US President Barack Obama has delivered his fifth State of the Union address on Capitol Hill. As is custom, nay, the whole point of the speech – the President talked of the current state of affairs in the United States of America, focusing mainly on the economic position of the nation. There was a brief glance at America’s role in foreign affairs and diplomacy, in terms of Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. And then Mr Obama laid out the plans and aspirations he has for his second and final term as President of the United States. The hour-long speech was replete with promises, some within reach and many others not even close to attainable.
The speech was much along the lines of that which he delivered in his second innauguration address on the hill. Again his words were based on hope and optimism, but the themes was far less muted than they were a little over four years ago before he became President. Aside from some specifics on the economy, gun control and climate change were key issues which Obama focused on. Again same-sex marriage rated a mention, albeit a not overly explicit one.
On the ABC24’s flagship current affairs program, The Drum there was a discussion and dissection of the speech, what it meant, what was in it and what parts of its’ contents will prove achievable for a President with nothing to lose. Most of that discussion had the realities of the situation in mind. It was abundantly clear to all panellists how difficult it would be for Obama to achieve much of the agenda set out today.
Jonathan Green, one of the guests on the show, described Obama’s list of policy goals as a “shopping list”. This is both an ill-fitting metaphor and an apt one for the policy agenda outlined by President Obama in the State of the Union address.
A shopping list is usually a list of things that you will buy and that are readily available on any given day. You go to the shops and they are there and you can usually afford them. They are within reach of everyone. Most of the items on Obama’s shopping list will simply prove to be well and truly out of reach.
There has been some reform on gun control in the form of executive orders, but more significant reform which requires legislative approval will likely prove impossible. Meaningful action on climate change and same-sex marriage will likely suffer the same fate. It is however a positive step that the conversation on both issues has recommenced after being neglected during the election campaign of 2012.
In a sense, the issues outlined by Barack Obama do constitute a metaphorical shopping list. Some of the prescriptions raised by Obama are entirely necessary, like staples on a shopping list. There needs to be action on climate change and gun control and immigration law changes to name but a few topics raised.
Many of the items on Obama’s shopping list were what you would term ‘luxury items’. This is true in a metaphorical sense anyway. They are such because they will prove unobtainable. These are items that are of course desirable – ones which you really want, but which are, for some reason, almost unobtainable.
How many items can President Obama tick off the list? In reality he faces a tough battle with Republicans on the hill in just about every major policy area.
The National Rifle Association, more commonly referred to as the NRA, has finally broken its silence over the massacre which took the lives of mostly school children in Newtown Connecticut. In a statement posted on its website and their Facebook page, the powerful gun rights lobby group said:
“The NRA is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
The statement, though short, provides for interesting reading.
The political atmosphere in the United States of America appears to be vastly different after the Newtown slaying. The recent Aurora shooting and others this year shocked America and further fomented the gun control debate worldwide. But those displays of violence, though tragic and disturbing, had little impact on the domestic debate in the United States of America.
Now, quite possibly because so many young children were taken prematurely, both Democrats and Republicans, however few, are coming out in support of a change to gun laws.
Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a bill which will again ban assault weapons, 100 of them by name at least, which have removable clips. And the President has now announced that he supports the Feinstein bill, a similar legislative move to the ban on assault weapons which was brought into force during the Clinton administration but allowed to lapse.
But back to the NRA statement. What does it potentially reveal? And what could the mixed messaging in the two sentence statement actually point to in terms of action?
The first part of the first sentence is replete with NRA chest-beating. It seeks to remind Americans that they have 4 million members in the United States of America. The sentence also points out that the NRA membership is made up of people who have sons and daughters and that are sons and daughters, just like the majority of those killed last week.
Of course too, there was the obligatory expression of sympathy in the second part of the first sentence.
And then the first part of the next sentence attempts to explain the delay in the response from the lobby group. The trouble with this is that regardless of the facts of the case, the expression of sadness has been unnecessarily delayed. It is abundantly clear that the public had been expecting to hear from the organisation much sooner than today.
