At fierce town hall, Florida survivors take NRA and politicians to task

Faced with a furious crowd of Florida students demanding a renewed ban on assault weapons, Republican senator Marco Rubio offered one concession after another.

He said he supported legislation to raise the legal age to purchase a rifle to 21 from 18. He said he supported a law to create gun violence restraining orders, which would give family members and law enforcement a way to petition a court to take away a dangerous person’s guns. He said he opposed Donald Trump’s proposal to prevent school shootings by arming teachers or putting more armed security in classrooms.

Finally, Rubio said he was “reconsidering” supporting a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, what experts call the most substantive part of the assault weapon ban. Rubio said that yet-to-be-announced details from the investigation on the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school would show that limits on ammunition magazines might have saved several lives in the shooting.

None of this was enough for the passionate crowd of more than 7,000 people at CNN’s town hall discussion in Florida on Wednesday night. They applauded, cheered and gave standing ovations in support of a full ban on the kind of military-style rifle and ammunition used in the Parkland shooting. A loophole-ridden federal assault weapon ban had passed in 1994, in the wake of a school shooting in California, and expired a decade later, in 2004.

Rubio, the only national Republican politician who agreed to answer questions from the Florida shooting survivors, seemed to watch the political ground of the gun debate shift under his feet. At one point, he argued that it did not make sense to ban only a subset of semiautomatic rifles based on certain cosmetic military features.

“You would literally have to ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in America …” he began, before being cut off by huge whoops and cheers from the crowd.

“Fair enough, fair enough,” Rubio said. “That is a valid position to hold.”

Cameron Kasky, one of the Stoneman Douglas organizers of the planned student march on Washington, asked Rubio the most pointed question.

“Can you tell me right now you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” Kasky said.

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch Stoneman listens to the sheriff of Broward County.

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch Stoneman listens to the sheriff of Broward County. Photograph: Michael Laughlin/Sun-Sentinel via Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Rubio, who was backed by The National Rifle Association in his last race to the tune of more than $1m, refused to make that promise, arguing that his belief in the second amendment was shaped by long principle, and that “people buy into my agenda, I don’t buy into theirs”.

In their questions to Rubio and other lawmakers, the students and parents of Marjory Stoneman Douglas were disciplined and unrelenting, and the crowd around them was deeply involved. It was the rare televised political event where it seemed that the ordinary citizen questioners were the ones in charge.

Teenagers who have become nationally recognized political activists in the past week stood toe-to-toe with politicians and an NRA spokeswoman who had honed their talking points for years.

The NRA’s Dana Loesch tried to praise Emma González, the Stoneman Douglas student whose passionate speech decrying the political influence of the NRA, had gone viral, saying that no one should attack her for her activism.

Gonzalez told Loesch that even if she was not willing to take action to protect her own children, the Stoneman Douglas students were.

The crowd repeatedly booed and hissed Loesch, who focused on states’ failures and tried to blame law enforcement errors for the Parkland shooting, a striking choice for a five-million member conservative organization that includes large numbers of law enforcement officials.

And they returned again and again to the need to ban assault weapons.

Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, described Stoneman Douglas kids being “hunted” in their own school.

“Look at me and tell me guns were the factor,” he told Rubio. “Look at me and tell me you accept it, and you will work with us to do something about guns.”

Students at the town hall, where there was much talk of the need to ban assault weapons.

Students at the town hall, where there was much talk of the need to ban assault weapons. Photograph: Reuters

Rubio said that he did not support an assault weapon ban, telling Guttenberg: “If I believe that that law would have prevented this from happening I would support it. But I want to explain to you why it would not.”

Over boos from the crowd, Rubio made the typical Republican argument about a renewed assault weapon ban: that it targets a small set of 220 semi-automatic rifles with certain cosmetic military-style features, but left thousands of other guns that function in the exact same way un-banned.

“Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Guttenberg persisted.

