Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 22 2014 6:18 PM

Women, Guns, and the NRA

This week the NRA debuted the first ad in a campaign against Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions of his fortune into gun control efforts, and pledged in April to contribute $50 million more through his group Everytown for Gun Safety. The spot stars a trim blonde woman driving a truck through simulated American heartland hills and suburb, while the female voiceover paints Bloomberg as an out-of-touch liberal elite who wants to trample on Americans’ right to defend themselves, along with their rights to eat and drink what they want. NRA ads used to feature tough looking men talking about good guys versus bad. Now it wants to appeal to the country’s feminine half.

Not long ago, few people paid attention to women and guns (apart from crass pin-uppy “gals with Glocks” spreads ubiquitous in certain lad mags). The American gun industry was historically far more interested in the wants of white middle-aged men. Advocates for better gun laws, on the other hand, used to focus their research on regional and socioeconomic attitudes rather than gender, says Lanae Erickson of Third Way, a think-tank. But both camps in the gun debate seem to have woken up to the importance of women and their potential as an under-engaged but powerful demographic.

Much of this came in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook. “Before that, I didn’t know much about guns,” says Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense shortly afterward. “But after Sandy Hook, I started learning more, and I think a lot of mothers saw what happened and said ‘not my child, not me’ and decided to get active.” Her group united with Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety: Making gun violence a voting issue for women is a key objective she told the New York Times, as is affecting corporate tolerance for lax gun policy. Women may be in the minority in Congress and in boardrooms, Watts points out, but they make 86 percent of household spending decisions. That has the NRA scared, because “they know how strong our message is” when mothers stand against the gun lobby.

“The NRA knows that women have recently been effective messengers on gun safety and gun access issues,” says Erickson, “and they’ve been very smart in crafting a way to appeal more to a demographic they’ve not been very good with.” Female witnesses for the NRA are put forward at congressional hearings. Gun manufacturers increasingly pay attention to products marketed toward women. Within the last few years, women have stepped “out of the shadows” and connected with communities of other women who are interested in guns, for sport or for protection, says Carrie Lightfoot, an NRA licensed instructor and founder of The Well Armed Woman, a shooting and gun education society. “We are moving towards a new mode of women as our own protectors and as protectors of our families,” Lightfoot says.

Lightfoot says she understands the impulse of mothers like those in Watts’ group that advocate for better gun laws after senseless school shootings. But echoing the message from many gun groups, she believes it’s better to be armed than defenseless.

She is not alone in the sentiment: Gun ownership among women has risen (slightly) in the last year. “Glocker Moms” against Bloomberg made a splash at this year’s annual NRA meeting. They see Bloomberg and gun law activists as paternalistic figures who think they know what’s best for these women’s families—this is what the new ad speaks to with its “get your hands off” narration. (Everytown for Gun Safety supports the choice to own guns, and some mothers in Watts’ group are gun owners). That has helped the NRA’s guns-as-empowered self-defense message resonate, despite evidence that women with guns in their household are more likely to experience violence.

Women like Lightfoot are in the minority, says Erickson. Most women back more gun regulation. And Lightfoot and women like her don’t want to see guns fall into the wrong hands, either. The difference is that she buys the NRA’s argument that we should not have more regulations, but do a better job of implementing current background checks. But it is hard to square that with the fact that the NRA opposes legislation to expand background databases, such as the Klobuchar bill, which seeks to prevent stalkers—usually men targeting vulnerable women—from buying guns. 

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Aug. 21 2014 11:17 AM

Can Anyone Remember Which President Ed Gillespie Worked For?

Ed Gillespie, who currently trails by 19 points in his somewhat hubristic bid against Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, is out with his first campaign ad. Being able to battle Warner on the air is sort of the point of the Gillespie campaign; he's got at least 29 years of donor contacts, if you start the clock from his days at the RNC and keep it running through his time launching a bipartisan lobbying firm. He's worth at least $10.3 million, and Warner's set to become the richest man in the Senate when Jay Rockefeller leaves next year, so the ad's a particular fine example of the trend (explained here by Mark Leibovich) of wealthy candidates assuring you that their family's rootsiness was passed down to them like singing ability or heart disease.