But it is the very last part of the statement, the last sentence, which has provoked the most interest. And why wouldn’t it? The last of the sentences says that the NRA, “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
Exactly what the “meaningful contributions” are remains unclear to the US and to the world, until at least Friday American time, when the group makes a public statement in front of the cameras.
What must be said too is that the National Rifle Association’s definition of “meaningful contributions” to the debate, probably differs quite dramatically to what those on the gun control side of the debate have in mind.
For any NRA contribution to the debate to actually be even remotely meaningful it must include, at the very least, public support for the Feinstein bill on assault weapons.
And for any action on guns in the USA to be truly meaningful, the response would have to go much further. More than 100 plus assault weapons named in Feinstein’s bill would need to be made illegal for any real impact to be made on the US gun problem. All semi-automatic weapons should be banned.
There are other sensible moves too, which the NRA should support and which will not in any meaningful way impact on the 2nd Amendment rights of US citizens.
There needs to be a more stringent and nationally coordinated gun licensing framework than the mish-mash of different regulations across the states at present.
And, as the President has backed, there needs to be a closure of the loophole which has seen unlicensed dealers able to trade in weapons privately and made access to firearms all too easy.
There is surely almost no chance of the them supporting the Feinstein bill and probably no chance of the NRA supporting a ban on all semi-automatic weapons beyond those named by the Feinstein bill. A better, more aligned licencing regime has more of a chance of being supported by the group of shooters. And a closure of the “gun show loophole” would likely be vehemently opposed. But maybe, just maybe, a much more stringent approach to the sale of weapons at gun shows might be endorsed.
It will almost certainly be a case of the NRA and the government, as well as the people, having different definitions of “meaningful contributions” in the fight against gun violence. And once again the NRA will be left behind in an alternative universe where reality has long been a victim of warped worldviews.
Gun reform is again being talked about in the United States of America after a terrible year for mass shootings in that country. There was the shooting in the cinema complex in Aurora, the Sikh temple rampage and now, most recently, the tragic slaying of mostly young children in Newtown, Connecticut. But unlike those needless acts of gun violence before it, the Newtown incident has created a much larger noise about gun control.
Some of the increased support for gun control is coming from within the US, most notably with the President hinting at the possibility of some form of action. Barack Obama however is not giving any hints as to the nature of the action. There is as yet no substance, just calming rhetoric.
What has been interesting though has been the growing interest from across the globe in America reforming its gun laws. It has been an attention, a focus with its roots appearing to go deeper than after any of the massacres this year.
Of course that will ultimately come to nothing. What matters is what Americans think about the issue and the pressure they are able to exert on their leaders. The most important factor, however, is what their leaders are both willing and able to do under legislative circumstances which are fairly unique to their country.
There is talk of a possible return to the Clinton era ban on assault rifles and this would be a sensible move. But it would only be a band-aid solution, not to mention that it would almost certainly be reversed or allowed to expire by an incoming Republican administration.
There is however a way forward which has been offered and has been given almost as much worldwide attention as the need for the gun law reform itself. And this pathway comes in the form of laws brought in by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard which have enjoyed remarkable success since being introduced in 1996.
These laws instituted a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and were put in place after our own Newtown, the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were gunned down. And these laws worked in Australia.
Of course, it is probably not within the realms of imagination to believe that the US would even consider remotely similar laws to those we have for guns in Australia.
In theory, similar nationwide laws could work in America. There would certainly be a marked decrease in gun violence across the nation. However the prospects of the same level of success that we had in Australia with the same laws in the USA are not good.
For a start, if, in the extremely unlikely event, the US and her composite states were able to agree on similar national gun control laws, the logistical task would be a massive challenge in itself. The sheer population of the US, at over 300 million, provides the biggest barrier to widespread success of the laws.
There would need to be a heavy reliance on honesty and the self-sacrifice of weapons as there was under the gun control laws in Australia. And of course US laws would also require the same combination of the financial incentives of a compulsory buy-back mixed with heavy criminal penalties for disobeying the law.
Policing the same kind of regime in the US would be a much more challenging effort. And any positive effects of the same type of laws would be more gradual and not as abiding as the Australian experience has proved to be.
