How Much Smoke Do You Need To See To Know There’s A Fire?

For those who believe the Special Counsel investigation of a potential conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign is a “witch hunt,” here’s a large dose of reality.

Every US agency and many of their European counterparts have determined that Russia interfered with our 2016 elections to benefit Trump. Also, it has been proven that Russians hacked the election apparatus in numerous states and their hacking attempts were blocked by many more. It has been proven that Russia purchased advertising on social media to sow division among US citizens. Russian trolls and bots also created fake news to further Vladimir Putin’s goals.

There were wide swings in several key swing states between the usually reliable polls and election results. Additionally, there were suspicious vote totals in the same states with each of them showing almost exactly the same 1 percent margin in favor of Trump (a near statistical impossibility) – enough to help him win the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.

Looking further into the matter, a shocking number of Trump campaign officials and associates are known to have met with Russian officials and Putin-linked oligarchs: Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Rex Tillerson, George Papadopoulis, Carter Page, Michael Cohen, Erik Prince and, possibly, others. Many of those people also have long-standing connections with Russian officials and oligarchs who are close to Putin.

It has been established that Don Jr., Kushner, Manafort and possibly Trump, himself, met with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower with hopes of receiving damaging emails stolen from the DNC, DCCC and Clinton’s campaign chair. We know that, after Trump won the GOP nomination, the party’s platform was suspiciously revised to soften language against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. And we now know that longtime Trump attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, was selling access to President Trump through a Russian-connected company following the election. (That same Russian-linked company registered a number of alt-right websites during the election.)

We know that, prior to the campaign, numerous Putin-linked Russian oligarchs purchased Trump properties for prices well above the market rate. And we know that at least one Russian oligarch rented space in Trump Tower.

We know that, faced with a financial crisis in the 1990s, the Trump organization approached nearly every US bank for loans and that their requests were rejected. Yet, beginning in 2005, the organization went on a buying spree, spending more than $400 million in cash on new properties. There are well-founded suspicions that the money may have come from Russian oligarchs through Deutsche Bank – a bank fined for its involvement in a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme. About the same time, Trump’s own sons and son-in-law began bragging about the Trump organization’s connections to Russia, stating that, as a result, they no longer needed loans from US banks. And Donald Trump Jr. went on record at a real estate conference in 2008, stating, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Are you choking on all the smoke and gasping for air yet? If not, there’s more.

Following the election, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, telling the Russian foreign minister and US ambassador during an Oval Office meeting, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He likely had assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe fired for similar reasons. And after Congress passed a bipartisan bill to increase sanctions over our elections, Trump delayed them. And he continues to speak about Vladimir Putin only in glowing terms.

So far, Flynn, Papadopoulis, Richard Pinedo, and Alex van der Zwaan have all pleaded guilty to various offenses related to the Trump campaign. In addition, Gates has accepted a plea deal. And 13 Russian nationals have been indicted.

Now we have learned that a Russian official courted Republicans beginning in 2009 – at least 5 years before the international community imposed sanctions on Russia as a result of its invasion of the Ukraine. That same Russian official, along with 22 other Russia-linked individuals also gave millions to the NRA – money that is believed to have been used for the campaigns of GOP candidates. And it has been reported that another Russian oligarch funneled $7.35 into the campaigns of GOP candidates, including Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and John McCain.

Given all of this, is it really possible that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the Democratic Party? I hardly think so.

Guns For Everyone, Everywhere!

For years, I thought the National Rifle Association could stoop no lower than its role as shill for the gun manufacturers. The US has never restricted gun ownership, but the NRA has routinely pushed for increased accessibility and ever more lethal weapons. As a result, Americans may now purchase a 50-caliber semi-automatic sniper rifle powerful enough to blow a hole in a car’s engine block at a distance of 1,000 yards. You may now own a semi-automatic assault rifle with high capacity magazines that will permit you to shoot dozens of people without the inconvenience of having to stop to reload. And, if the NRA has its way, you will soon be able to legally purchase a silencer for your weapons that will allow you to shoot people while avoiding detection.

Who wouldn’t need that?

