BBC: Why so many US ‘mass shooting’ arrests suddenly?

A makeshift memorial at the scene of Dayton, Ohio's mass shooting in AugustA makeshift memorial after the shooting in Dayton, Ohio

In the last three weeks US authorities have arrested at least 28 people accused of threatening acts of mass violence. What’s behind this surge and could they all be convicted?

The threats ranged from posts on social media and video gaming sites to verbal comments to colleagues and friends. In at least two cases, suspects sent text messages to ex-partners. Hoards of weapons were also found in some cases.

The FBI won’t say what is behind the steep bump in apprehensions, some carried out by that agency, others by local police. It’s not clear if it marks a growth in threats or simply a rise in awareness and tip-offs.

But former FBI boss Andrew McCabe said on Friday there was undoubtedly a “renewed awareness” focused on the sort of threats that a few months ago might have been ignored by investigators mindful of the right to free speech as enshrined in the US Constitution.

The first amendment offers broad protection of free speech, even if that speech is racist or of a violent nature. Prosecutions in the US are further complicated by the second amendment which safeguards the right to bear arms.

So what can be done to stop a shooter before they strike?

When a threat becomes a crime

More than two dozen people are reported to have been arrested for making threats to carry out mass violence since the 3 August shooting in El Paso.

Many of the alleged plots foiled by US law enforcement included plans to target specific minority groups. But without any federal penalties in place for acts of domestic terrorism – like those that exist for international terrorism – the charges varied – false threats, terrorist threats, illegal possession of weapons and disorderly conduct.

It’s unclear how these various cases will fare at trial. For charges asserting threats of violence, the threats must be highly specific, accompanied by evidence of imminent danger.

FBI investigators arrive at the home of suspected nightclub shooter Ian David Long on November 8 2018, in Thousand Oaks, CalifornianFBI investigators approach the home of a suspected mass shooter

“The whole test is whether something is a clear or present danger,” says Martin Stolar, a civil rights lawyer based in New York. You must be expressing a clear intention to commit a crime, he continued, and close to committing it.

A case in Vermont shows how tricky it can be to prosecute. Jack Sawyer, 18, was arrested in 2018 after he threatened to cause mass casualties at his former high school. A friend had informed police, who searched his car and found a 31-page diary entitled Journal of an Active Shooter.

The state’s attorney charged Mr Sawyer with four felonies – two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count each of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among the most serious charges in Vermont.

A memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shootingA memorial for victims of the Dayton, Ohio shooting

But within months, all four felony charges were dropped. Mr Sawyer walked free in April 2018 and has now been adjudicated as a youthful offender for carrying a dangerous weapon. He will remain under state supervision until he turns 22.

The court found that he had stated his intentions to commit harm but no action followed, says Vermont-based lawyer David Sleigh. “Simply contemplating a crime is not a crime in Vermont.”

All states have laws that bar violent threats. Threats made by US mail or interstate commerce, for example, are considered criminal. But those threats generally must include the incitement or solicitation of specific violent acts to be considered criminal.

“You don’t criticise someone for speaking, you criticise people for picking up a gun,” says Mr Stolar. “When speech crosses the line.”

A candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings was held at the 6th Presbyterian Church in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, blocks from the Tree of Life SynagogueA candlelight vigil for the victims of the El Paso and Dayton shootings in Pittsburgh

Without a designated target, an immediate timeline, or clear preparations to commit assault, violent words may be protected speech.

There must be “action and imminent danger,” Mr Sleigh says. “As opposed to trying to criminalise evil or unpalatable thinking.”

What happens in other countries?

In terms of free speech protections, the US is singular.

“In some countries, they’ve criminalised certain types of hate speech that are protected here,” says Mary McCord, a former senior national security prosecutor, now legal director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“They have a tool available in those countries to prevent some of the type of speech that can be used to recruit new adherents to an ideology.”

What about other countries?

