's ruling follows a legislative trend away from such restrictions—as a 2011 New York Times piece reported, a number of states have created rights-restoring programs under which petitioners with past disqualifying mental illnesses can submit documentation to show that they've recovered and are fit to own a gun. Michigan never set up such a program, though, so Tyler had no means of proving himself fit.

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Dec. 19 2014 3:57 PM

Video Shows NYPD Officer Punching Young Black Suspect Being Held by Three Other Cops

The New York Daily News reports that the NYPD is investigating an incident recently caught on video in which a plainclothes police officer can be seen punching a black boy who is being held by three other officers. An onlooker can be heard yelling "He's twelve! He's twelve" and identifies herself in the video as a lawyer. The video, which was uploaded to YouTube Wednesday and is embedded above, has the following description:

This happened today on my way to the post office. The kids were 12. They had supposedly pushed one of their classmates down. However when the victim was asked, he said those weren't the guys. They were still taken away. 12. Years. Old.

The Daily News was unable to verify the age of the boy being punched in the video.

Dec. 19 2014 3:16 PM

Rand Paul Goes after Marco Rubio's Cuba Comments on Twitter

Today in news from the world’s greatest deliberative body, Sen. Rand Paul tried to pick a Twitter fight with Sen. Marco Rubio. The two Republican senators and likely presidential candidates have opposite stances on the president’s move to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba; Paul said the change is “probably a good idea” and that the embargo hasn’t worked. Rubio, meanwhile, has probably been the single most vocal opponent of the decision.

Friday afternoon, Paul took to social media to needle the Floridian.

Dubbing Rubio an isolationist is particularly trollish. The former ophthalmologist has long struggled to dodge charges that he favors isolationism, even writing a Time op-ed with a headline to that specific effect.

Unfortunately for fans of Twitter fights, Rubio didn’t initially respond to Paul, and his press shop didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time Paul has engaged his Senate colleagues on Twitter. Last Dec. 23—I don’t need to tell you that’s Festivus—the senator aired grievances in a lengthy series of tweets with New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.

The two senators proceeded to discuss the War on Drugs, and later worked together on sentencing reform legislation. 

Dec. 19 2014 2:44 PM

Obama Says Cancellation of The Interview Was “a Mistake,” Calls James Franco “James Flacco”

Throwing himself firmly into Rob Lowe's camp on the issue, Barack Obama said at a press conference today that Sony's decision to cancel The Interview because of threats made by North Korean hackers was a mistake. The president's words:

Sony's a corporation. It suffered significant damage, there were threats against some employees, I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced. Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.

He spoke briefly about his administration's cybersecurity initiatives before returning to the subject of the film:

But even as we get better the hackers are gonna get better too. Some of them are going to be state actors, some of them are going to be non-state actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated and many of them can do some damage. We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like. Or news reports that they don't like. Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That's not who we are. That's not what America is about.
Again, I'm sympathetic that Sony as a private company was worried about liabilities and this and that and the other...I wish they would have spoken to me first. I would have told them, "do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks." Imagine if instead of it being a cyberthreat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. Is that what it takes for you to pull the plug on something? So we'll engage with not just the film industry but the news industry and the private sector around these issues, we already have, we'll continue to do so, but I think all of us have to anticipate occasionally there are gonna be breaches like this. They're gonna be costly, they're gonna be serious, we take them with the utmost seriousness, but we can't start changing our behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack. Any more than Boston didn't run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm. Let's not get into that way of doing business.

After a followup question, Obama appeared to conflate The Interview star James Franco with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco:

I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satricial movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco. I love Seth, and I love James...but the notion that that was a threat to them? I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we're talking about here.

Also of note: Obama only took questions today from female reporters. Barack Obama, James Franco, Joe Flacco, and Rob Lowe have eradicated the patriarchy!

Dec. 19 2014 1:37 PM

FBI Officially Accuses North Korea of Attacking Our Treasured Seth Rogen Freedoms

The FBI says in a statement that North Korea hacked Sony Pictures; U.S. officials leaked word of the country's alleged involvement on Wednesday, but no one had yet made the accusation on the record. CNN is reporting that officials say "hackers routed the attack through servers in countries from Asia, Europe and Latin America, even some in the U.S." More detail from the Wall Street Journal:

An analysis of malware that deleted data on Sony computers shows similarities to other malware used previously by North Korean suspects, including lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks, the FBI said.
Investigators also found “significant overlap” between the infrastructure of the Sony attack and other hacking previously linked to North Korea, including Internet protocol addresses that were part of the data deletion malware.
The FBI also found similarities to a cyberattack in March 2013 on South Korean banks and media outlets.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest has said the U.S. will respond in "proportional" fashion to the attack, though it's not yet clear what a proportional response to such an unprecedented type of incitement would entail.

Dec. 19 2014 10:13 AM

U.S. Will Reportedly “Respond” to Sony Hack, but How?