What began as an organization dedicated to helping young men improve their marksmanship for hunting and for possible military service, has morphed into a lobbying group with a mission of eliminating all laws and restrictions with regard to the purchase and carry of handguns. Now the NRA is working on open carry laws that will allow any paranoid dimwit to openly carry a loaded weapon anywhere at any time. By contrast, in many cities and towns, martial artists are still unable to purchase or carry nunchuku, shurikens (Asian throwing stars) or certain kinds of knives. After all, without such restrictions, the national nunchuku murder rate might soar to…ummm…one. And convenience stores would be under constant threat of being robbed at shuriken point.

Sarcasm aside, those restrictions came from a day when the American public actually cared about preventing violence. From a time when the lack of a conspicuous presence of guns was a sign of advanced civilization. A time when the primary reason for owning a gun was for home protection and for hunting. A time before the gun manufacturers and the NRA convinced the most paranoid amongst us that carrying a gun was the only thing that stood between them and tyranny.

In order to keep the majority of Americans from understanding the true dangers of our obsession with guns, the NRA has successfully lobbied to prevent the government from tracking gun deaths, to prevent the registration of firearms and ammunition, to prevent universal background checks of gun purchases, to prevent so-called straw buyers from purchasing guns for felons, even to prevent pediatricians from talking to parents about gun safety in the home.

All of that is bad enough. But now the NRA is fighting proposed gun restrictions for those who have been convicted of domestic abuse and those who are mentally ill, stating, “Not only is this unjust and stigmatizing, it creates disincentives for those who need mental health treatment to seek it, increasing whatever risks are associated with untreated mental illness.”

In other words, the NRA wants everyone to own guns and to carry them everywhere. Anything less is, in the NRA’s words, “an assault on the Second Amendment.” The problem is that the NRA conveniently ignores the first part of that amendment. Yes, the amendment does say, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” But only after it states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”

Reading the many papers written by the Founding Fathers, the intent of the Second Amendment becomes clear…since the new nation had no standing army, the Founders saw a need for a citizen militia to protect the nation. They had no concern of tyranny from within – the democratic process was considered protection from that. The real threat was from the British Army and the armies of other foreign governments. But now that the US has the most powerful military force on Earth, there is no longer a need for an armed militia. As a result, the Second Amendment has lost its meaning and its true purpose. All of those guns that are owned and carried by Americans are being used to shoot other Americans at a rate of more than 33,600 per year…roughly the equivalent of twelve 9/11 attacks each and every year!

The Founders could have never foreseen the lethality of the weapons available today. Just as they could not have imagined that a lobbying group representing a tiny fraction of the population would be so effective at convincing Congress to suspend common sense and reason.

Illusion Of Justice.

Since the founding of our nation, Americans have always taken pride in our rule of law.  In civics class we learned that this was what distinguished our country from others; that it provided protection from unreasonable search and seizures; that it guaranteed us a quick and fair hearing before a jury of our peers; that it protected individuals from power grabs by government; and that it gave our citizens a non-violent way of settling conflicts. As our nation expanded westward, communities took pride in instituting the rule of law by hiring marshalls, creating courts, ending vigilantism and restricting the carrying of guns. Such things were considered the necessities of polite society.

Now we seem determined to return to the lawless days of the Wild West.

The National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers it represents have written and pushed laws to encourage the carrying and the use of guns. It is now legal to carry guns in virtually every state. They have pushed for and passed the so-called Stand Your Ground laws that allowed George Zimmerman to go free after shooting a black teenager who was “armed” with a bag of Skittles and an angry white guy to get away with murder because he didn’t like a teen’s music. Most recently, a retired cop has invoked the Stand Your Ground defense after shooting a fellow movie-goer following an argument in which he claimed threatened after a bag of popcorn was thrown at him.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), aided by GOP legislators have written and passed laws requiring states to privatize prisons despite their increased costs. Our state legislators have passed laws requiring lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes. At the same time, our government continues to wage a war on drugs that has sentenced drug users to lengthy prison terms. The result is to turn prisoners into profits, proving that crime pays – for corporations.

ALEC and its GOP servants have passed anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 requiring local law enforcement to check papers in order to fill the private prison facilities with immigrants whose only crime was to cross an invisible border in search of work to support their families. Now the GOP-controlled House of Representatives is pushing to defund the department that defends immigrants from detention or deportation to further pack corporate-owned prisons.