In the UK, for example, an expression of hatred related to a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal.

In Canada, too, there are more restrictions on free speech than in the US. The federal criminal code includes multiple provisions barring hate speech, including those that impose criminal sanctions against anyone who willfully incites hatred in public against an identifiable group, including those distinguished by race, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability.

Such sensitivities “present barriers,” Ms McCord says, “to effectively combat the spread of violent ideologies.”

But in the US, she continues, “we respect the first amendment.”

Is an arsenal legal?

The implications of the first amendment are complicated by the second, which enshrines the right to gun ownership.

In many of the recent arrests, suspects were found in possession of firearms and other weapons. But even where suspects were found with a hoard of firearms – like 18-year-old Justin Olsen, who was found with more than a dozen rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition – the cache of weapons uncovered were legally acquired, and do not provide grounds to prosecute.

Police seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shootingPolice seized weapons including an assault rifle from a man in California, accused of plotting a mass shooting

“If a person’s not prohibited for having a weapon, he could have a bunch of weapons, he could not be breaking any laws at all,” says Ms McCord.

She has drafted a proposal to criminalise the stockpiling of weapons for use in a domestic attack.

“That would enable the government to prove his intent,” says Ms McCord, giving law enforcement an additional tool to thwart potential offenders before they act. Without standing law specifically addressing domestic terrorism, “law enforcement has to find something to charge [suspects] with because there’s nothing that directly applies. They’re cobbling things together to charge.”

Ms McCord is among a growing number of those within the intelligence community calling for domestic terrorism to be classified as a federal crime, giving law enforcement expanded preventative powers – similar to those that apply to international terrorist groups.

But some civil rights advocates and attorneys balk at giving the US government any more power. They argue that existing laws, when enforced, are sufficient.

“I think the rush to try to expand police authority into regulating rights of free speech or rights to gun ownership should be taken very, very carefully,” Mr Sleigh says.

Does the combination of the first and second amendment create a volatility that does not exist elsewhere, he asks.

“I suspect it does. But it’s been part of our national project to embrace that liberty and freedom, knowing that it comes with risk.”

BBC: America’s gun culture in charts (must read)

Two mass shootings within 24 hours, leaving 31 people dead, has once again brought the spotlight on gun ownership in the United States.

An attack on a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas on Saturday left 20 dead, while nine died in a shooting in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday.

But where does America stand on the right to bear arms and gun control?

What do young people think about gun control?

Chart showing how fewer 18 to 29 year old Americans favour gun control now than did in 2000

When looking at the period before the Parkland school shooting in 2018, it is interesting to track how young people have felt about gun control.

Support for gun control over the protection of gun rights in America is highest among 18 to 29-year-olds, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre, with a spike after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. The overall trend though suggests a slight decrease in support for gun control over gun rights since 2000.

Pew found that one third of over-50s said they owned a gun. The rate of gun ownership was lower for younger adults – about 28%. White men are especially likely to own a gun.

How does the US compare with other countries?

About 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, according to a 2017 survey, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm is the highest in the developed world. There were almost 11,000 deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter involving a firearm in 2017.

Chart comparing gun-related deaths as % of total homicides - 73% in US, 38% in Canada, 13% in Australia, and 3% in England and Wales

Homicides are taken here to include murder and manslaughter. The FBI separates statistics for what it calls justifiable homicide, which includes the killing of a criminal by a police officer or private citizen in certain circumstances, which are not included.

In about 13% of cases, the FBI does not have data on the weapon used. By removing these cases from the overall total of gun deaths in the US, the proportion of gun-related killings rises to 73% of homicides.

Who owns the world’s guns?

While it is difficult to know exactly how many guns civilians own around the world, by every estimate the US with more than 390 million is far out in front.

Chart showing civilian gun owneship around the world

Switzerland and Finland are two of the European countries with the most guns per person – they both have compulsory military service for all men over the age of 18. The Finnish interior ministry says about 60% of gun permits are granted for hunting – a popular pastime in Finland. Cyprus and Yemen also have military service.