Gillespie does not have the résumé that a consultant might dream up for his candidate. He has not fought in Iraq, like Iowa's Joni Ernst, or in Afghanistan, like Alaska's Dan Sullivan. He's basically been a political operator, a little-loved career, though not unpopular enough to sink now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe on his second statewide run. And he ... what's that résumé item near the start of the ad? "I helped pay for college as a Senate parking lot attendant," says Gillespie, "and eventually became a counselor to a president."

Which president? Gillespie does not say, but anyone who has paid attention to politics since 2000 or so probably knows that Gillespie was counselor to George W. Bush during his final term. Previously he was an RNC chairman who assured audiences that the president's decision to invade Iraq was a humdinger. "I’m not alone in feeling that I was a better person after 20 months at his side," Gillespie wrote of Bush in 2013, in one of the many "Miss Him Yet?" pieces of the Obama era, "and we look forward to the day when the facts about his time in office are more widely understood."

That day is not Aug. 21, 2014. Maybe tomorrow?

Aug. 20 2014 6:05 PM

Smart Policing Takes Good Training, Not Just Diversity

Since the turmoil in Ferguson began last week, there has been much discussion over the lack of diversity in American police departments. As of 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, just one in four officers nationwide was a minority, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1987 it was one in six. The Washington Post has put together a helpful infographic from 2010 census data of cities where police departments don’t resemble the neighborhoods they serve. Three-quarters of them have a higher proportion of white officers than the white population in the community.

Yet greater diversity on police forces is hardly a magic solution. Though it is good policy and clearly needed given the troubled racial history in American policing, it will take “more than diversification to ‘cancel out’ skepticism of minority citizens” toward police, says Joshua Cochran, a criminologist at the University of South Florida. What is needed (but far less examined) is to ask how recruits and officers, of any background, are taught to think about race when policing. There are no national standards for evaluating police departments along these lines. Training regimens on dealing with bias are left up to individual states, and the requirements vary widely, according to data from the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, or IADLEST. Alabama does not require any such training. Massachusetts mandates 30 hours of course material, while Georgia requires just two. No national body keeps track of the types or results from such courses, and data is sketchy. (IADLEST’s figures are from 2005 and the most recent available.)

A study of police recruits from the Midwest conducted last year by Michael Schlosser of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute found that few would-be officers enter police training with an awareness of their own racial biases or the need for racial sensitivity education. Many scorned the notion that diversity training would be fruitful or important. “Although police academies have experimented with numerous forms of diversity training for six decades,” Schlosser concludes, “it appears the situation today is not much different from the 1940s.”

Officers and police departments are often “indifferent to hostile” to lessons about diversity, says Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who conducts police training throughout the country. “I think the way we’ve been teaching the subject in this country has been wrong,” she says, because what education there is often begins with the assumption that police are explicitly racist, and many therefore reject it. Fridell and her colleagues have developed a curriculum to address implicit bias—prejudices a person might consciously reject, but reflexively influence their behavior—which, studies show, can trigger excessive violent action in police work. Schlosser and his colleagues at the Police Training Institute are piloting another curriculum. Both report anecdotal successes (e.g., when officers report using the training to diffuse a difficult situation or stop them from acting on unwarranted reflex), but longitudinal studies have not yet been done. The relative newness of these ideas speaks to the gap in crafting better policing policy. That will require a change not just to composition but also to policing culture. 

Aug. 19 2014 1:21 PM

How Did the Head of the New Black Panther Party Become a Peacemaker in Ferguson?

I keep linking to Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and DeNeen L. Brown's amazing story about the internal divisions among Ferguson protesters. When one progressive activist wondered whether the tales of "out of state" violent types were concocted by police, I pointed him to the story.

But I didn't put two and two together about this portrayal of the wise men trying to calm things down.

