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Rittenhouse Verdict Renews Polarized U.S. Gun Debate

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal on murder charges on Friday opened yet another front in America's longstanding fight over gun rights: Is it acceptable for a teenager to bring an assault-style rifle to a protest?

Conservatives hailed Rittenhouse as a hero for exercising his right to self-defense when he fatally shot two demonstrators and wounded a third who he said attacked him last year at a racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Gun control advocates warned the jury's verdict could inspire a new wave of armed vigilantism, after Rittenhouse - armed with an AR-15-style rifle - traveled in August 2020 from his Illinois home to Kenosha after demonstrations erupted following the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

Guns have long been a potent political issue in the United States, where permissive laws have led to the highest rate of civilian firearm ownership in the world. Mass shootings, which are far more rare in other wealthy nations, have plagued the country for decades.

Rittenhouse's decision, at age 17, to roam the streets of Kenosha toting a weapon in the name of protecting private property from rioters struck a particular nerve about just how far gun rights should extend.

"As the tragic events on that night in August showed, a 17-year-old arming himself with an AR-15 makes no one safer," top officials at Giffords, the gun safety group, said in a statement. "Today's verdict sends a troubling message that will encourage further vigilante violence and murder."

Gun rights organizations and Rittenhouse supporters celebrated the outcome as a major victory.

Within minutes of the verdict, the National Rifle Association posted on Twitter the language of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Brandon Lesco, who was standing outside the Kenosha courthouse holding a "Free Kyle!" sign, said the verdict was just.

"Someone needs to be there to defend the American towns that people try to burn. I respect that he was there, I respect he carried a weapon, he used it properly, he used it legally. The jurors agree," said Lesco.

The trial judge earlier this week had dismissed a misdemeanor charge against Rittenhouse for illegally possessing the rifle he used in the shootings, citing vagueness in the law.

'Unacceptable Message

Liberals denounced Rittenhouse's acquittal as further evidence of a racially biased criminal justice system. Rittenhouse, like the men he shot, is white.

"That a white male youth can travel across state lines, armed with an assault rifle, and engage in armed confrontation resulting in multiple deaths without facing criminal accountability, is the all too familiar outcome in a country where systemic racism continues to rot the system," Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

Some legal experts were careful to draw a distinction between the specific facts of Rittenhouse's case and the broader message it might send.

Prosecutors had a high bar to clear to convince jurors that Rittenhouse did not reasonably fear for his life at the time he fired, according to Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Under state law, he was legally permitted to carry his weapon openly.

But Geske said she worried the trial will teach the wrong lesson: "When you're out protesting or counter-protesting, it is perfectly fine to bring loaded weapons to 'protect yourself.' We're going to have substantial issues of who's defending themselves, when you've got two people with a gun?"

That sentiment was echoed by Karen Bloom and John Huber, the parents of Anthony Huber, one of the men killed by Rittenhouse.

"It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," they said in a statement.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Nathan Layne, Mike Scarcella and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Wallis)

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

GOP Defends NRA Despite Evidence Of Waste, Fraud, And Abuse

Republican lawmakers are calling a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday against the National Rifle Association an attack on gun ownership while ignoring the charges of "fraud and abuse" contained in the filing.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise tweeted in response to the suit: "Violent crime is skyrocketing in NYC. What's New York's Democrat Attorney General focused on? Launching politically motivated attacks against the Second Amendment & NRA. Make no mistake: Making it harder for law-abiding Americans to defend themselves is the far-left's agenda."

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NRA Rewards Trump For Breaking Promises On Gun Safety

Donald Trump celebrated receiving the endorsement of the gun lobby, after caving to their demands repeatedly.

A day after the National Rifle Association announced it would again endorse Trump, he tweeted out on Friday his thanks for their "FULL & COMPLETE ENDORSEMENT!"

"As long as I am President, I will ALWAYS protect our Great Second Amendment, and never let the Radical Left take away your Rights, your Guns, or your Police!" he wrote.