How do US gun deaths break down?

There have been more than 110 mass shootings in the US since 1982, according to investigative magazine Mother Jones.

Up until 2012, a mass shooting was defined as when an attacker had killed four or more victims in an indiscriminate rampage – and since 2013 the figures include attacks with three or more victims. The shootings do not include killings related to other crimes such as armed robbery or gang violence.

The overall number of people killed in mass shootings each year represents only a tiny percentage of the total number.

Tree map showing total number of gun deaths and how many were suicides and homicides

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were a total of more than 38,600 deaths from guns in 2016 – of which more than 22,900 were suicides. Suicide by firearm accounts for almost half of all suicides in the US, according to the CDC.

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found there was a strong relationship between higher levels of gun ownership in a state and higher firearm suicide rates for both men and women.

Attacks in US become deadlier

The Las Vegas attack in 2017 was the worst in recent US history – and eight of the shootings with the highest number of casualties happened within the past 10 years.

Chart showing worst mass shootings in US since 1991
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What types of guns kill Americans?

Military-style assault-style weapons have been blamed for some of the major mass shootings such as the attack in an Orlando nightclub and at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut.

Dozens of rifles were recovered from the scene of the Las Vegas shooting, police reported.

Chart showing types of guns used in US murders
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A few US states have banned assault-style weapons, which were totally restricted for a decade until 2004.

However most murders caused by guns involve handguns, according to FBI data.

How much do guns cost to buy?

For those from countries where guns are not widely owned, it can be a surprise to discover that they are relatively cheap to purchase in the US.

Among the arsenal of weapons recovered from the hotel room of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock were handguns, which can cost from as little $200 (£151) – comparable to a Chromebook laptop.

Graphic showing price of an assault rifle $1500 and handgun $200

Assault-style rifles, also recovered from Paddock’s room, can cost from around $1,500 (£1,132).

In addition to the 23 weapons at the hotel, a further 19 were recovered from Paddock’s home. It is estimated that he may have spent more than $70,000 (£52,800) on firearms and accessories such as tripods, scopes, ammunition and cartridges.

Who supports gun control?

US public opinion on the banning of handguns has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. Support has shifted over time and now a significant majority opposes a ban on handguns, according to polling by Gallup.

But a majority of Americans say they are dissatisfied with US gun laws and policies, and most of those who are unhappy want stricter legislation.

Chart showing Americans unhappy with US gun laws want stricter rules

Some states have taken steps to ban or strictly regulate ownership of assault weapons. Laws vary by state but California, for example, has banned around 75 types and models of assault weapon.

States with assault weapons restrictions
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Some controls are widely supported by people across the political divide – such as restricting the sale of guns to people who are mentally ill, or on “watch” lists.

72% of Republicans, or adults who lean Republican, believe that 'concealed carry' should be allowed in more places while only 26% of Democrats do.
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But Republicans and Democrats are much more divided over other policy proposals, such as whether to allow ordinary citizens increased rights to carry concealed weapons – according to a survey from Pew Research Center.

Who opposes gun control?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) campaigns against all forms of gun control in the US and argues that more guns make the country safer.

It is among the most powerful special interest lobby groups in the US, with a substantial budget to influence members of Congress on gun policy.

Chart showing lobbying by NRA

In total, about one in five US gun owners say they are members of the NRA – and it has especially widespread support from Republican-leaning gun owners, according to Pew Research.

In terms of lobbying to influence gun policy, the NRA’s spending jumped from about $3m per year to more than $5m in 2017.

The chart shows only the recorded contributions to lawmakers published by the Senate Office of Public Records.

The NRA spends millions more elsewhere, such as on supporting the election campaigns of political candidates who oppose gun controls.