“Senator Rubio, my daughter running down the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was shot in the back. With an assault weapon, the weapon of choice. It is too easy to get. It is too easy to get. It is a weapon of war. The fact that you can’t stand with everybody in this building and say that – I’m sorry.”

From the beginning, Rubio recognized that what politicians in the room were facing was something new: not just grieving survivors, but a whole generation shaped by the experience of active shooter drills and coverage of previous shootings on the news.

“I did not grow up in a school or an era in which children were shot in classrooms,” he said.

Some of the questions asked highlighted the starkness of the violence students felt they now faced.

Several students asked how politicians could ensure that it was actually safe for them to return to school.

“Why don’t we have kevlar vests in classrooms for our students. Why don’t we build our walls with kevlar?” Michelle Lapidot, a Stoneman Douglas student, asked. “Why do we protect America’s children with nothing but drywall?”

break the cycle

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Turkey must develop ‘unmanned tanks’ & more as NATO refuses to share military tech – Erdogan

Ankara hopes to design, produce and deploy an unmanned tank to circumvent a technology gap that NATO countries are reluctant to fill, President Erdogan stated on Wednesday, unveiling the country’s development goals for 2019 to 2023.

Praising the current level of technical achievement in the defense industry, Erdogan highlighted how the development of domestic aerial drone production, which was prompted by NATO members’ repeated refusal to share the technology with Ankara. The Alpagu, the Kargu and the Togan military drones are just the latest achievements by Turkish arms makers.

“We have our own unmanned aerial vehicles now. For years we wanted them from our strategic partner. The answer we received was, ‘the Congress does not allow.’ You are giving it to others, am I not your strategic partner, are we in not NATO, why do not you give it to us?” Erdogan asked, noting that the alliance even refused to rent the UAVs to Turkey. These rejections “finally made us our own armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles,” Erdogan added.

The next step, Erdogan believes, is to develop an unmanned tank which could be used on the battleground to “save lives.” Turkey has lost a number of soldiers in Syria over the years, due to the vulnerability of their mainly German-produced tanks. To add to the problem, last month, Germany decided to delay the upgrade of Turkey’s Leopard tanks in the wake of the Olive Branch military operation against the Kurds in northwestern Syria.

“Almost all of the armored carriers in Afrin are domestically produced,” Erdogan said. “We will carry it a step further. We need to be able to produce unmanned tanks and we will do that as well. We are already producing many weapons,” the president noted, according to Hurriyet Daily News.

The goal of greater self-sufficiency in arms-manufacturing is not new for Turkey. Erdogan, who wants Turkey to enter the top 10 world economic powers over the next few years, is on a quest to beef up the indigenous defense industry and is investing heavily in Turkey’s largest defense firms, including Aselsan, Roketsan and Turkish Aerospace Industries. Over the last 15 years, the number of defense projects increased to 600, totaling $60 billion, compared to just 66 active projects in 2002. Overall, Turkey’s budget for defense projects was $5.5 billion in 2002 but, in 2017, surpassed $41 billion, he added.

“We developed our 2023 vision to make Turkey one of the biggest 10 economies in the world on the 100th anniversary of foundation of Turkish Republic,” he said. “I believe that nations, who are unable to plan their own future, are obliged to be a part of others’ plans.”

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Stormzy wins top honors at 2018 Brit Awards

Feb. 21 (UPI) — British rapper Stormzy beat out several big names to win the top honors at the 2018 Brit Awards on Wednesday night.

The 24-year-old rapper, whose real name is Michael Omari, topped pop icons Ed Sheeran and Liam Gallagher to take home the Best British Male honors. And his debut album Gang Signs and Prayer won British album of the year, again beating Sheeran and his 2017 album, Divide.

“Love you all, thank you, thank God, emotional, overwhelmed, speechless…gonna go have a drink and party with my family,” Stormzy tweeted.

Other winners include Gorillaz for best British group and Dua Lipa for best British female solo artist and best British breakthrough act.