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NRA Wrestled With Sexual Misconduct Charges Against Top Official

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The National Rifle Association over the past two years has grappled with two separate sexual harassment allegations against Josh Powell, a senior official, including a case involving an employee.

The employee’s complaint was settled in 2017 using the nonprofit’s funds, according to three sources familiar with the matter. Earlier that year, Wayne LaPierre, the organization’s leader, had promoted Powell to executive director of general operations.

ProPublica could not confirm the settlement amount, which is not noted in the nonprofit’s public filings. In a statement, John Frazer, the NRA’s general counsel and secretary, told ProPublica that Powell denied the allegations.

“The NRA opted to confidentially resolve the matter in the best interest of all involved,” Frazer said.

The disclosure of the settlement comes amid a stream of reports alleging mismanagement and questionable spending by NRA leadership. The organization faces congressional inquiries and investigations into its tax-exempt status by attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C.

Powell is a top adviser to LaPierre and is among the NRA’s highest-paid officials, with compensation of nearly $800,000 in 2017.

In a separate harassment dispute in 2018, Powell’s behavior toward a woman who works for Ackerman McQueen, then the NRA’s advertising firm, escalated tensions in their decadeslong business relationship and caused Ackerman to bar him from any further contact with its employees.

Ackerman told ProPublica in a written statement that the firm “formally declared to Mr. LaPierre that it would not have any more dealings with Mr. Powell.” Ackerman said there was “clear reason to believe supported by evidence that he sexually harassed one of our employees and we would not tolerate his further involvement with any of our employees in order to protect their right to a safe work environment.”

Ackerman said the NRA “refused to cooperate” in addressing the complaint against Powell. Instead, Ackerman said Powell received “the full support of Mr. LaPierre and the board of directors.”

Over the last four months, Ackerman and the NRA have been locked in litigation in Virginia state court, with the gun group accusing the firm of dubious billing practices and Ackerman countersuing for defamation. Before the legal dispute, the two entities spent four decades working closely together. Ackerman helped shape the NRA’s messaging and public image.

The NRA responded to Ackerman’s statement on behalf of itself and Powell. A spokesperson for the organization called the firm’s claim part of a larger “extortion demand,” in which Ackerman said the NRA “must withdraw” its lawsuit “or face a smear campaign that would include sexual harassment allegations against one of its executives. Ackerman is now delivering on its threat. We are not surprised.”

Ackerman said the NRA’s “false” narrative “grows more ridiculous each day,” and its response to Powell’s actions created what became an irreparable rift in the business relationship, which brought tens of millions of dollars annually to Ackerman. “We believe our decision to take this decisive action to protect our employees contributed to the program of retaliation against Ackerman McQueen, and NRA Board members were not being told about these problems,” Ackerman’s statement says.

But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the organization “acted appropriately and swiftly” in response to the harassment allegation involving Ackerman. “The NRA removed Mr. Powell from his position as liaison between the NRA and Ackerman, and Mr. Powell had no further involvement with Ackerman.”

The spokesman called Ackerman’s harassment allegations “cryptic,” adding that they “first surfaced in October 2018, shortly after Mr. Powell participated in an effort to significantly reduce Ackerman’s budget with the NRA. Immediately, remarks allegedly made more than a year before became fodder for a harassment claim — accompanied by a demand that Mr. Powell be excluded from any further budget negotiations with the agency. The NRA committed in good faith to investigate the allegation, but the accuser and Ackerman declined to participate in any interview about the alleged incident.”

Despite recent negative publicity, the NRA continues to have broad support among Republican members of Congress and with President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016 after the NRA spent more than $30 million to boost his candidacy. After recent discussions with LaPierre, in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Trump has reportedly backed away from favoring more stringent background checks for gun owners.

After receiving a tip, ProPublica asked Ackerman to respond to questions about a harassment complaint involving one of its employees. The woman who filed the complaint did not respond to a request for comment.

