A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives
The morning after the Sandy Hook shootings, Shannon Watts, a mother of five and a former public relations executive, started a Facebook page called "One Million Moms for Gun Control." It proved wildly popular and members quickly focused on renewing the federal ban on military style assault weapons.
"We all were outraged about the fact that this man could use an AR-15, which seemed like a military grade weapon, and go into an elementary school and wipe out 26 human beings in less than five minutes," Watts said.
Nearly two years later, Watts works full-time as the head of the group, now named Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is a significant player in a coalition financed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But while polls suggest a majority of Americans still support an assault weapons ban, it is no longer one of Watts' top priorities.
"We've very much changed our strategy to focus on public safety measures that will save the most lives," she told ProPublica.
It's not just that the ban proved to be what Watts calls a "nonstarter" politically, gaining fewer votes in the Senate post-Sandy Hook than background check legislation. It was also that as Watts spoke to experts and learned more about gun violence in the United States, she realized that pushing for a ban isn't the best way to prevent gun deaths.
A 2004 Justice Department-funded evaluation found no clear evidence that the decade-long ban saved any lives. The guns categorized as "assault weapons" had only been used in about 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban. "Should it be renewed," the report concluded, "the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement."
With more information, Watts decided that focusing on access to guns, not types of guns, was a smarter approach. She came to the same conclusion that other gun control groups had reached even before the Sandy Hook shootings: "Ultimately," she said, "what's going to save the most lives are background checks."
While many gun control groups still officially support the assault weapons ban — "we haven't abandoned the issue," as Watts said — they're no longer actively fighting for it.
"There's certainly a lot of public sentiment around high capacity magazines and assault weapons," Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview this summer. "It's easy to understand why people feel so passionate about it."
But, he said, "when you look at this issue in terms of the greatest opportunity to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and prevent gun violence, background checks are a bigger opportunity to do that."
Bloomberg's umbrella group, Everytown for Gun Safety, has also deemphasized an assault weapons ban. A 10-question survey the group gave to federal candidates to measure their stances on gun policy did not even ask about a ban.
"We acknowledge that assault weapons put the 'mass' in mass shootings," Erika Soto Lamb, the group's communications director, said. But "we feel like it's a more productive use of our time, effort, money, voices, and votes [to focus] on the policies that are going to save the most lives."
The most common criticism of the weapons ban – which was signed into law Sept. 13, 1994 -- was that it focused too much on the cosmetic "military-style" features of guns, like pistol grips or folding rifle stocks, which made it easy for manufacturers to turn banned guns into legal guns by tweaking a few features. During the ban, some manufacturers added "PCR" to the name of these redesigned guns, for " politically correct rifle."
But the more profound criticism of the ban is that "assault weapons," a politically charged and imprecise term, have never been the weapons that contribute the most to American gun violence. Gun rights groups have pointed out for years that the campaign against assault weapons ignores the data. (The National Rifle Association did not respond to our requests for comment.)
While assault weapons do appear to be used more frequently in mass shootings, like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, such shootings are themselves rare events that are only responsible for a tiny fraction of gun homicides each year. The category of guns that are used in the majority of gun murders are handguns.
Despite this data — and perhaps because many Americans do not have an accurate understanding of gun violence statistics — an assault weapons ban has continued to have broad public and political support.
In January 2014, a Rassmussen poll found that 59 percent of likely voters still favored an assault weapons ban, even after the measure failed in the Senate in April 2013, along with the rest of the White House's push for tougher gun laws.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of the original ban, has repeatedly re-introduced it, most recently in 2013, after the Sandy Hook shootings. Obama made the policy part of his post-Sandy Hook platform for gun violence prevention, though the White House's central focus was on passing universal background checks.
Experts say that a smarter way to approach the assault weapons ban might be to focus on the ammunition, not the design of the guns themselves. The 1994 gun ban included a ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Unlike "assault weapons," high-capacity magazines were used in as much as 26 percent of gun crimes before the ban. Limiting magazines to a smaller number of rounds might mean shooters,
particularly in mass shooting situations, could not hit as many victims as quickly.
But even this focus on banning high-capacity magazines, rather than guns, suffers from a lack of data. "It is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than 10 shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading," the 2004 evaluation concluded.
There is some evidence that the ban was preventing violence outside the U.S.: Mexican politicians have long blamed the end of the assault weapons ban for contributing to drug-related violence in Mexico. In a 2013 study, three American academics found that the end of the ban brought about "at least 238 additional deaths annually" in areas of Mexico near the U.S. border.
Meanwhile, as gun control groups have moved their focus away from gun bans, Americans are buying fewer assault weapons than they did when a ban seemed imminent, Bloomberg News reported last month.
Under the terms of agreement, Google will pay at least $19 million in full refunds for billing consumers for millions of dollars their kids rang up on mobile apps without their consent
What thou chargest without parent’s knowledge thou has to repay. Or so says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which took its third action this year against a major Internet player that was billing parents for in-app charges. In a settlement announced last week, the FTC alleged Google Inc. was billing consumers for millions of dollars their kids rang up on mobile apps without their consent.