Multiple reports say American officials are promising that the country will respond to the Sony Pictures hack, allegedly perpetrated by North Korea, that pushed the studio to cancel the release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco movie The Interview. Reuters says the promised retaliation wll be "forceful." How does one respond, though, to an economically damaging attack against a movie studio carried out by a country that doesn't have an entertainment industry and is already subject to heavy sanctions? CNN writes that there is, in fact, still potential to put economic pressure on the hermit kingdom:

The toughest option: The United States could restrict North Korea's dollar-denominated trade by hitting Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang -- a tactic used against Iran and, less comprehensively, against Russia after its incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region.

A CNBC piece elaborates on that option, suggesting specific companies working inside the country could be sanctioned.

Firms working with North Korea include Egyptian telecom Orascom, which reportedly just earned $500 million from its work to provide cellular service to more 2 million North Koreans. Even Chinese companies operating in the country could be targeted, experts said, although sanctions against these firms could result in consequences that spill beyond the Korean peninsula.

In general, CNBC writes, China's influence on North Korea could make it something of a fulcrum for the United States response; North Korea might not care what the United States thinks of it, but it cares about China, and China in turn cares about its relationship with the U.S.

Ultimately, the best strategy for retaliation against Pyongyang may be to lean on China, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp. If the U.S. can establish sufficient evidence that Beijing either trains or provides resources to North Korean hackers, the government would do well to threaten China with accessory charges to the Sony hacking, he said.
Additionally, government representatives could emphasize that North Korea is upsetting China's goal of regional stability. Beijing would likely be able to sway Pyongyang's hacking policies, as Chinese firms account for much of North Korea's foreign investment.

As of yet, the United States hasn't even officially identified North Korea as the entity responsible for the hack—though CNN reports that could happen as early as today.

Dec. 18 2014 10:46 PM

Eight Children Found Dead at a Home in Northeast Australia

Tragedy struck Australia again on Friday morning as eight children have been found dead at a home in a suburb of the city of Cairns in the northeastern state of Queensland. One woman, reportedly 34 years old, was found with serious injuries at the scene and is aiding the police investigation.  

"As it stands at the moment, there's no need for the public to be concerned about this other than the fact that it's a tragic, tragic event," Detective Inspector Bruno Asnicar said. "The situation is well controlled."

This story is developing, we'll update with new information as it becomes available.

*This post has been updated.

Dec. 18 2014 9:39 PM

Civil Rights Law Barring Workplace Discrimination Will Now Protect Transgender Workers

The Justice Department announced on Thursday it's expanding its definition of what constitutes unlawful discrimination in the workplace under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly prohibit discrimination by employers based on gender identity. The decision outlined in a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder reversed a narrower Bush administration interpretation of sex-based discrimination in the workplace.

“That means the Justice Department will be able to bring legal claims on behalf of people who say they've been discriminated against by state and local public employers based on sex identity,” the Associated Press reports. “In defending lawsuits, the federal government also will no longer take the position that Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination, does not protect against workplace discrimination on the basis of gender status.”

“This important shift will ensure that the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are extended to those who suffer discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status,” Holder said in a statement. “This will help to foster fair and consistent treatment for all claimants. And it reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

Dec. 18 2014 7:33 PM

Sportswriter Laments Lack of Emojis in Print Makes It Hard to Preview Tonight’s NFL Game

The season is already over for the home team in Washington, but the Washington Post sports section has to cover the dreadful home squad until the bitter end anyway. When it comes to other mind-numbingly boring late-season NFL games, however, the Post can’t even. "I am writing sentences about this game because our word processing system for the newspaper doesn't include the poop emoji” was the actual intro from the Post, which seems like a fair take on Thursday night’s primetime matchup between a pair of two-win teams.

Dec. 18 2014 4:38 PM

California's Whooping Cough Epidemic Hits Latino Babies Disproportionately Hard

California is in the grips of its worst whooping cough epidemic since the 1940s and numbers indicate that Latino babies are bearing the brunt of the outbreak, according to NPR. Almost 10,000 cases of whooping cough have been reported in the state thus far this year, and 6 of 10 babies who've caught it (as is the case with many illnesses, babies tend to be more vulnerable than older children) are Latino.

No one knows for sure why Latino babies are contracting whooping cough at higher rates, but public health officials' suggested possible explanations include the Latino community's generally larger household sizes, "cultural practices around visiting new infants" leading to more early contact between babies and others, and a lack of access to health insurance (especially among California's undocumented immigrants, who may fear deportation if they seek health services). Latinos make up 62% of California's uninsured, an advocate interviewed by NPR said.

Babies can't safely be vaccinated for whooping cough until they are two months old, and according to public health officials, the current vaccine used to innoculate children against whooping cough also doesn't last as long as an older version, compounding California's problems. Of course, the resurgences of whooping cough and measles in the United States have also been traced back to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement; it can't possibly help the public health situation in California that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, some ritzy Los Angeles schools have vaccination rates comparable to those of countries like South Sudan and Chad. And while NPR's report mentions that anti-vaxxers themselves are likely to be wealthy, the whooping cough outbreak has disproportionately affected a part of California's population that is relatively less well-off.

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