There is also another group: the elders.
Malik Shabazz, national president of Black Lawyers for Justice, said he has been patrolling West Florissant Avenue each night, trying to keep the peace. On Friday night, he used a megaphone, telling young people to go home.

Malik Shabazz is better known to consumers of cable news as the former leader of the New Black Panther Party, a singularly ineffective group that spent a decade showing up at civil rights rallies (or Philadelphia polling booths) in black military garb, and becoming a distraction for everybody. Shabazz was quoted, 20 years ago, telling Howard University students that "the Jews" killed Nat Turner and controlled the media and the Fed. Eleven years ago he was quoted doubting the numbers of Jews killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. And since then he's popped up on Fox News to say offensive things. 

Now he's an "elder." This is a much better career choice for him. Shabazz has been making the rounds in Ferguson, asking for calm and respectful protests. In a CNN interview last night, Shabazz was identified only as an "attorney," denouncing the violent elements of the protests, asking if they were "infiltrators" of some kind.

"They're here, and they're provocateurs," said Shabazz. "They're trying it every night, and I'm determined with the forces that we are working with that we won't allow it. Even if I have to risk my life. I'm not going to see women and children out here hurt. And I'm not going to see the tide turned against us and move in favor of the police."

Shabazz's past has barely been mentioned in the coverage of Ferguson. And there are interlopers there, seeing a fantastic chance at stoking some "revolutionary" violence, as Charles Johnson has been reporting. And the New Black Panther Party guy, that minor TV supervillain, is telling them to knock it off.

Aug. 19 2014 12:07 PM

Officer Darren Wilson’s Online Support Group Is As Classy As You’d Expect

One of the stranger subcultures of the #Ferguson moment is the spontaneous support group that's collected to support Officer Darren Wilson. Gideon Resnick reports on the most prominent GoFundMe page and T-shirt campaign and Facebook group of the movement, and got a few comments from organizers. (I've requested some comments, too, because I am absolutely terrible at book leave.) They say what you might expect: They wish this situation weren't racialized. "Al and Jesse would never come out from cowardly hiding if it were a black cop and white offender," says one organizer, very un-racist-ly.

I say this is strange because Wilson has not been arrested. The GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $21,000 (and was started in St. Charles, the conservative county outside St. Louis), explains that "all proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees." The legal fees, currently, would pay for nothing. That's sort of why protesters keep taking over the streets. (By contrast, the George Zimmerman defense fund only started going after Zimmerman was arrested.)

Who would be so moved by Wilson's legal non-plight to organize for him? We Support Officer Darren Wilson, the Facebook group, greets visitors with this message: "We do NOT SUPPORT RACISM OF ANY KIND. HATRED, RACISM AND NEGGATIVE COMMENTS OR POSTS WILL RESULT IN YOUR REMOVAL OF THE GROUP." One of the group admins is Ryder Wingrath, who on Aug. 16 changed his Facebook avatar to a meme of solidarity. The change was celebrated on his Facebook wall.

A day before, Wingrath shared a meme (using the "Kermit the Frog sipping tea" format) that... well, it's pretty self-explanatory.

Wingrath appears to be the outlier among the admins, at least in what he's willing to bleat about in public. And the joiners are not all white people. But you wouldn't be wrong to assume that the recruits to the Darren Wilson movement are pretty conservative. Jessie Rhys, whose avatar is the icon of the conservative Oath Keepers, frequently shares memes about (ironically) the free-speech crackdowns of the Obama regime, and stuff like this:

Ryan Lord, another member of the group, has the same Wilson support badge as Wingrath, but a slightly busier churn of comments and memes. For example:

And this criticism of Capt. Ron Johnson:

Where does this sentiment come from? Lots of sources, and lots of resentments. There is the sense that Mike Brown (like Trayvon Martin) was sold by a pliant media as a sweet kid, when the evidence they're seeing is that he wasn't. (As Jonathan Capehart points out, the leaks about Brown's history from police to reporters have been ... selective.) Brown, like Martin, has been the subject of fake viral photos meant to prove his thuggishness—although I think only Brown's fake photo was shared by a Missouri cop who pointed out that white people didn't riot after O.J. was acquitted. In Missouri, as in Florida, the Obama administration (Eric Holder's DOJ, specifically) has been intervening, and to some this seems like a race-baiting administration stoking racial tension, not responding to it. 

