Author

About the Author
Saina Behnejad is a international student from the UK at Florida State University. She is Co-Director of Amnesty International at FSU and Social Media Coordinator for The Florida Coalition to Keep Guns Off Campus. You can find her on Twitter @SainaBehnejad.

I’m From The UK And Spent My College Years Fighting The NRA To Keep Guns Off Campus. Here’s What I’ve Learned

I was born in Sweden and grew up in the United Kingdom, a part of the world that conservatives in America denounce for their “cradle to the grave” welfare policies while also being a place that liberals think of as a utopia.

Europeans look at America and are mystified by it’s enduring racism and strange gun laws, but are also drawn to the promise of the American dream.

I was drawn to it too.

In 2013, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida for university.

Unbeknown to me, I had stepped into a National Rifle Association (NRA) battleground state, which would ultimately set the course of the rest of my college career.

Before I stumbled onto the campus carry debate, I had no idea what the term meant. I didn’t pay much attention to Florida politics, so learning that lawmakers wanted to allow people with concealed carry permits to bring their firearms on to campus, with no restrictions, was bewildering.

Which is why I decided to join the Florida Coalition To Keep Guns Off Campus as their Director of Communications.

The UK has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. I’m a fan of those laws. They helped keep me safe.

But I’m not here to force them on my fellow students. I simply want international students like me to have a say when such a dangerous bill could impact us, because my college campus is my home.

Europeans find America’s gun obsession both fascinating and disturbing. We question how a country, a leader in the modern world, struggles with doing anything about their gun violence problem.

It’s an issue unique to the US, when even the majority of police officers in the UK don’t have access to a gun, unless they join a special armed police unit.

In a country of 70 million people, only 6,000 police officers are armed. And the strategy seems to work.

Which is why the concept of arming everyone in society is just absurd to me. Especially on a college campus, where controversial ideas are discussed, students are failed by professors, and alcohol and drugs are frequently used.

I know some proponents of campus carry personally, and in no way am I suggesting that they would harm anyone. On a whole, our political leanings don’t impact how we behave in our day-to-day lives.

But as students, in an environment that essentially promotes, to quote Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, “living young and wild and free” that is no place for a deadly weapon that can kill people.

To get into the nitty gritty of this, why do lawmakers, some constituents and even some students feel that the only way they’ll be safe is if they have a gun all the time?

Florida state capital complex. Photo Credit: Kristopher Volkman/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Florida state capital complex. Photo Credit: Kristopher Volkman/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

The NRA has peddled the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” theory to push the narrative that a gun will provide you security because everyone else has one.

And it turns into this never-ending cycle of everyone wanting a gun to protect themselves from each other. The problem is, a “good guy with a gun” only stops a “bad guy with a gun” 3 percent of the time.

But that doesn’t stop the gun lobby. They further push their message out there, grasping on to the national conversation on campus sexual assault, and attempt to use it to their advantage.

Their argument is that a woman should be able to defend herself with a gun on campus if she feels her life is threatened. On its face, that may sound reasonable. The problem is: facts and variables. Every assault is different, and proclaiming that a gun is the answer to all of them is simplistic and ignoring real solutions.

Every time there’s a mass shooting, America is again forced to confront its addiction to guns.

As gun control activists and gun rights proponents face off in the national arena of public opinion, the British watch on in a perplexed manner.

Seeing this over and over again, I’ve come to realize trying to apply a British ideology on guns in the US is useless.

Of course, the statistics speak for themselves, higher rates of gun ownership in the US does equal in higher rates of gun violence. Clearly there is a problem. But the Second Amendment has to make us Europeans take into account the cultural significance of firearms in the US, so we understand why they are so voraciously defended.

For many, the Constitution is their bible (apart from, you know, the Bible). Who am I to dismiss that so casually?

But even when I put that in my pile of things to think about over my morning tea, I also know that the majority of American voters do want more gun regulation.