Powell has served as LaPierre’s chief of staff since 2016. In December 2018, after the Ackerman dispute occurred, LaPierre announced to staff that Powell would step away from his additional duties as executive director of general operations and join the NRA’s legal team as a “senior strategist” in a high-stakes lawsuit that had been filed that spring against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York Department of Financial Services.

Powell has long been a source of contention among NRA staff and even some board members. Before arriving at NRA headquarters in 2016, he ran two upscale clothing catalogs that were intended to appeal to wealthy outdoorsmen. Vendors working with Powell sued him on at least 20 occasions, alleging unpaid invoices totaling more than $400,000.

In 2018, Powell came under scrutiny from NRA accountants. In a document that compiled a list of “top concerns” for the board’s audit committee, which provides the organization with fiscal oversight, arrangements that involved Powell and posed alleged conflicts of interest were repeatedly flagged. The accountants noted payments to Powell’s father, a photographer, and referenced his wife, Colleen Gallagher, who in late 2017 was hired by one of the NRA’s top fundraising vendors, McKenna & Associates. An NRA spokesperson said in May that the audit committee was “aware of the relationship and approved the consulting arrangement with McKenna.”

In June, Robert Brown, an NRA board member, emailed LaPierre and Frazer about Powell. ProPublica obtained a copy of the note, which is addressed to Frazer. “John,” it says, “Since Wayne refuses to respond to my emails, plez pass on to him the message below.”

“Wayne,” the message reads, “At the last NRA BoD meeting, you promised me you were going to terminate that worthless scoundrel, Josh Powell, in 60 days. Well, 60 days have passed. When are you going to fire him?”

Brown declined to provide a comment for this story. “I do not discuss internal NRA politics with the media,” he told ProPublica in an email. “Period.”

 

A Glimmer Of Hope In the Struggle For Gun Safety

Late last month, the United States recorded yet another mass shooting. This one took place on a Friday afternoon in Virginia Beach, when a not-so-civil servant mowed down several of his co-workers at a municipal building. The shooter killed 12 people before he was shot dead in a gun battle with police.

That sort of atrocity is now commonplace in this country, too frequent an occurrence to command more than a few days’ attention outside the community in which it occurs. The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, but we account for nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings. Another month, another attack by a deranged gunman in the land of the free and the home of the armed.

But this shooting was followed by something not yet commonplace but becoming more frequent: A few days later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called a special session of the legislature to take up gun control measures. That action not only gave urgency to his proposals but also put Northam under the white-hot scrutiny of a disapproving gun lobby — a place that most politicians, especially in purple states such as Virginia, had spent decades avoiding.

Ever so slowly, in fits and starts, the political landscape around the push for sensible gun laws is changing. Finally. The National Rifle Association and its allies are losing their iron grip on Congress and state legislatures around the country. Fewer politicians fear the wrath of the gun lobby.

Credit goes largely to the young activists who took the stage after the February 2018 massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff dead. Student leaders refused to settle for the “thoughts and prayers” that had become the familiar refuge of elected “leaders” too timid to push for serious gun control measures. The students marched on Washington, staged demonstrations around the country, took to television commentary shows and endured the mockery of right-wing talking heads.

Their efforts — aided by gun control groups such as the Giffords Law Center, named for former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), a mass shooting survivor and gun control activist — have changed the legislative climate. Last year, for the first time in several years, state legislatures around the country passed more gun control measures than pro-firearms proposals pushed by the gun lobby, according to The New York Times.

The students’ activism was also assisted by the NRA’s own self-inflicted meltdown, the result of years of grift and self-enrichment by its leaders. Continually peddling dire warnings of a pending confiscation of firearms by an autocratic government, the NRA has raised hundreds of millions from frightened gun owners persuaded that “jack-booted” government thugs were waiting to seize their weapons. But its principals used much of that money to support lavish lifestyles, and the organization is now struggling financially, according to published reports.

