Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Aug. 27 2014 7:41 PM

The NRA Just Tweeted Instructions for “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range”

No matter the size of the gun-related tragedy, the NRA doesn’t normally let common decency get in the way of an opportunity to promote all things gun-related. Wednesday evening, however, NRA Women showed a new level of tastelessness, bordering on taunting, when it tweeted out this ill-timed story.

The problem—aside from the obvious potential problem of children playing with guns—is one of timing, and general respect for those affected by a particularly tragic shooting death where a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot her shooting instructor after losing control while firing an Uzi at an Arizona shooting range. The story mentioned in the now-deleted tweet comes from the Women’s Outdoor Network and was posted last week, before the Arizona shooting. “[I]f children continually shoot the same bull’s-eye target, they can become tired, exhausted or bored,” the story reads. “Sometimes they want, or rather need, to have fun at the range. That’s when it’s time to introduce other types of targets to change things up, so children have fun at the range.”

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Aug. 27 2014 6:30 PM

Texas Monthly Profiles a Woman Who Has Seen 278 Executions

Michelle Lyons currently works in public relations for a company in Houston. Her last job was as spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and before that she was a reporter who covered the prison system. In those capacities, she witnessed 276 men and two women executed by the state of Texas, and she's spoken about the weight of that experience to reporter Pamela Colloff for a new Texas Monthly story

Colloff quotes from a kind of audio journal recording that Lyons made:

“I support the death penalty,” she began. “I believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only way you can truly pay your debt to society is with your life.” She spoke with the same deliberation she had used when addressing reporters outside the Walls after high-profile executions. “But in other cases, I feel very conflicted,” she added. “There are men I watched die that I don’t think should have.” A piece of folk art she had picked up on a trip to Austin—an evil-eye charm to ward off bad spirits—bobbed from her rearview mirror. “I thought being away from the prison system would make me think about it less, but it’s been quite the opposite,” she continued. “I think about it all the time.”

It's not a particularly sensational or political piece. But it is a detailed, literally up-close account of exactly what the death penalty is.

She noted in particular the small courtesies that the prison staff extended to the condemned, as when the warden ensured that a pillow be placed at the head of the gurney so the inmate would be more comfortable, or when the chaplain placed his hand on the right leg of the restrained prisoner, just below the knee, to reassure him during his final moments. Later, as Michelle went about her job as TDCJ’s spokesperson, the incongruous civility of these gestures would never be far from her mind.

Lyons and her old prison-system boss, Larry Fitzgerald, both told Colloff that they think often about the people they've seen killed; Fitzgerald has dreams about them.

"It’s just that when you look at that number," Lyons tells Colloff about all the executions she witnessed, "it’s a lot of death."

Aug. 27 2014 6:14 PM

Cops Shoot and Kill Crew Member of Cops TV Show While Filming Robbery Attempt

A crew member of the TV show Cops was inadvertently shot and killed while taping Omaha police officers attempt to breakup a robbery, Omaha police said on Wednesday. Police officers returned fire when a suspect shot what turned out to be a pellet gun during a robbery at a Wendy’s on Tuesday night. At least 30 shots were fired during the confrontation, the Omaha World Herald reports, one of which struck Cops sound technician Bryce Dion. The 38-year-old was wearing a bulletproof vest while trailing officers during the robbery, but, according to police, “a single bullet that hit his arm ‘slipped into a gap in the vest’ and entered his chest,” the Associated Press reports.

Here’s more from the AP:

The suspect fired from the pellet gun before officers returned fire, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said at a news conference. He said witnesses and officers thought the robbery suspect's Airsoft handgun looked and sounded real, but discovered later that it fires only plastic pellets. The suspect was struck by the officers' gunfire, but fled outside of the restaurant before collapsing.
Schmaderer said video captured by another crew member of the "Cops" TV show shows the chaotic situation in the restaurant … Schmaderer said the incident began when one of the officers, on his way to another reported robbery, called about the robbery at the Wendy's and requested backup. The "Cops" crew members were with two officers who responded to that request. When police entered the restaurant and confronted the suspect, Dion, who was the sound operator, got separated from the cameraman, Schmaderer said.

Dion and the suspect were both killed; neither the cameraman nor any police officers were injured during the shooting. The reality TV show has been filming in Omaha throughout the summer and Schmaderer “had hoped that the TV show’s taping of Omaha police in action would improve relations with community members,” according to the World Herald. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports Dion is “believed to be the first member of the 'Cops' production staff killed in the 25-year history of the television show.”

Aug. 27 2014 3:54 PM

Soldier Who Shot Herself at Fort Lee Had Served for 13 Years, Including Iraq Tour

The Army has released information on the female soldier who shot herself Monday morning in an office on the grounds of Fort Lee in Virginia. The woman, Sgt. Paula M. Walker, died after being taken to a hospital. From the Army's statement, via The Wire:

Walker’s hometown of record is Yonkers, N.Y. She served on active duty for nearly 14 years after enlisting in September 2000. Prior to Fort Lee, Walker served at Fort Devens, Mass., starting in 2010 and Fort Eustis starting in 2006, among other installations.
Her career included a 15-month combat tour in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2007-2008.

The statement said Walker was a human resources specialist, though it isn't clear whether that was always her role in the service. (Human resource specialists can be deployed in combat.) Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Lyons told reporters that Walker had thrown objects in a "rampage" and spoken with negotiators who'd arrived on scene before shooting herself.

Walker was 33.