But the change itself could be attempted if the political realities of the intersection between government and the gun lobby were not as they are, with the NRA holding so much sway and a gun culture being so deeply ingrained in the national laws and psyche.
The reality however, is that for America, the gun control laws which Australia pursued provide the best and only way to seriously curb the number of gun related deaths.
The best part for a country of people worried about losing their right to bear arms is that Americans will not lose that right. Gun owners and many others will however think they are and that is part of the reason why a legislative change on the same scale as Australia will probably never happen.
The state of Washington in the United States of America has become the first state in the country to legalise marijuana. The move comes a month after the US election which saw the proposition to make the drug legal receive the votes needed for it to pass into law. Recreational drug users took to the streets to light up in celebration.
And there is another US state which will see similar laws come into force in the coming weeks. Colorado also voted during the national election on a proposition to legalise marijuana.
Under the new laws in Washington state, recreational smokers over the age of 21 will be able to possess up to 28 grams of cannabis or up to 450 grams of baked goods containing marijuana. Having in your possession, up to 720 ounces of the drug in liquid form is also legal under the law which came into force in Washington on Thursday.
There are however some conditions attached to the new law.
Selling, cultivating and giving away marijuana for free, even among pot-smoking buddies will continue to be illegal. And despite the public pot party overnight, toking on marijuana in public will still be verboten.
This begs the question: what has actually changed at present?
The answer is that not much has changed so far. The only differences for now are that you may possess the aforementioned quantities of the once illicit substance and smoke or ingest those products in private.
However, you will have come by the drug in an illegal manner and universities and workplaces will have the ability to ban it on their premises.
State authorities, under the law, will have until December next year to establish legal cannabis trading houses which will be taxed and licensed in much the same manner as liquor-selling businesses currently are.
There is some major uncertainty about the future of the laws in Washington state and Colorado.
The drug is still illegal under federal law and the federal government may well decide to override the two states’ laws, though this has not yet been confirmed.
It is true though, that the Justice Department did not move to override the Washington law before it came into effect and so perhaps this points to the possibility of letting the law in Washington stand as well as the path to legalised cannabis in Colorado being allowed to continue.
The US Government intervening and overturning the two state-based laws would however, actually be quite a good thing.
Cannabis and indeed all drugs, are substances which are harmful to the health of all users, especially long-term recreational drug-takers.
The drug Cannabis is responsible for bringing on mental illnesses which can have devastating consequences in the lives of those experiencing such problems and result in similar negative consequences for the community around users.
Legalising drugs, including marijuana, will not suddenly make them less harmful to the public. They will still cause mental illness in people taking such substances and those effects will continue to harm both the drug-taker and potentially members of the public around them.
And legalising drugs will not cut down on their use either. Legalising drugs would likely mean that more people, some of whom had perhaps wanted to engage in drug-use but did not partake because it was illegal, would take up the habit and this would not be good for both healthcare and crime budgets. When you legalise drugs, you remove the stigma which is behind stopping some people using them.
It is important to acknowledge that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a battle that governments around the world are losing and will continue to lose in varying degrees across the globe.
But legalising drugs is no answer.
Even the most tightly regulated drug-use schemes will have their problems unless scientists discover a way to remove the harmful compounds from the drugs, or they discover some kind of way to shield the brain from the potentially very dangerous effects of such chemicals.
Whichever path governments choose, they are going to face costs. But trying to stop harm to consumers of drugs and those around them should be the highest priority.
The first Presidential debate of 2012 has passed. Expectations were, with Mitt Romney behind in the polls so close to the election in early November, that the debates were make or break for Mr Romney. Still recovering from recent gaffes, Tuesday night in Denver had to be the start of a recovery for the Republican challenger. For at least the first half of the 90 minute to-and-fro, Romney had the upper-hand, clearly outplaying his usually suave and confident political adversary, President Obama. Overall, Governor Romney came out of the experience the winner.