Under the terms of the agreement Google will pay at least $19 million in full refunds and modify its billing practices so that it obtains specific consent from account holders for a charge for items sold on mobile apps. If a consumer gives consent for future in-app charges, the company must supply account holders with methods for which they can revoke or modify the scope of the consent.
Earlier this summer, the FTC filed a complaint in federal court against Amazon, Inc. seeking similar refunds and billing changes. That case is still pending. In January, Apple Inc. agreed to pay out at least $32.5 million in refunds and obtain account holder consent for charges before they are billed.
“As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorize,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
The FTC said thousands of consumers complained to Google about the in-app charges, which can range from 99 cents to $200. Children accumulate the charges by buying virtual items that help them advance in the game. Some of these are virtual money purchases but others are real charges. Google’s response to the complaints, said the FTC, was to refer consumers seeking refunds to the app developer, even though its own employees referred to the in-app charges as “friendly fraud” and “family fraud.”
While Google began presenting pop-up boxes in 2012 asking for an account holder’s password before billing a charge, the pop-ups did not contain information about the charges and that by entering the password a three-minute window was opened in which the player of the app racked up unlimited charges.
Under the settlement, Google has to inform all consumers who incurred in-app charges about the refunds.
The US blogging company LiveJournal is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government
The Russian government’s efforts to silence critics is getting help from an unlikely source: a San Francisco-based blogging company.
The company, LiveJournal, shows an error message to users inside Russia who try to read a blog maintained by prominent activist and politician Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny uses the service to post about Putin, the Russian government and politics. Users in other countries can read Navalny’s blog without seeing the error message.
Founded in 1999 by American Brad Fitzpatrick, who now works at Google, LiveJournal is currently owned by Rambler Co., a Russian company that runs several news websites.
LiveJournal CEO Katya Akudovich declined to comment on the details of this story, citing time limitations due to a “major technical redesign” but told ProPublica, “I can reassure you that Rambler & Co. has no influence on LiveJournal Inc. whatsoever.
LiveJournal Inc. is an American company that complies with all the U.S. laws. Our abuse team makes all of their decisions based strictly on our Terms of Service and the appropriate U.S. laws.”
An early social media pioneer, LiveJournal was once popular in the United States but is now dwarfed by sites like Tumblr and Wordpress. The site does retain a smaller, dedicated following among Americans users, including George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, who regularly posts on his LiveJournal blog. In Russia, LiveJournal is the most popular blogging platform – so popular, in fact, that the Russian name for LiveJournal has become synonymous with "blogging.”
LiveJournal has a history of being blocked by Russian authorities, and may be self-censoring to minimize the parts of their site that are unavailable inside Russia. The entire service was blocked in parts of Russia at least twice as a result of regional court decisions meant to block individual users. On March 13 of this year, Navalny’s blog, along with three Russian news sites, were officially ordered to be blocked by Russia’s telecom agency at the request of Russia’s Prosecutor General.
When it was blocked by the government, users inside some Russian cities trying to visit the banned LiveJournal site would have seen an error message from their Internet provider, saying that the page was not accessible.
But in the current case, the error message appears to come from LiveJournal itself, at a LiveJournal URL and on a page that includes the company’s logo and design. The error reads, “The page is blocked due to the decision of authorities in your area.” The error message is in English, though Navalny’s blog is in Russian. Attempts to reach Navalny’s blog from a U.S. Internet connection were successful.
LiveJournal isn’t the only U.S. company that stops users in other countries from seeing content that local governments want banned. According to a story last Monday, a Marketplace reporter based in Shanghai posted a story to LinkedIn, and soon received a notification saying his post would be blocked because it “contained content prohibited in China.” In 2012, according to Der Spiegel, Twitter blocked a Neo-Nazi’s account within Germany at the request of German officials.
Companies not cooperating with local governments can find their entire service censored, as Google learned when they said they would no longer self-censor search results in China, and was subsequently and repeatedly blocked by that country’s national firewall.
According to a study published last month by a group of censorship researchers, LiveJournal moved blogs blacklisted by the Russian government onto a separate IP address to facilitate Russia’s ability to selectively restrict access to parts of LiveJournal.
Tests by ProPublica confirm that Navalny’s blog has been hosted on a different IP address than the main LiveJournal site for at least the past two weeks.
LiveJournal founder Fitzpatrick says there was no censorship by foreign governments when he ran the company from 1999 to 2006. “There were teachers or parents complaining,“ he said, ”but there were no rules.”
Anil Dash, an employee at SixApart when it owned LiveJournal, first became aware of country-wide Internet censorship in 2004, when a different site owned by SixApart, Typepad.com, saw its first drop in traffic caused by it.
“Typepad was first, where we noticed this traffic drop one day, and we asked: What’s going on? We weren’t getting any traffic from China. We thought it was a technical issue,” he said.
“We were talking to our counterparts at Google, who were running Blogger, and they were having the same problems,” Dash said. “That was the first time — honestly at least for both of these teams — the first that either of us had heard about this [blocking] capability at all.”
Dash doesn’t envy LiveJournal if indeed they’re blocking Navalny after being faced with a choice between blocking him and being shut down in their biggest market.
Hypothetically, if that was the choice, “even if [LiveJournal] has to censor a million people, the other 2.9 million might be worth it for [the company],” he said.
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