That changed climate has given Northam some room in which to maneuver. As recently as 2007, the Virginia Legislature refused to pass a relatively toothless gun control measure in the wake of a mass shooting that took the lives of 32 people at Virginia Tech. Republicans, assisted by a couple of Democrats, bottled up a bill that would have required mandatory background checks for firearms sales at gun shows. This time, however, Northam may be able to get a bill passed. Noting the shifting landscape, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who was the state’s governor back then, said Democrats now “run using gun safety as an offensive issue,” rather than trying to hide from it or deflect, as they once did.

That doesn’t mean that we will relinquish our leadership in mass shootings anytime soon. There are more civilian-owned guns than people in the U.S., according to the Small Arms Survey — about 327 million people, about 393 million firearms. We own 42 percent of the world’s guns, enough to guarantee that the havoc will continue for some time.

But thanks to some courageous young Americans, we may have found our way back toward sanity. Their future may be a safer place.

IMAGE: Emma Gonzalez, a student and survivor of the Parkland speaks at the first-ever March for Our Lives to demand stricter gun control laws on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo by Olivier Douliery/ Abaca(Sipa via AP Images)

NRA Concealing Russia Ties On Eve Of Big Convention

Reprinted with permission from Shareblue.com.

As Trump and Pence prepare to speak at the NRA’s annual convention on Friday, the gun group is still refusing to answer questions about its ties to Russia.

The issue will be the elephant in the room at this year’s convention, which comes just a week after the House Intelligence Committee’s Minority report revealed damning new evidence about the NRA’s role as a potential conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign.

While it’s clear that the NRA has a tangled web of connections to Russian officials, it’s financial dealings remain murky.

The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is reportedly looking at whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the NRA that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign. The FBI is also reportedly investigating the organization as a potential vehicle for Russian money laundering.

Congress is asking questions, too.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRA in March expressing his concerns about its relationship with sanctioned Russian banking executive Alexander Torshin, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has asked the Treasury Department for documents pertaining to Torshin’s involvement in the organization.

Wyden has also sent a series of letters asking for information about the organization’s financial ties to Russia.

After months of denials, the group’s leaders finally admitted last month in a reply to Wyden that it had accepted donations from 23 Russian-linked sources. Before that, it only acknowledged receiving money from one Russian source.

The NRA can legally accept foreign donations as long as the money is kept separate from its political activity. However, since the group has failed to provide sufficient documentation to Wyden, it’s unclear if any of the Russian money ended up flowing into the NRA’s political arm — and potentially into its campaign activities on behalf of Trump.

The organization spent at least $55 million during the 2016 election cycle, including an estimated $30 million to support Trump’s presidential bid — more than its combined spending in all races during the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles.

And according to McClatchy, those figures may significantly underestimate what was actually spent. Two industry insiders said the group spent upwards of $70 million, but failed to disclose some of its expenditures.

Wyden has asked the NRA for details on how it ensures that no foreign money is spent on American elections, but the NRA’s legal counsel said in latest letter that the group would not provide any additional responses to the senator.

With the group stonewalling him, Wyden released a statement Thursday announcing that he had referred his correspondence with the NRA to the FEC.

Meanwhile, CNN reported this week that the NRA is “bracing for an investigation.” Although the group has denied that it accepted illegal donations, sources told CNN that officials have been gathering materials in preparation for an investigation.

All of this comes just days ahead of the annual convention, which is scheduled for Friday. Previous NRA conventions have featured prominently in the ongoing Russia scandal.

The night before Trump spoke at the NRA’s convention in 2016, Don Jr. met with Torshin, who had been introduced to the Trump campaign as a close ally of Putin who could set up a back channel to the Kremlin. The year before, Trump spoke at the NRA’s annual convention and reportedly met Torshin.

According to NPR, Torshin — who was targeted last month by U.S. sanctions for “benefit[ing] from the Putin regime and play[ing] a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities” — attended every convention from 2012 to 2016 in an effort to cozy up to American politicians and NRA executives.