The normal confidence of the President just wasn’t there. It was as if the roles had shifted. Mr Romney was the one that looked and sounded confident, maintaining eye contact and a confident stance throughout. The incumbent Obama, on the other hand, failed to keep eye contact with his opponent and the audience, constantly writing down notes, something he’s rarely relied on in the past. The only one with less control on the debate was the moderator, broadcaster Jim Lehrer, who may as well not have been there.
Just what effect today’s effective win will have for the Republican candidate is debatable. Most likely, this first debate will not dramatically alter the contest as it stands, it’s just the first outing. There will probably be an improvement in the polls for Mitt Romney and the Republican campaign, but this won’t be dramatic. Likely, any improvement will be a matter of one or two percent, if that.
What today’s outcome will do is breathe some life into the challenger’s campaign. The stronger performance will give the Republican party some much-needed confidence that after a tough couple of weeks in particular. It will convince strategists there still might be a glimmer of hope for that one day in November when voters will be asked to vote for another four years of President Obama or entrust Governor Mitt Romney and his Republican Party with government. The performance today is much more a psychological win than it will be a dramatic vote-winner.
One of the most interesting elements of the contest today was the seeming abandonment of some political differences between the two sides of politics in favour of a degree of “me tooism”. In particular, the Republican nominee seemed to be making the case that he was not going to be embarking on some of the dramatic policy shifts he’s announced, that at worst in a few areas, he’d be taking Obama’s policies and tinkering with them.
In fact today’s performance from Mitt Romney displayed elements of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s so-called “Howard lite” campaign. For Americans, Howard lite refers to policy and political positioning of Kevin Rudd as basically John Howard, but with some improvements, meant to paint Kevin Rudd as a change to the former Prime Minister John Howard, but not a dramatic one.
The interesting thing about this posturing is the longevity of it. The pretend similarities, most of them, lasted until the election had been run and won in late November 2007. Fewer similarities remained from then on. That’s likely how the outcome in US politics too. This sudden need to appear only slightly different in terms of policy to the Democrat administration would be thrown away early on in a Romney administration. The similarities exist in words only, not in deeds. In fact, these likenesses are actually a politically constructed illusion.
If these similarities were to continue and actually be implemented as policy, then they would have a serious impact on the budget. But of course, cuts are and need to be, in reality, the order of the day. However debate over what is and is not cut should continue.
Mitt Romney clearly won the debate, but today was only a battle. The war for the White House rages on for another four weeks. Governor Romney can claim to have the upper hand today but he is probably still behind in the overall conflict. Maintaining belief in the so-called similarities? Well, that’s a completely different magic act altogether.
The latest gun massacre in the United States of America, this time in Aurora, Colorado has again sparked debate, within America and across the world about the sense or nonsense of the 2nd amendment right to bear arms. Twelve people were shot dead at a movie screening of The Dark Knight Rises and 58 further were injured by the gunman who burst into the cinema, let off teargas and began indiscriminately shooting at movie-goers.
The scenes of pandemonium that followed, including leaked mobile phone footage and the last tweets of some in the crowd will stick with people for a long time and must translate into at least some change in the gun laws.
Every year there are roughly 10,000 gun related murders in the United States of America out of a total number of murders close to 13,000 per annum. This is a truly horrifying statistic.
From the outset it is extremely important t0 acknowledge that no one “solution” to this incredibly difficult and fraught issue in US politics. Even a complete ban will not result in a massive reduction in gun-related deaths. People will do all they can to try and get their hands on firearms if they really want them and they will always exist in society.
There are two major problems that exist when thinking of gun crime. The first is that the right to bear arms applies to just about any weapon out there, in just about every state in the country. This access to an almost unlimited range of weapons includes some capabilities that just about any military would be proud of being able to use.
The second major problem is that the ability to acquire weapons in most states in the USA is just way too easy and there are few checks and balances and the process to legally acquire a weapon is just too lax. There is just too little examination of people wanting to obtain a firearm, something that, while still a right, must be highly regulated.