Misinformed conservative voters elect people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his many instances of using his position to racially profile individuals, to prioritize the arrest of hard-working immigrants while ignoring cases of violent crimes, and to use his office to harrass, intimidate, bully and incarcerate those who disagree with him. And Sheriff Joe is not alone. Each year, there are hundreds of cases from across the country in which law enforcement officers have abused their power. Unfortunately, most of these cases are never pursued because the victims are minorities and lack the video evidence and money to pursue justice.

In the US today, money is often the key predictor of sentencing. White color crimes, such as those committed by the mortgage lenders and hedge fund managers who crashed our economy in 2008, are seldom prosecuted. (Not a single person has been tried and convicted from one of the biggest thefts in world history.) When they are prosecuted, teams of high-priced lawyers are often able to get their clients acquitted. But poor people, especially minorities, can’t afford such representation. Usually, they’re appointed a public defender and offered a plea bargain. Is it any wonder, then, that minorities represent 60 percent of our prisoners, while accounting for only 30 percent of our population? And, according to a survey requested by Frontline, in the 20 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, whites are 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person.

With such statistics, it has become increasingly apparent that justice is becoming more of an illusion in the US than reality.

What The Most Recent Shootings Tell Us About Access To Guns.

The shooting in the Florida movie theater that left the father of two dead was not carried out by a reclusive young male who was mentally ill and felt spurned by society. It was carried out by what most people consider a highly qualified gun owner…a retired police officer who was merely upset by a young man texting his 3-year-old daughter. The shooting at the school in New Mexico was carried out by a 12-year-old boy who had access to a sawed-off shotgun.

Moreover, neither of these shooters was stopped by armed vigilantes. They were stopped by unarmed witnesses who had the courage to act.

These facts stand in stark contrast to the recommendations of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that reacted to the mass killing of 6-year-olds at Newtown by saying that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

The fact is that those who carry guns are tempted to use them. What might have turned into a fist fight in the movie theater instead turned into a murder because of the presence of a gun. What might have become a school yard fight between middle school students left one student critically injured and another in serious condition because of access to a gun.

There are only a few conditions that warrant the carrying of guns – when you are carrying large sums of money, when you have been threatened with violence, when you are working alone in a store overnight, when you must travel in a remote area known for violence, or when you are a paid security guard or on-duty police officer.

And there are no circumstances in which a minor should have access to guns without the presence of a parent.

However, the NRA would have you believe that you are always at risk unless you’re packing heat…ready to fire, round in the chamber, semi-automatic heat. And, unfortunately, too many Americans (especially right wing American politicians) have accepted the NRA paranoia. It’s the reason our gun laws have been changed to allow virtually anyone to own and carry a gun. And it’s the reason at least 10,000 fellow citizens lost their lives to gun violence in 2013.

When will it end?

Getting Away With Murder.

George Zimmerman isn’t the first person that the courts have allowed to get away with murder. But he is one of the few to be acquitted after admitting to intentionally shooting an unarmed person. Zimmerman can thank Florida’s ill-conceived “Stand Your Ground” law for that, along with an inept prosecution and seemingly naive jurors.

The “Stand Your Ground” law was created as “model” legislation by the NRA (National Rifle Association) and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) then introduced to state legislatures throughout the country. Designed to protect rootin’ tootin’, gun totin’, cowboy wannabes from prosecution, the law removes any obligation for gun owners to back away from a confrontation. If a pistol packin’ nitwit fears that his or her life is endangered or fears great bodily harm (an arbitrary standard as demonstrated by the Zimmerman trial) it appears that it is now legal to blast away.

Without this law, Zimmerman would have been forced to demonstrate that he tried to avoid a lethal confrontation. Without this law, the jury would have been obligated to convict Zimmerman of manslaughter. In other words, the fact that Zimmerman stalked his victim against the advice of a police dispatcher would have been reason enough to find him guilty.

The ensuing comments of juror B37 also demonstrate a lack of understanding of violent confrontations by the all female jury. The jurors apparently do not understand the difference between a fistfight and a life-endangering situation. Zimmerman’s wounds (and I use the term loosely) were consistent with the effects of a single punch. In no way do they meet the criteria of life-threatening or great bodily harm. Almost everyone who has ever been in a schoolyard fight has suffered worse.

There was no evidence that Zimmerman’s head had been repeatedly slammed onto concrete as he claimed. And that was just one of the flaws in Zimmerman’s story exposed during the trial.