It was during these conventions that Russia reportedly sought to infiltrate the NRA and cultivate relationships with Trump associates. According to campaign communications released alongside the House Intelligence Committee’s minority report, Russia was looking to establish a “first contact” with the Trump campaign through an intermediary at the NRA.

This year, Trump will return yet another time to speak at the convention, and although Torshin won’t be there, you can be sure Russia will send a replacement.

Then again, it may not need to — after all, with Trump in attendance, Putin knows his interests will be well represented.

Don’t Forget: The ‘Patriotic’ NRA Is Under Investigation For Kremlin Connections

Amid national outrage over school shootings, the torrent of media coverage that has engulfed the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party routinely omits this crucial fact: The FBI is currently investigating the NRA’s suspicious connections with Alexander Torshin — a top banker, alleged organized crime boss, and former Russian parliamentary leader with very close ties to Vladimir Putin.

Specifically, McClatchy News Service reported last month that U.S. law enforcement officials are interested in possible financial support for the 2016 Trump campaign from Russian sources such as Torshin, a lifetime NRA member whose relationships with gun lobby’s leader and major donors are well established. McClatchy also reported that three congressional committees probing Russia’s electoral interventions have also been examining Torshin since last fall.

As the McClatchy report indicates, Torshin has spent several years (as well as an undetermined amount of money) developing his extensive relationship with NRA leaders – and with the Trump family. In 2011, he met with NRA chairman David Keene, who followed up with a fawning handwritten letter. Since then Torshin has hosted NRA leaders in Russia and, at one of several annual NRA conventions he attended in the United States, met with Donald Trump, Jr. He also claims to have met with Donald Trump himself.

Whether skilled or not with firearms, Torshin appears to be highly accomplished in the art of money laundering, according to law enforcement authorities in Spain. Two years ago, Bloomberg News reported on findings of the Spanish Civil Guard, which is at the forefront of European efforts to curb Russian organized crime, which began to look at Torshin when he showed up repeatedly in surveillance of Alexander Romanov, a convicted gangster:

Alexander Torshin instructed members of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate how to launder ill-gotten gains through banks and properties in Spain while he was a deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Spanish Civil Guard said in a confidential report, seen by Bloomberg, on a three-year probe that ended in 2013. Torshin denies any wrongdoing and said his ties to the alleged Taganskaya leader in Spain, Alexander Romanov, are purely social. Torshin hasn’t been charged or summoned in relation to the report.
“Within the hierarchical structure of the organization, it’s known that Russian politician Alexander Porfirievich Torshin stands above Romanov, who calls him ‘godfather’ or ‘boss”’ and conducts “activities and investments” on his behalf, investigators concluded in the report. Romanov was sentenced to almost four years in a Spanish prison in May, after pleading guilty to illegal transactions totaling 1.65 million euros ($1.83 million) and $50,000.

Last month, we reprinted an expansive ProPublica report on Spain’s investigation of Torshin:

By the summer of 2013, prosecutors concluded they had enough evidence to arrest Torshin, according to Grinda and other investigators. Investigators learned that the Russian senator planned to fly to Mallorca to celebrate Romanov’s birthday in August, officials said. Police planned to deploy officers at the airport and the hotel to arrest him upon arrival.
But for reasons that remain unclear, Torshin canceled his visit just two days before the flight, investigators said. Officials believe that a dispute in Spanish law enforcement about the decision to make such a diplomatically sensitive arrest may have led to a leak that reached Torshin. Torshin would have been the most powerful figure arrested in Spanish cases that have targeted Russian Cabinet ministers, elected officials, security chiefs and oligarchs.

As the debate over gun control erupts anew in this country, the Russians are intervening again – now promoting conspiratorial and political slurs against the young activists from Parkland, Florida who are challenging the NRA. Just how much support the “patriotic” gun lobby is receiving from a hostile foreign power remains to be fully revealed.

IMAGE: Donald Trump addresses members of the National Rifle Association during their NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during at their annual meeting in Louisville, KY, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II