BBC: Brain implants used to fight drug addiction in US

“Earlier this year, the UK’s Royal Society warned of the ethical dangers of merging machines and humans, and were especially concerned about the plans of technology firms such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink which have both announced research to develop commercial products.”

Dr Rezai and his teamDr Ali Rezai and his team performed the procedure earlier this month

Patients with severe opioid addiction are being given brain implants to help reduce their cravings, in the first trial of its kind in the US.

Gerod Buckhalter, 33, who has struggled with substance abuse for more than a decade with many relapses and overdoses, has already had the surgery.

Lead doctor Ali Rezai described the device as a “pacemaker for the brain”.

But he added it was not a consumer technology and should not be used for “augmenting humans”.

Gerod BuckhalterImage copyrightWVU MEDICINE HOSPITAL
Image captionGerod Buckhalter has struggled with addiction for years after being prescribed opioids for a football injury when he was 18

Mr Buckhalter had his operation on 1 November at the West Virginia University Medicine Hospital. Three more volunteers will also have the procedure.

It starts with a series of brain scans. Surgery follows with doctors making a small hole in the skull in order to insert a tiny 1mm electrode in the specific area of the brain that regulate impulses such as addiction and self-control.

A battery is inserted under the collarbone, and brain activity will then be remotely monitored by the team of physicians, psychologists and addiction experts to see if the cravings recede.

So-called deep brain stimulation (DBS) has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treating a range of conditions including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder. Some 180,000 people around the world have brain implants.

X-ray of Gerod BuckhalterImage copyrightWVU MECIDINE HOSPITAL
Image captionThis X-ray shows the brain implant being inserted

This is the first time DBS has been approved for drug addiction and it has been a complex trial, involving many teams, including ethicists, psychologists and many regulators.

Over the next two years the patients will be closely monitored.

Dr Rezai told the BBC: “Addiction is complex, there are a range of social dynamics at play and genetic elements and some individuals will have a lack of access to treatments so their brains will slowly change and they will have more cravings.”

“This treatment is for those who have failed every other treatment, whether that is medicine, behavioural therapy, social interventions. It is a very rigorous trial with oversight from ethicists and regulators and many other governing bodies.”

He points to figures which suggest overdoses are the main cause of death for under-50s in the US.

“Over half of patients relapse. We need to find solutions because it is a life-threatening situation and something which impacts family and loved ones.”

Gerod Buckhalter and familyImage copyrightWVU MEDICINE HOSPITAL
Image captionMr Buckhalter with his family ahead of his operation

West Virginia has the highest age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in the US. In 2017 there were 49.6 such deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Royal Society warned of the ethical dangers of merging machines and humans, and were especially concerned about the plans of technology firms such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink which have both announced research to develop commercial products.

Neuralink has now applied to start human trials in the US, with electrodes inserted into the brains of patients with paralysis.

And Facebook is supporting research that aims to come up with a headset that can transcribe words at a rate of 100 per minute, just by thinking.

Dr Rezai is sceptical about consumer tech firms getting involved in this area.

“I think it is very good for science and we need more science to advance the field and learn more about the brain. This is not for augmenting humans and that is very important. This is not a consumer technology.”

“When it comes to applications, it needs to be heavily regulated. This is not like getting a flu shot or a tattoo. Surgery has inherent risks and is not trivial. It is only for those with chronic disease who have failed all other treatments and are without hope.”

Boston College student’s girlfriend charged over his suicide

Alexander Urtula (left) Inyoung You. File photo Alexander Urtula (left) and Inyoung You dated for 18 months before his death

A former Boston College student has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the suicide of her boyfriend in May.

The indictment of Inyoung You, 21, over the death of Alexander Urtula, 22, was announced in the US state of Massachusetts on Monday.

A local attorney said Ms You, a South Korean national, had been abusive towards Mr Urtula.

Mr Urtula died hours before his graduation on 20 May.

Ms You, who is currently in South Korea, has so far made no public comment on the case.

What are the accusations?