The crisis in Ferguson has the potential to change the way conservatives view crime, and policing, and the relationship between civilians and the state they're allegedly the masters of. And to some people, change is terrifying in a way that a midnight formation of police in riot gear is not.

Aug. 19 2014 9:33 AM

What Should Protesters Be Demanding in #Ferguson?

The front page of today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch portrays an unnamed police officer firing cans of tear gas. It's an image for the ages.

But when you read down the page, you can be excused if you don't know what the protesters want. The people who gathered in Tahrir Square in 2011 wanted Mubarak to go. The people who gathered outside the Capitol in April 2010 wanted Congress to vote down the Affordable Care Act.

What do the people in Ferguson want? We have some ideas, but they're not leading the coverage and they're not shared by the protesters. The front page of this paper gives us an update on Mike Brown's autopsy, on school closures, on how the protests are "embod[ying] conflict for viewers around the world," and on injuries sustained in the protests. In an editorial, the newspaper calls for "leaders" to "emerge" and "communicate clearly, among themselves, among each other and to the public," until the unrest can end. It's echoing the sentiments in this Julie Bosman report, which finds protesters and would-be community leaders squabbling and directionless. 

We learned three years ago, after the first Occupy protests, that mass arrests and police state tactics were surefire ways to get activists covered by the press. We also learned from Occupy that protests with uncertain themes and no leadership can peter out, leaving nothing behind but some slogans. ("We are the 99%.") In Ferguson, as at some Occupy protests, we see the arrival of some thugs who want to puff out their chests and toss Molotov cocktails in the name of "justice." (What's more cowardly than inciting violence when you know someone else, or a collective, will take the blame?)

I talked to a friend who'd been observing protests in Ferguson for an NGO, then poked through Twitter and some of the stories about the Brown family. What can the protesters demand? Here are three ideas.

1. Arrest Officer Darren Wilson. I covered the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's killing in Sanford, Florida, and while that city was on edge it never became the scene of Ferguson-style protests. You can count the reasons—the killing happened at night, in a gated community, so there was no rally; Sanford is a racially stratified city, not a mostly black suburb; the alleged killer was not a cop. "If we was in California," one Sanford resident told me, "they'd be burning this up."

But nothing burned up, and after George Zimmerman was arrested the tensions faded away. The idea that a kid could be shot and the shooter could walk away without a charge—that was the outrage. Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin's family, is representing Brown's family with the same public argument. "What else do they need to arrest the killer of my child?" he asked at a press conference yesterday, quoting Brown's mother. 

2. Demilitarize the police. The transfer of military ordnance to police departments, a sleeper story for the better part of a decade, has become a national scandal. Even in the Pew Research poll that finds whites and blacks divided in their responses to Ferguson, a plurality of whites say that the cops have gone "too far" responding to the protests. Any of them watching CNN yesterday saw Jake Tapper report, in disbelief, at "a scene out of Bagram" concocted to shoo away peaceful protesters.

Libertarians and liberals in Congress are already talking about demilitarizing the police; Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson has a bill ready to go. There might be space, too, for an investigation along the lines of the Kerner Commission, which could pull the cops out from behind their masks and anonymous threats to reporters.

3. Turn out the vote. The day after Mike Brown was shot, Mother Jones ran the numbers and noticed that Ferguson, a mostly black city, was almost entirely run by white politicians. Only three of 53 police officers were black. More than 92 percent of the police searches that happened in Ferguson happened to black people.

ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser asks whether the timing of the city's elections—April, not November—guarantees a whiter electorate and a less representative local government. 