Even the majority of NRA members want universal background checks. So what is holding the US back?

Again, it’s the gun lobby. The NRA has stopped representing their members, and instead represents gun manufacturers, and with their financial muscle, most politicians cower in their presence.

How does this relate to campus carry? Allowing guns on campus is the NRA’s new mission, and although the political will for it isn’t as readily available even in red states, their campaigns are slowly gaining ground.

In Florida, we’ve managed to beat it two years in a row, but next year is looking to be our toughest yet because the NRA will put this on the top of their priority list and they’ll pour their resources into the Sunshine State.

Marion Hammer, the NRA’s former president turned lobbyist, comes back every session with a determined glint in her eye that admittedly I find a little scary. She’s such an effective lobbyist that Florida is sometimes referred to as the Gunshine State.

One interesting part of this whole conversation has been the NRA’s and Students for Concealed Carry’s manipulation of data.

They’ve compared US and UK violent crime rates, using the numbers as a justification for campus carry, and guns everywhere in general.

It is a completely misleading comparison.

Yes, violent crime rates in the UK are higher per capita. But they forget to mention that the violent crime definitions in the two countries are very different. In the UK, the definition is “all crimes against the person”. This includes bicycle theft, all domestic violence offences, all sexual offences, all assault offences and many more. And even the definitions of those crimes are broader in the UK.

In the US, the FBI definition is much narrower; “violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.” So there is no real way to compare the rates.

Florida House Rep. Julio Gonzalez, (R) made a similar argument, citing a ‘study’, that I later found and read. Two Harvard students who were gun rights activists, not researchers, wrote it. On top of that, the paper was severely criticized by the Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Dr. David Hemenway.

How does the Florida Coalition To Keep Guns Off Campus, a group that just doesn’t have access to resources like the gun lobby, beat them again?

I’ll be honest, I’m concerned.

The logo for the National Rifle Association. Photo Credit: Bart/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

The logo for the National Rifle Association. Photo Credit: Bart/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Our continued efforts to combat their problematic ‘solution’ to sexual assault and mass shootings in an educational environment resonates with the majority of students, but will it resonate with legislators in 2017?

It’s certainly interesting that legislators are so ready to consider and pass guns on campus, when every university stakeholder that has spoken out has said they don’t want it. But a bill that would have allowed guns in legislative meetings hasn’t moved forward since last year. A little hypocritical, no? If Florida legislators really believe guns lead to greater safety, then they’d want to flood legislative chambers with them.

As of now, this issue isn’t going away.

Florida is on the NRA’s priority list. Students, staff and faculty need to pull together for the 2017 legislative session.

And what am I doing? I graduate this semester, so I get to go back to my cozy gun-free London, and watch this whole situation unfold from afar.

But now that I’ve gotten to know all these amazing people during our fight against these farcical bills, I know I’ll be somberly watching as they do it again without me.

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. You can write for us!

What Are The Panama Papers And Why Should Young People Care?

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about something called the Panama Papers in recent days.

That’s because on Sunday morning The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media organizations announced the largest data leak in the history of journalism.

The leak contained 2.6 terabytes of information with over 11.5 million files that identified corruption amongst some of the top political figures in the world. It’s larger than the Wikileaks leak in 2010 or what Edward Snowden brought to light in 2013.

Now, what is in the leak exactly?

Mossack Fonseca is a law firm which specializes in the creation of shell companies and offshore accounts. It’s where the rich stash their ill-gotten or legally obtained earnings from their governments. These accounts are completely legal and can be used to protect their assets from raids or simply for inheritance reasons and estate planning.

However, there are other common reasons for stashing money in a offshore company, such as money laundering, dodging sanctions, and avoiding taxes.

The firm is based out of Panama but runs a worldwide operation.

On their website they claim to have a global network with 600 people working in 42 countries. It has franchises around the world.

It operates in tax havens including Switzerland, Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man.