The evening also struck a somber tone when Gallagher performed Live Forever, the hit 1994 song from his former group, Oasis, in a tribute to the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing

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Florida town hall: Legislators call for ‘common sense’ gun solutions

Feb. 21 (UPI) — Thousands of community members and students gathered for a town hall discussion Wednesday regarding the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week.

Students, parents and teachers asked Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and Rep. Ted Deutch what action they will take to ban assault weapons, enforce stricter background checks and increase school security in the event moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper.

They also questioned National Rifle Association Spokeswoman Dana Loesch about the organizations stance on the current system for purchasing firearms.

Seventeen people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting when Nikolas Cruz, 19, opened fire on the school in Parkland.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie was killed in the shooting, asked Rubio to agree that rifles like the AR-15 used in the shooting “were the factor in the hunting of our kids in the school this week.”

“I’m saying that the problems we are facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone,” Rubio replied.

Rubio, who was booed by the crowd several times during the discussion, said he supported legislation to raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm, ban bump stocks and to make changes to the background system.

“I absolutely believe that in this country if you are 18 years of age you should not be able to buy a rifle and I will support a law that takes that right away,” he said.

Rubio said he doesn’t support a ban on assault rifles due to “loopholes” that allow guns that function in similar ways to remain legal.

“If I believed that that law would’ve prevented this from happening I would’ve supported it,” he said of the shooting.

Nelson called for “common sense solutions” such as getting assault rifles off the streets.

Deutch said he and other legislators will introduce legislation to make sure that assault weapons are illegal in every part of this country when they return to Washington next week.

“I support banning weapons that fire off 150 rounds in seven or eight minutes, weapons that are weapons of war, that serve no purpose other than killing the maximum number of people they can, you bet I am,” he said.

Loesch, who was also jeered by the crowd, said the NRA is awaiting a Department of Justice decision on the legality of bump stocks when asked by Marjory Stoneman Douglas Student Emma Gonzalez about the ease of acquiring automatic weapons and devices to modify them.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel challenged Loesch to take action limiting weapons.

“You just told this group of people that you are standing up for them,” he said. “You’re not standing up for them until you say, I want less weapons.”

When asked what legislators will do to strengthen background checks Nelson suggested closing the so-called “gun show loophole” which doesn’t require a background check when a firearm is purchased at a gun show if it isn’t being sold by a licensed federal dealer.

“There is no requirement of a criminal background check. That’s one thing that can be done, not only in Florida, but that can be done in Washington as well,” he said.

Loesch referred to the shooter as “nuts” and an “insane monster” who she said shouldn’t have been able to purchase a firearm.

“He shouldn’t have been able to get a firearm. He should have been barred from getting a firearm,” she said. “People who are crazy should not be able to get firearms. People who are dangerous to themselves and other individuals should not be able to obtain a firearm.”

Israel said the sheriff’s office is conducting an investigation into tips it received about the shooter to determine if they were mishandled.

“If we made a mistake, I’ll act accordingly and deal with it,” he said. “The person responsible is the agent or the detective or the person who received the tip and didn’t exercise their due diligence and took it where they needed to be.”

Earlier Wednesday President Donald Trump said he and legislators will discuss the idea of allowing teachers with firearm experience to carry concealed weapons on campus during remarks at a listening session with survivors of the shooting.

Ashley Kurth, a culinary instructor at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who sheltered nearly 70 students during the shooting, questioned whether she will be expected to receive firearm training and keep a bullet-proof vest in the classroom.

Nelson said arming faculty is a “terrible idea” and Rubio also said he didn’t support the idea.

“The notion that my kids are going to school with teachers that are armed with a weapon is not something I’m comfortable with,” he said.

Israel, who ordered all deputies in schools in Broward County to carry rifles on school grounds earlier Wednesday, said he also opposed arming teachers.

“I don’t believe teachers should be armed. I believe teachers should teach,” he said.

Cameron Kasky, a student the school, asked Rubio to turn down future campaign donations from the NRA.

Rubio said he would not turn down NRA donations, adding he supports the Second Amendment but he also stood for school safety.