At a news conference on Monday, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins announced that Ms You had been charged with involuntary manslaughter by a Suffolk County grand jury.

The attorney revealed that after an “extensive investigation” police determined that she “was physically, verbally and psychologically abusive towards Mr Urtula during their 18-month-long tumultuous relationship”.

“The abuse became more frequent, more powerful and more demeaning in the days and hours leading up to Mr Urtula’s death,” the attorney said.

She said that the couple had exchanged more than 75,000 text messages in the two months prior to Mr Urtula’s death.

In her posts, Ms You’s urged Mr Urtula to “go kill himself” and “go die”, the attorney said.

She added that on 20 May Ms You “was tracking Mr Urtula’s location and went to the Renaissance garage” where he killed himself.

Where to get help

From Canada or US: If you’re in an emergency, please call 911

You can contact the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Test Line by texting HOME to 741741

Young people in need of help can call Kids Help Phone on 1-800-668-6868

If you are in the UK, you can call the Samaritans on 116123

BBC: Two New York ex-policemen walk free after sex with handcuffed suspect

Former NYPD officers Eddie Martins (L) and Richard HallFormer NYPD officers Eddie Martins (L) and Richard Hall

Two former New York detectives have walked free after admitting to having sex with a handcuffed 18-year-old woman after arresting her.

Eddie Martins and Richard Hall arrested the woman for possession of marijuana before having sex with her in the back of a van in exchange for her release.

They will serve five years probation but escaped the prosecutor’s request for one to three years in prison.

The men were initially accused of rape but the charges were later dropped.

On Thursday the former police officers, both in their mid to late thirties, pleaded guilty to official misconduct and other charges linked to the incident.

The police officers pulled the woman over in September 2017 as she was driving with friends and found her to be in possession of marijuana.

They then took turns to have sex with her in the back of the police vehicle, the court heard. The police officers did not report the arrest.

Afterwards, the woman went to hospital, where tests identified DNA matching both detectives.

The rape charges were dropped because the victim’s credibility was “seriously, seriously questionable” and the charges could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt, said Justice Danny Chun.

The woman’s attorney, Michael N. David, said it was a “complete injustice” that the ex-police officers escaped a jail sentence.

A NYPD van pictured in New YorkThis New York police van has the slogan “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect” painted on the side

As a result of the case, a loophole was closed that previously allowed New York police officers to have sex with those in custody as long as it was consensual.

Martins and Hall, who resigned from the New York police department in 2017, “engaged in a shocking abuse of power”, said Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, adding that he “would have preferred to see them serve prison time”.

“We could not apply the new law retroactively, and serious credibility issues in this case precluded us from proceeding on additional charges,” said Mr Gonzalez, “yet we remained committed to holding these defendants accountable”.

Steve King: Rape and incest ‘aided population growth’

Steve KingSteve King is known for his incendiary comments

Democrats are calling for a Republican congressman to resign after he defended abortion bans by saying that humankind might not exist but for rape or incest.

Without rape or incest “would there be any population of the world left?” nine-term lawmaker Steve King asked the Des Moines Register newspaper.

Mr King was defending anti-abortion legislation that does not make exceptions for rape or incest.

Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders soon demanded he step down.

“You are a disgrace. Resign,” Ms Gillibrand wrote on Twitter. Her remarks were quickly echoed by other 2020 Democratic hopefuls Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro.

A Republican lawmaker, Iowa state Senator Randy Feenstra, also criticised Mr King’s remarks.

“I am 100% pro-life but Steve King’s bizarre comments and behaviour diminish our message,” he wrote on Twitter.

On Wednesday, Mr King told the Des Moines Register that the Republican leadership had stopped bills he sponsored banning abortions from advancing through the US House of Representatives.

“What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled out anyone who was a product of rape or incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” Mr King said on Wednesday.

“Considering all the wars and all the rapes and pillages that happened throughout all these different nations, I know that I can’t say that I was not a part of a product of that.”