The fact that Ferguson’s elections are held at a time when few, if any, high-profile candidates are on the ballot contributes to an almost comically low voter turnout rate in these elections. In 2013, for example, just 11.7 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.
Turnout is especially low among Ferguson’s African American residents, however. In 2013, for example, just 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot in Ferguson’s municipal elections, as compared to 17 percent of white voters.

And "outside agitators"—the civil rights groups, not the bottle-throwing people—have already started responding to this. At his first speech in Ferguson, Al Sharpton condemned the city's low voter turnout. The Center for Constitutional Rights is offering voter registration near the scene where Mike Brown died. I learned this via Charlie Spiering, who reports that Missouri GOP chief Matt Wills condemned the voter registration as "not only disgusting but completely inappropriate."

That seems like a fantastic reason to do it.

Aug. 18 2014 8:48 AM

Missouri’s Governor: Cops Released Mike Brown Robbery Video to “Besmirch” Him

Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, was one of the goats of last week's Ferguson coverage. He did not spring into action when protests began in the suburb of St. Louis. Only after two journalists were illegally detained by cops who wouldn't give their identities, and the story exploded, did Nixon come to Ferguson and start making orders.

He's in it now. This morning Nixon issued an executive order that will send the National Guard to Ferguson. Half a day earlier, he appeared on Face the Nation and criticized the decision of Ferguson police to release a surveillance tape showing Michael Brown apparently robbing a store.

"It had an incendiary effect," said Nixon. "When you release pictures and you clearly are attempting to besmirch the victim of a shooting ... there are a lot of folks who are concerned about that."

Nixon, in other words, agrees with the Obama administration. NBC News has reported that Eric Holder's DOJ urged the police not to release the video. Over at Breitbart.com, this is seen as a stumble that allowed a "gentle giant narrative" about Brown to take hold, only to be shattered. But think about the timeline. On Aug. 13, the reporters were arrested and video of Al Jazeera crews sprinting from tear gas went viral. On Aug. 14, Missouri State Police Captain Ron Johnson took charge of the situation, walking with protesters, talking them down, leading to the quietest night since the shooting. 

On Aug. 15, the video dropped, and in a spectacularly clumsy fashion—the police put it out, then sowed confusion about whether this was the reason Brown came into deadly contact with an officer. (It wasn't.) Anyone who paid attention to George Zimmerman's trial in the killing of Trayvon Martin could remember how the dead teen was portrayed as an up-to-no-good "no limit" thug, and that this helped Zimmerman got off. And—wonder of wonders, the calm was shattered on the night of Aug. 15. The state of emergency was declared the very next day. We'll simply never know if, had the police held off on the video (until, say, a trial), the calm of Thursday night could have spread. Nixon will never know, either. You can see why he's angry.

Programming note: I am trying to finish my book about progressive rock, so this blog won't be updated at the usual pace. Last time I went on leave, Eric Cantor lost his primary; this time, the leave that was scheduled to begin last Wednesday was waylaid by the Ferguson story. Oh, I'm not complaining, just explaining why I won't be chasing every detail from Missouri. (In other words I'll be covering it as much as FiveThirtyEight.)

My colleague Jamelle Bouie has been reporting from Ferguson. Read him, read his tweets, and follow coverage at The Slatest.

Aug. 15 2014 7:53 PM

Rick Perry Indicted After Cutting the Funding for a State Corruption Investigation

Ah, Travis County—homeland of weird-keeping, scourge of powerful Texas Republicans. Less than a year after Tom DeLay finally beat the illegal-fundraising charges of Travis County DA Ronnie Earle, Rick Perry has been indicted on counts of abuse of power and coercion of a public servant by a Travis County grand jury.

Christopher Hooks, a sharp, Austin-based reporter who has written for Slate, explained it all back in April. The story began when Earle's successor, Rosemary Lehmberg, "was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin."