“The influence of these groups comes not from money.You can ask that question and I can say that people buy into my agenda,” Rubio said. “I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda.”

Prior to the town hall discussion Broward County school system superintendent Robert Runcie said he was inspired by the movement started by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“These are the young people that are going to change the world for the better. And let me tell you, our students are ready for this moment. They have been preparing for this moment,” he said.

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Ex-Arkansas judge gets 5 years for giving lighter sentences in return for sexual favors

Feb. 21 (UPI) — A former Arkansas judge was sentenced to five years in federal prison Wednesday for offering lighter sentences to young male defendants in exchange for sexual favors.

Joseph Boeckmann, 71, was also fined $50,000 “to account for the financial harm he caused through his fraud scheme,” the Department of Justice said. Boeckmann faced up to 20 years on each count.

Federal prosecutors asked for three years in prison and Boeckmann’s attorneys asked for house arrest for their elderly client. But U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker said she handed down a heavier sentence because Boeckmann abused his authority on the bench, the Arkansas Times reported.

Boeckmann was indicted in 2016 and pleaded guilty the following year to the wire fraud and witness tampering charges.

According to the indictment, Boeckmann would “benefit himself by corruptly using his official position as an Arkansas district judge to obtain personal services, sexual contact, and the opportunity to view and to
photograph in compromising positions persons who appeared before him in traffic and misdemeanor
criminal cases in exchange for dismissing the cases.”

The indictment cites nine individuals between the ages of 16 and 22 who appeared before him for minor crimes, including traffic citations and marijuana possession.

Prosecutors said Boeckmann conducted his scheme by telling the individuals they could get their case dismissed if they performed community service by picking up cans or litter at his residence. But instead of recycling, Boeckmann had the individuals take off their clothes and be photographed as they got paddled on their bare buttocks and performed other sexual acts, according to the indictment.

Boeckmann would then dismiss the victims’ cases and document that they performed “community service.”

Boeckmann resigned in 2016 after the charges surfaced.

He was given 30 days to report to prison to serve out his five-year sentence and undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation.

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‘A very scary movie’: how China snatched Gui Minhai on the 11.10 train to Beijing

The 11.10am to Beijing left on time, gliding out of Shanghai’s cavernous high-speed rail terminal and darting north through the cheerless suburban sprawl.

On board the sleek, white bullet train sat an unlikely trio of Europeans, one of whom held the key to a real-life political thriller so frightening and tangled it has left all those trying to decipher it both gripped and unnerved.

Only two of the trio would make it to their final destination.

As the G126 hurtled towards the Chinese capital on 20 January, at speeds of up to 350km an hour, the latest dramatic chapter in a surreal two-year saga was about to unfold.

For one of the passengers was Gui Minhai, a portly Swedish publisher once famed for his scandalous tomes about the leaders of the world’s second largest economy.

Just over two years earlier, in October 2015, Gui had vanished from his holiday home in Thailand, one of five Hong Kong booksellers snatched in still-unexplained circumstances during what many suspect was a political witch-hunt to silence or punish those who dared defame the Communist party’s great and good.

Now, the 53-year-old publisher – who had only recently emerged from Chinese custody and was travelling with Sweden’s consul general in Shanghai, Lisette Lindahl, and another Swedish diplomat – was about to disappear again.

At just after 3pm, the train pulled into Jinan West station in Shandong province, about 400km shy of its destination. The doors slid open and a gaggle of plainclothes agents pushed into the carriage. As they lifted the bookseller from his seat, an English-speaking female officer announced a police operation was underway.

map locator of Jinan West station in Shandong province

“They had no uniforms and no credentials,” said one source with knowledge of the day’s events. “They simply took him.”

Within seconds Gui Minhai was gone.

“Perhaps something like this was planned all along and there was no way of stopping it,” Gui’s daughter, Angela, reflects a fortnight later, as she considers the latest misfortune to befall her father.

‘China doesn’t mind how ridiculous it makes itself look’

Magnus Fiskesjö, who first met the bookseller in 1980s Beijing and has been a friend since, said he was stumped by Gui’s increasingly mysterious tale.