The worst was Zimmerman’s claim that, when Martin was on top of him, Martin reached for Zimmerman’s gun. If the situation was as Zimmerman claimed, Martin could not have seen the gun behind Zimmerman’s right hip, let alone reached for it. Moreover, in the situation described, it would have been impossible for Zimmerman to have reached for it. Martin’s lower leg would have blocked access to it. (Having taught martial arts, including ground fighting, I have been in a similar position many times.)

The prosecution failed to clearly demonstrate this critical point. Had they done so, the jury might have reached a very different verdict.

Even more troubling than the outcome of the trial are the inconsistencies of our justice system and the perverse voyeurism of our media. As Zimmerman was getting away with murder, a Florida woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for merely firing a warning shot to keep her estranged husband from attacking her. No one was shot. No one was hurt. The clear message is that, if you’re going to fire your gun during a confrontation, you better make sure the shot is fatal. And since the woman is black, the two incidents demonstrate the duality of our justice system.

Such inconsistency, especially the appearance of racism, deserves a serious public discussion…one free of the sensationalism demonstrated by media coverage of the “trial du jour.” Unfortunately, in search of ratings, our media would rather treat our judicial system as a series of reality shows.

The War Within.

During the Cold War of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the US and Soviet Union armed proxy nations with the world’s most sophisticated weapons. It was good business for the defense industries of both participants. And when the proxy nations went to war with one another, business got even better.

Now we’re seeing a similar phenomenon within the US.

Arms makers such as Glock, Sturm-Ruger, Smith & Wesson and Winchester continue to design and produce increasingly more lethal weapons. Thanks to the NRA, semi-automatic handguns, tactical shotguns and assault rifles are readily available to all Americans…criminals and the mentally unstable included. These weapons are aggressively marketed through dozens of magazines, TV networks and action movies.

The gun makers even promote guns that are currently banned in the US. Ads for semi-automatic weapons are placed directly across from ads offering kits to convert the semi-automatics into illegal, fully-automatic weapons. (Of course small type in the ads note that the conversion of guns is illegal.)

But that’s not the height of the cynicism of these murder-for-sale businesses.

In addition to marketing weapons to the criminal element, the weapons industry markets even more lethal weapons (including tanks) to police and security forces. That way, they profit from both sides in an ever-escalating war of lethality. The criminally insane obtain more and better weapons. Then the police increase their armaments. And so it goes.

I’m reminded of the game played by the manufacturers of radar guns for police. Once they had upgraded the majority of police departments to the latest technology, they began selling radar detectors to help motorists avoid speeding tickets. Then they introduced improved technology for the police.

The only ones to benefit from such policies are the manufacturers.

Marketing Guns To Kids.

For many years, I’ve used mock guns to teach disarms to martial arts students. Some time ago, government agencies banned the sale of such items if they too closely resembled a real gun. They dictated that they be colored red, orange or yellow, and that they not include any detail so that no reasonable person would mistake them for a gun.That meant that they pretty much resembled a colored block of rubber or wood with a handle. The fear was that, if they were too realistic, criminals might use one of these training aids to hold up a convenience store.

Yes, I know, it never made much sense to me, either.

Now gun manufacturers have made such restrictions pointless. It seems that bluing, silver and black are not exciting enough to attract women and kids to the shooting “sports.” So, the murder-for-sale industry is now marketing guns in a variety of colors. This trend began when they began offering pink guns to women, presumably so that attackers wouldn’t know whether to back off in fear or simply curl up in laughter.

Not satisfied to stop there, the gun industry decided to offer guns in a full range of candy-like colors, such as red, blue, green and yellow. Of course, the new colors made them much more attractive to young children. And since they look like toys, when a young child discovers a colored gun in mommy’s or daddy’s nightstand, the child is almost certain to play with it.

What did the gun industry do when it was made aware of the potential danger of these guns? Did they immediately stop marketing them? Did they recall the lethal “toys” already on the market?

Of course not.

These upstanding Second Amendment absolutists simply encouraged parents to give guns to kids so they could start shooting them at targets (and each other) at ages as young as 5! Thanks to the NRA and their Teapublican supporters, there is virtually nothing that can be done to stop them.

On the other hand, it’s still illegal to sell or own a rubber or wooden “gun” that appears too realistic.