—By Mark Follman
An unthinkable massacre ignites an intense national debate. Then, Congress does nothing. The powerful gun lobby wins again. End of story.
So went the popular narrative last spring with the collapse of gun control legislation on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, scores of people have been wounded or killed in five new mass shootings and other gun rampages around the country, and an estimated 30,000 have been killed by firearms—including hundreds of young children, as documented in our latest investigation.
But no, the gun lobby did not “win.” The real action after Newtown was not in the nation’s capital—it was in most statehouses around the country, where no fewer than 114 bills were signed into law, aiming in both political directions. America has warred over its deep-rooted gun culture on and off for decades, and Newtown set off a major mobilization on both sides.
Determining how that battle changed the terrain in 2013 isn’t just a matter of the total number of laws passed (some of which contain multiple measures), but also the types of activity and swaths of population they affect. Unsurprisingly, the redder states mostly continued to deregulate firearms, while bluer coastal states—and a more politically split Colorado—moved aggressively to tighten restrictions.
Based on data from the nonpartisan Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks state legislation closely, here’s how the barrage of new measures has altered Americans’ ability to legally bear arms:
The most sweeping restrictions came in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York, including background checks for gun buyers and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Although tracking gun ownership is anathema to the National Rifle Association and its allies, 18 states and the District of Columbia boosted their capabilities to do so: New measures included requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported (Maryland, New York) and criminalizing the tampering with manufacturers’ identification marks on firearms (Rhode Island). From Florida to Colorado to Washington state, lawmakers required more rigorous reporting of mental-health records to the FBI’s criminal background check system and imposed greater restrictions on the mentally ill.
The long-running NRA-backed movement to deregulate guns also continued apace after Newtown, with a particular focus on expanding concealed-carry rights: No fewer than 63 laws in 26 states made it easier for citizens to pack heat in public, including in Illinois, which became the 50th state to allow such permits. Seven states authorized firearms to be carried in K-12 schools—including Alabama, which now allows the grounds where kindergartners frolic to be patrolled by armed “volunteer emergency security forces” that can include local citizens alongside school employees. Texas alone enacted 12 new measures deregulating guns. (It was also the state with the most child gun deaths in 2013.)
As a recent New York Times interactive shows, the majority of laws deregulating guns were passed in states with Republican-controlled legislatures and governorships, while a majority of laws tightening restrictions passed in states where Democrats were in control.
But several states in fact pulled the trigger in both directions. The Democratic-controlled statehouse in Minnesota, for example, was among those improving mental-health reporting but also passed a measure curtailing data collection on individual gun ownership. New Jersey prohibited individuals named on the federal Terrorist Watchlist from purchasing a firearm but also made concealed-carry permit records confidential. Utah passed two measures aimed at halting domestic violence against women—a problem frighteningly exacerbated by lax firearms laws in some states—but also made it easier to carry a concealed gun on university campuses.
For more on gun violence and gun laws, see our full investigations: Newtown: One Year After, and America Under the Gun: A Special Report on the Rise of Mass Shootings.
Above: U.S. ship Cape Ray. © AFP
The destruction of part of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal aboard a US ship carries “multiple risks” as such a procedure has never been tested at sea, a French environment watchdog has warned.
AFP, environment, chemical weapons, Syria
International experts gathered in Russia on Friday approved a plan to ship Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons to Italy for their eventual destruction aboard the specially-equipped US vessel Cape Ray.
The unprecedented plan, part of a US-Russian deal for Syria to surrender its stash of more than 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, will see Danish and Norwegian frigates escort cargo ships loaded with the deadly agents from the Syrian port of Latakia to international waters off the coast of Italy.
But according to French NGO Robin des Bois, the plan to dispose of the chemical weapons at sea is “adventurous” and poses a serious threat to the crew and the environment.
In a report published on Thursday, Robin des Bois pointed to Cape Ray’s single hull and the absence of transverse partitions as indicators that the ship was not suited to perform such a critical task.
“Adjustments being made to the Cape Ray cannot guarantee that the ship will remain afloat should it incur severe damage,” such as a water leak or a fire, said the NGO, which is specialised in monitoring vessels and the impact of the ship-breaking process on the environment.
‘Pilot system designed for ground use’
The 200 metre-long Cape Ray is equipped with the newly developed Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS), which was designed by the Pentagon to neutralise components used in chemical weapons.
According to Robin des Bois, the FDHS is a “pilot system (…) designed for ground use”, which has never been tested before in such a vast operation.
“To attempt a first use on such a scale aboard a ship is an adventurous operation that carries multiple risks for the crew, the technicians, and the environment,” the NGO added.
The UN has set a target date of June 30, 2014, to destroy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s entire chemical weapons arsenal.
The most hazardous materials, many of which are still scattered across several sites in the war-torn country, are to leave Syrian territory by the end of 2013.
Sources close to the operation say neither date is likely to be kept.
The Earth may be more than 4.5 billion years old, but it can still surprise us. Scientists have discovered a gigantic liquid water reservoir underneath Greenland’s massive ice sheet. (The discovery was reported in an article in this week’s edition of Nature Geoscience.) Uncovered accidentally by a team of glaciologists who were drilling ice cores in southeastern Greenland in 2011, the aquifer is more than 27,000 sq. miles (69,930 sq. km) large—bigger than West Virginia—according to data from NASA’s Operation Icebridge radar. And until recently, no one had any idea it was there.
That’s because, on the surface at least, it shouldn’t be there. Temperatures in Greenland are well below freezing most of the year, which is why much of the island is covered by a sheet of ice that is more than a mile (1.6 km) thick. Yet when the glaciologists drilling in 2011—led by the University of Utah’s Rick Forster—extracted their deep ice cores, they were surprised to find them dripping with liquid water, despite temperatures that were below 0º F (-18º C). Later research—carried out in April 2013 with Lora Koenig, a glaciologist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center—found that the temperature in the aquifer stayed around 32º F (0º C), just above freezing. It’s possible that the heavy snow cover in southeastern Greenland may act as insulation for the aquifer—a literal blanket of snow—preventing it from freezing.
(PHOTO: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers)
The volume of the aquifer—which is fed by meltwater that flows through the Greenland ice sheet—is immense, an estimated 154 billion tons of water. That would be enough by itself to raise global sea levels by 0.016 in (.04 cm) were the entire underground lake to flow into the oceans. That may not sound like a whole lot—the seas already rise by more than that amount each year, thanks to melting ice sheets and thermal expansion of warming seawater—but the discovery of the aquifer should help scientists better understand how melt water moves through the Greenland ice sheet.
That’s important because as the climate has warmed, the pace of ice loss in Greenland has accelerated, from 121 billion tons a year from 1993 to 2005 to 229 billion tons a year between 2005 and 2010. Better understanding of the physics governing the way the ice sheet, snow and meltwater interact could help scientists predict how Greenland will respond to warming in the future. And that matters because—never mind the fraction of an inch of sea level rise the newly discovered lake could cause—there’s enough frozen water locked in Greenland’s ice sheet to raise global sea levels by more than 20 ft. (6 m) were it all to melt. Scientists may like surprises when they’re discovering an underground lake, but when it comes to the threat of climate change, a little certainty would be preferable.