“It’s a very scary movie,” the Cornell University academic sighed. “It’s astounding, astounding … I find myself speculating quite wildly as to why they would do this.”

Fiskesjö is not alone.

China’s official explanation – made public on 9 February after the bookseller was paraded before a group of Beijing-friendly reporters at a facility in east China – is that Gui is suspected of leaking state secrets to “overseas groups” and trying to skip the country as part of a Swedish plot. (Supporters say Gui had been travelling to the Swedish embassy for a medical examination amid fears he was suffering from a rare neurological disease).

“I fell for it,” the bookseller claimed in a video activists rejected as a forced confession.

Gui Minhai delivers what supporters say is his staged confession

Gui Minhai delivers what supporters say is his staged confession Photograph: SCMP

Few, perhaps not even within China’s corridors of power, believe that implausible narrative though.

“The thing that is so surprising is the failure of the Chinese government to put out a coherent explanation that does not subject them to ridicule,” says Jerome Cohen, a New York University expert in Chinese law and human rights.

“It seems the People’s Republic of China doesn’t mind how ridiculous it makes itself look. It’s like a second-rate comedy show – only the joke is on Gui.”

A new wave of oppression

The absence of hard facts or credible Chinese justifications has spawned a cottage industry of dark hypotheses and conspiracy theories about what has happened to Gui and, crucially, why.

From his desk in Ithaca, New York, where he tracks the ever more serpentine case, Fiskesjö reels off his theses – not one of them, he concedes, provable.

Had Gui been snatched by rogue agents or fallen victim to a botched handover between poorly coordinated security forces? Was he a pawn in a game of geopolitical chess that a newly assertive Beijing was using to humiliate and intimidate Sweden and the west?

Or was Gui simply another victim of an aggressive crackdown on dissent that followed Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012?

“We’ve seen a new wave of oppression and repression and unfortunately Gui Minhai’s case fits into that,” Fiskesjö says.

But Fiskesjö and others are haunted by another possibility: that Gui had either published or picked up some toxic nugget of information that had enraged one of China’s top leaders and made the bookseller the target of a vicious and unstoppable campaign of retribution.

“Sometimes [in China] powerful bosses can just say something and have it happen,” Fiskesjö says. “I wouldn’t exclude that possibility.”

“My best guess,” speculated another source, “is that he either has – or the Chinese think he has – information which would be harmful to the reputation of someone in the leadership.”

One thing seems certain, says Fiskesjö. At some point after Gui’s detention a high-level decision was taken: “‘No, we cannot let him go … we have to silence him.’ Why that would be?” the academic mused. “I don’t understand.”

Gui’s 23-year-old daughter has also been trying to decode his predicament since they last spoke, on the eve of his detention. She has another theory.

From October 2015, when the publisher disappeared from his beachfront holiday home, until his partial release in October 2017, virtually nothing is known about Gui’s plight, beyond that he was held for a time in the eastern port city of Ningbo.

The scene at Gui Minhai’s Thai apartment after he ‘disappeared’ – as seen by The Guardian when it visited.

The scene at Gui Minhai’s Thai apartment after he ‘disappeared’ – as seen by The Guardian when it visited. Photograph: Oliver Holmes for the Guardian

Gui’s daughter suspects the “state secrets” he supposedly possesses actually relate to his own story, specifically his illegal rendition and subsequent mistreatment in Chinese custody.

During regular Skype conversations, permitted after he was placed under surveillance in a Ningbo flat in October last year, she said her father repeatedly hinted at such abuse. “For obvious reasons he wasn’t able to speak very freely about it … So, I had to do a lot of guessing. But it is quite clear to me that he has been tortured.”

Cohen, who has spent decades studying China’s human rights landscape, finds the theory convincing.

“What secrets would this man have, other than what he learned through his own kidnapping and his own mistreatment once he got back to China?” he says.