Aug. 27 2014 2:23 PM

Al-Qaida-Linked Rebels Helped Seize a Syria-Israel Border Crossing, Which Seems Bad

Rebels "including fighters from an al-Qaida-linked group" have taken control of the Syrian side of a border crossing with Israel, the Associated Press reports:

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an array of rebel fighters, including from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, took the crossing after heavy fighting that left at least 20 Syrian soldiers and an unknown number of rebels dead.

A representative for the Western-backed rebel faction says his group has no interest in attacking Israel.

One Israeli officer was injured by errant fire, Israel says, and its forces responded by firing at Syrian government positions.

The crossing in question is in the Golan Heights, at the edge of an area seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and claimed unilaterally in 1981. The border line is not officially recognized internationally, but is monitored by U.N. forces.

Aug. 27 2014 12:51 PM

Beverly Hills Police Confuse Black Man With Bank Robber, Detain Him for Six Hours

Beverly Hills police have apologized for their treatment of an entertainment-industry figure named Charles Belk who was detained in error for what he says was more than six hours. Belk, who is credited on IMDB for work on the NAACP Image Awards, among other projects, wrote on Facebook that he had been working at an Emmys-related event in Beverly Hills on Friday before he was handcuffed on a sidewalk and then detained from 5:20 p.m. until just after midnight. Police say he "matched the clothing and physical characteristics" of a bank robbery suspect. (Belk is black.)

The police department said in a statement that it "deeply regrets the inconvenience to Mr. Belk and has reached out to him to express those regrets and further explain the circumstances."

Aug. 27 2014 11:36 AM

Police Handler Let Dog Urinate on Michael Brown Memorial the Day He Was Killed

Several hours after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, a police dog handler let his dog urinate on a makeshift memorial that had been created on the street where Brown fell, a Mother Jones piece citing "several sources" says:

The incident was related to me separately by three state and local officials who worked with the community in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. One confirmed that he interviewed an eyewitness, a young woman, and pressed her on what exactly she saw. "She said that the officer just let the dog pee on it," that official told me. "She was very distraught about it." The identity of the officer who handled the dog and the agency he was with remain unclear.

Police also drove their cars over the top of candles and flowers that Brown's mother had helped spread on the spot that her son fell, the article reports:

Missouri state Rep. Sharon Pace ... joined Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, and others as they placed the candles and sprinkled flowers on the ground where Brown had died. "They spelled out his initials with rose petals over the bloodstains," Pace recalled.
By then, police had prohibited all vehicles from entering Canfield Drive except for their own. Soon the candles and flowers had been smashed, after police drove over them.

St. Louis alderman Antonio French took a picture:

Mother Jones also reports that Pace and another Missouri state representative named Tommie Pierson say they were nearly maced by a Missouri Highway Patrol officer at a later protest.

Aug. 27 2014 9:47 AM

Time Warner Internet Goes Out Across the Entire Country

Time Warner internet and OnDemand services went down across the country early this morning, reports indicate. The problem seems to have started around 3 a.m. ET, Business Insider says; service has mostly been restored. The company says "routine network maintenance" that began at 4:30 a.m. ET was responsible for the problem, though that would of course not explain why outages were reported before that time.

Per USA Today, Time Warner "operates in 29 states and has 11.4 million high-speed Internet customers." The company's proposed merger with Comcast is still being reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

Aug. 26 2014 10:32 PM

Pressure Builds for an Attack on ISIS in Syria

McClatchy's Washington Bureau is reporting that Defense Department officials have joined the chorus of voices calling for President Obama to strike ISIS in Syria. 

From McClatchy

Senior Pentagon officials have been conferring with the White House on hitting Islamic State targets just inside eastern Syria, from where the group launched an atrocity-filled offensive in mid-June that overran roughly half of Iraq and brought it to the outskirts of Baghdad, said two U.S. Defense officials.
The White House, however, has yet to request a formal proposal, said the Defense officials, who expressed frustration over what both separately called the administration’s “dithering.” They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the military plans to carry out surveillance flights over Syria to gather more intelligence on ISIS' operations in the region. However, McClatchy reports that Obama administration officials on Tuesday tried to "tamp down" internal and external expectations that a strike against ISIS could be imminent, even after news of the group's execution of American journalist James Foley. 

The Obama admnistration has also ruled out the possibility of collaboration with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on airstrikes, with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki telling reporters Tuesday, "we’re not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime.”

Defense officials told McClatchy that if airstrikes are carried out in Syria, they will likely be similar in intention and scope to the ones the military has carried out against ISIS in Iraq since August 8.  

Aug. 26 2014 6:39 PM

American Fighting for ISIS Killed in Syria

A 33-year-old American man fighting with ISIS was killed this weekend during a battle with another rebel group, NBC News has reported. The man, Douglas McAuthur McCain, was a resident of San Diego.

Senior administration officials told NBC News they were aware that McCain was killed in Syria and that his family was informed on Monday. The officials added that they believe dozens of Americans have gone to Syria to fight with extremist groups - including, but not limited to, ISIS.

NBC appears to have been working on a story about McCain before he was killed—their piece includes a good deal of information on his background and recent activity. He was born in Illinois, went to high school in Minnesota, and had a few small-time run-ins with the law. He said on his Twitter account that he became a Muslim a decade ago, though his radicalism appears to have been a fairly recent and sudden development:

On April 3, McCain retweeted the full English translation of the speech of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani – the spokesman for ISIS.
Soon after, it appears that McCain’s travels took him to Turkey, a common jihadi route into Syria. Three people told NBC News that they met McCain – who they referred to as Duale – three months ago in in the Istanbul neighborhood of Sultanahmet.

NBC reports that McCain's American passport was found on his person after he died.

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