Police found an open vodka bottle in the car and arrested her. She verbally berated the arresting officers, and she didn’t stop the verbal abuse when she got to jail. Lehmberg was strapped into a restraining chair. Hours after her arrest, she blew a .239, almost three times the legal limit. Lehmberg’s jailers starting filming her, as they sometimes do with uncooperative detainees. That footage quickly found its way into the hands of media outlets. It’s incredibly embarrassing stuff—from Lehmberg’s thinly veiled threats against sheriff’s deputies, to her repeated requests to call Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton (“He’s not going to let me sit in jail all night”) to the placement of a hood, commonly known as a “spit mask,” on Lehmberg’s head. She ultimately pleaded guilty and served about half of a 45-day jail term. Calls for Lehmberg to resign started circulating immediately. She didn’t.

And here's the video.

Had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have gotten the chance to replace her, ending for at least a short while the irritation of liberal Travis County DAs. So he threatened to veto funding for the DA's Public Integrity Unit, unless Lehmberg resigned. She didn't resign. He cut the funding. That neutered, to the tune of $8 million, an investigation of fishy grants disbursed by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Conservative reaction on Twitter has boiled down to (I'll paraphrase) "What, the IRS slow-walking Tea Party applications isn't a scandal, but cutting funds for a drunk-driving DA is?" Well, apparently, yes. It is.

Aug. 14 2014 4:55 PM

Did Anyone Actually Yell “Kill the Police”?

Unsurprisingly, Radley Balko has the best and most measured take on the timeline in Ferguson and the mistakes that cops made in overzealously controlling civilian protests. (Read this interview with Norman Stamper if you need a sidebar.) I learned plenty from Balko, and one claim jumped right off the page. The story that protesters chanted "kill the police" was thinly sourced.

How could that be? The story was everywhere. This weekend Fox News report begins with the hook that as a crowd gathered outside the scene of Brown's death, "some people [were] even yelling kill the police." And here the problem starts, because the video doesn't really prove that, at all. One, the crowd's chants are indistinguishable. Two, Fox News' video was taken at night—but Brown was shot in the afternoon.

So who yelled "kill the police"? Let's go to the contemporary print reports, which credit the "kill the police" chant to the Associated Press. Here's where the AP got the scoop:

St. Louis County police said a large crowd confronted officers following the shooting, yelling such things as "kill the police."

ABC News, reporting independently on the story, cites St. Louis County police department spokesman Brian Schellman for the "kill" quote. So there you have it: The police department says that people yelled "kill the police," but no video has emerged of anyone saying it, despite the presence of media and countless cellphone cameras.

Four years ago, several black members of Congress said that they'd been heckled, spit at, and called the N-word on their way out of health care votes. Andrew Breitbart offered a $100,000 reward for any video proof that this had happened. No proof emerged. On the right, and more widely, the idea that Tea Partiers yelled racial slurs at John Lewis, et al. appeared to be debunked. 

So what should happen with the possible canard that the people at the first protest of the Michael Brown killing were yelling about murdering cops? We've come a ways since Sunday, but that detail definitely colored the way this story was received.

Aug. 14 2014 2:57 PM

Everybody Chill: People Around Ferguson Are Still Buying Lots of Guns

It may be the most reliable story in the aftermath of a shooting, or a police action. People get spooked. People buy guns. St. Louis' KMOX reports on the gun sales in Bridgeton, a Missouri suburb about 7 miles from Ferguson.

Sales have quadrupled at ‘Metro Shooting’ in Bridgeton according to owner Steven King. He says sales have mainly been to men, but not all:
“Probably a dozen or two dozen guns to females, single mothers. We’ve sold to black people, white people. We’ve sold to asians who have businesses on West Florissant.” said King. “They’re just afraid of what's going on and they’re coming in to purchase either additional firearms or their first firearm.”

How reliable is this trend? Frank Miniter, author of The Future of the Gun, pointed me to Florida data on background checks. In February 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford. The results are highlighted.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 2.58.24 PM

Looking at that chart, you'll also see surges in background checks in November 2012 (the re-election of Barack Obama) and the winter of 2012/2013 (the Newtown shooting and subsequent discussion of the first possible gun safety bill in 20 years).

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