“This fellow, if he wanted to tell the truth about being kidnapped from Thailand, could be a real embarrassment to China … I think they don’t want him to talk … you get certain people they are afraid ever to let loose.”

The west pushes back

Gui’s detention has caused a serious diplomatic rupture, as well as a personal tragedy, pitting an increasingly feisty China against Sweden and other European Union nations who fear their citizens could be next.

“The handling of the case, including the forced TV confessions, is more reminiscent of Cultural Revolution tactics than rule of law,” complains one Beijing-based western diplomat. “The bullying of a smaller country like Sweden … will not help to improve China’s image abroad.”

After initially struggling to explain Gui’s capture, Beijing has gone on the offensive, accusing Stockholm of “grossly” meddling and warning its protests could harm ties.

Western governments have pushed back, with Sweden condemning China’s “brutal intervention” and EU and US officials also demanding Gui’s release. But some believe Stockholm, and the wider international community, are not doing enough.

“Beijing acts towards human beings as a reckless tyrant – and increasingly as a bully to other countries,” the Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, warned in an editorial criticising Stockholm’s “cowardly and wrong” response. Europe needed to fight back “when China bares its fangs”.

Gui Minhai, right, next to his university friend Bei Ling in 2008.

Gui Minhai, right, next to his university friend Bei Ling in 2008. Photograph: Bei Ling/Independent Chinese PEN Center

‘A jovial, funny guy’

The latest twist in Gui Minhai’s extraordinary publishing career would have been unthinkable when it began in 1980s Beijing.

Gui, then in his early 20s, was a budding poet whose verses appeared in the samizdat-style pamphlets that circulated during what was a rare period of political and intellectual freedom that ended abruptly with 1989’s Tiananmen massacre.

“He was always this jovial, funny guy,” recalls Fiskesjö, then the Swedish embassy’s cultural attaché.

Gui made his name – and fortune – with lewd tomes on the intrigues of Chinese leaders. But Fiskesjö says he was also a serious mind, who spent years studying Scandinavia after swapping Beijing for Gothenburg in 1988.

Gui’s PhD, completed in 1991, the year before he became a Swedish citizen, was called Feudalism in Chinese Marxist Historiography. Then came works on the Swedish East India Company and Norse mythology. “It’s a fascinating introduction for Chinese readers about Odin and Thor and all of those figures,” Fiskesjö says of the latter. “He definitely wasn’t confined to this … political gossip genre.”

Fiskesjö remembers, too, the hope-infused verses of a gifted poet.

In one 1986 composition, Longing for Greece, Gui writes:

I will hitch a ride with a small fish,
And go to Greece.
To visit the cities that breathe through gills,
Cities carved out with a kitchen knife.
History rises above the horizon,
Rising, oval.
An inward olive,
Held in in my mouth.
Cannot be spoken.

Gui’s daughter, who lives in Britain and recently earned a master’s degree from the University of Warwick, says her father continued to compose and memorise poems – often focusing on his Swedish identity – while in custody. Before his latest detention, “he was in the process of writing them down and was hoping to publish them”.

That, though, was before he boarded the 11.10am to Beijing and before he was marched off, once again, towards a televised confession and an uncertain future.

Angela Gui, who’s father Gui Minhai disappeared on October 17, 2015.

Angela Gui, whose father Gui Minhai disappeared on 17 October, 2015. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In one of their final Skype chats, Angela Gui recalls joking and “talking shit” with her genial father, as was their norm.

“He hadn’t at all lost his personality,” she said. “And he also said, ‘You know what I think … defines me, and what has defined me through this entire experience, is that I’ll always be an optimist.’

“He said he thought everything was going to be OK – in some way – and he had to keep working and he had to keep doing what he wanted to do and in some way things were going to be OK.”

Just over 24 hours after their last online encounter, on 19 January 2018, Gui was gone.

When he reappeared before the cameras three weeks later the bookseller delivered what some read as a farewell.

“My message to my family is that I hope that [they] will live a good life,” Gui said. “Don’t worry about me. I will solve my own problems.”

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