While it is true that it is the person behind the weapon that does the damage, the damage done also has much to do with the types of guns that an American citizen has access to. Since when do everyday Americans need assault rifles and machine guns, even on properties used for farming? And tear gas? Please. Who on earth needs that? Nobody as yet over the years has been able to cogently explain and justify the need for the right to bear arms to translate into access to automatic and in most cases even semi-automatic firearms.
Gun laws, though regulated by the state, separate from the national constitutional right to bear arms need to be made more stringent, perhaps nationally consistent, though this may be constitutionally and politically impossible as any gun reform has proved to be so far.
So here’s a commonsense plan which would maintain the 2nd amendment rights of Americans, still keeping their right to possess such a deadly weapon while at the same time being realistic about the consequences of the more extreme weaponry around.
First, all states must at least ban access to all automatic weapons or guns that have the ability to operate automatically.
Second, access to semi-automatic weapons should at least be limited, though there should ideally be a strong presumption against people having or needing semi-automatic weapons.
A gun buy-back scheme, similar to the one instituted by the Howard Government after the Port Arthur massacre might be a way for honest citizens to hand over the automatic weapons that they frankly don’t need. Such a scheme would result in at least some of the weapons in circulation being taken out of the public and therefore away from the access of criminals.
As far as gun licensing and regulation goes, there should be a move to a stronger, more nationally consistent license and registration framework which takes into account the individual circumstances of applicants and makes purchasing a firearm a lot harder than buying a fast food meal.
But we must be realistic about things when it comes to gun control in the USA. First, it will never happen. The NRA as a lobby group just holds too much sway. Also, the inability of politicians to budge on such a wide interpretation of the 2nd amendment has hamstrung the prospects of any significant crackdown.
At the same time too, we must also be realistic then even the greatest crackdown on weapons will not remove the devastating consequences of gun crime, various examples of this exist worldwide, but it can be restricted.
The fact that even such a modest proposal like this one would never get up is a real shame.
With just 96 days to go until the London 2012 Paralympics, it’s time to start taking a look at how some of the sports that are unique to a Paralympic Games are played. The first in this series is Wheelchair Rugby (Quad Rugby in the USA) also colloquially referred to in the biz as ‘Murderball’ because of the rough and vigorous nature of the game where injuries like broken digits are not uncommon.
The sport was also made famous with a documentary named Murderball made about the sport.
The current world number one team (as at 11 November, 2011) in the sport of Wheelchair Rugby is the United States of America, who are also the reigning Paralympic and world champions looking to defend their title and ranking in just a matter of months in London. They are closely followed by Australia in second place on the list and Japan in third, with Sweden and Canada rounding out the top 5 sides in the world.
Players must have a functional impairment of both the arms and legs to form a part of a team in the sport. The most common cohort in the game are those with spinal cord injuries, but people with multiple amputations and neurological disabilities like Cerebral Palsy also qualify to play.
Players are given a classification based on functional ability between 0.5 and 3.5 with the former being the higher end of physical impairment and 3.5 being the highest level of physical ability.
There can be up to 12 players in a team with 4 players on the court at any one time. These 4 players must have a combined classification total of no more than 8 points at any time.
THE PLAYING FIELD:
Murderball is played indoors on a basketball court. Instead of the basketball key area an 8 metre wide and 1.75 metre deep forms a goal area with cones marking the dimensions. The end line is the goal line.
The sport is played with a regulation size volleyball that must be 280 grams and white in colour.
THE RULES OF THE GAME:
Play starts in the back court of the player whose team is in possession of the ball. The player in possession of the ball must advance the ball into their opposition’s half within 12 seconds.
Players must pass or bounce the ball every 10 seconds in any manner necessary.
A team has a total of 40 seconds to score a point or must give up possession of the ball and the attacking team cannot be in the key area with the ball for more than 10 seconds without scoring.
The defensive team is not permitted to have any more than 3 players in the key defending their line at any one time.
In defending their line, the team can attack the player in any manner aside from attacking a player from behind or physically interfering with another person.
Defensive fouls are remedied with a 1 minute penalty and offensive fouls lead to a loss of possession.
The clock is stopped and possession reversed if the ball goes out of bounds.
When the player in possession of the ball has two wheels over the end line a goal has been scored.