Mossack Fonseca has their fingers dipped in many questionable pies. From Africa’s diamond trade, the international art market, to dealing with Middle Eastern royals and Russian oligarchs.

Data. It's what's for dinner. Photo Credit: www.cwcs.co.uk/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Data. It will get ya bro. Photo Credit: www.cwcs.co.uk/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

The firm rejects that it has ever been involved with dirty money.

“Recent media reports have portrayed an inaccurate view of the services that we provide and, despite our efforts to correct the record, misrepresented the nature of our work and its role in global financial markets,” a statement on the Mossack Fonseca reads. “These reports rely on supposition and stereotypes, and play on the public’s lack of familiarity with the work of firms like ours.”

FIFA:

FIFA, the international football association, an organization often connected to corruption and scandal, is also featured.

The leaked documents allegedly show that FIFA ethics committee member Juan Pedro Damiani, a Uruguayan lawyer, had business links with three men who have been indicted by U.S. officials on corruption charges: former FIFA vice president Eugenio Figueredo and father and son Hugo and Mariano Jinkis.

The latter two were convicted of paying bribes to obtain broadcast rights for soccer matches in South America. Documents show that Damiani’s law firm represented a company registered to Jinkis and seven others registered to Figueredo in a tax haven.

World Leaders: 

Interestingly, the British government has been especially vocal against offshore companies in recent years, but Prime Minister David Cameron hasn’t come out of this squeaky clean. His late father is one of the names revealed in the leak.

It is not yet clear, if Cameron himself has financially gained from off shore accounts.

According to some of the reporting in the aftermath of the leak, Mossack Fonseca has helped Russian President Vladimir Putin hide $2 billion, setting up offshore banks under the name of two of his close acquaintances.

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned Tuesday after a large public outcry from the Panama Papers. Photo Credit: Control Arms/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned Tuesday after a large public outcry after he was named in the Panama Papers. Photo Credit: Control Arms/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

The now former Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, has also been implicated and was facing calls for his resignation as the public’s confidence in his leadership had been shattered.

He resigned on Tuesday, and is the first political casualty. Also listed are Iceland’s minister of finance, Bjarni Benediktsson, and Iceland’s Interior Minister, Olof Nordal.

China’s leaders have relatives who are named in the leak, propelling the government to limit local access to western media coverage of the leak and accusing them of being biased.

In a further twist, documents show Mossack Fonseca’s links to Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of the Syrian president, even though Washington imposed sanctions Makhlouf in 2008.

Though the firm is under no obligation to comply with US sanctions, it was legally bound to react to EU measures in 2011. It took until September of that year for the firm to finally resign from Makhlouf’s companies. By that time, Syria was in the middle of a genocidal civil war.

Other world leaders in the leak include Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister; Ayad Allawi, ex-interim prime minister and former vice-president of Iraq; Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine; and Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt’s former president, just to name a few.

The list of questionable characters goes on, although it gets worse. It includes Ponzi schemers, drug kingpins, tax evaders, dictators and at least one jailed sex offender.

And that’s when it becomes unbearable. The sex offender was a U.S. businessman traveling to Russia to have sex with underage orphans. He signed papers for an offshore company while he was serving his prison sentence in New Jersey.

It’s notable that Mossack Fonseca is the fourth biggest provider of offshore services, meaning that if this much information is coming from this company, larger law firms with these same services must have shocking anonymous beneficiaries.

In reply to ICIJ questions about their methods, Mossack Fonseca said that backdating of documents “is a well-founded and accepted practice” that is “common in our industry and its aim is not to cover up or hide unlawful acts.” The company is extremely protective of their clients’ privacy.

Honestly, should we be surprised by this leak?

The exposé once again emphasizes the need for world financial reform. It shows that not only is the global tax system broken, but with so many world leaders involved, global governance itself is fractured too.

Due to this leak the ability of the super rich to hide their money may be made more difficult. But if government officials themselves are doing this, how are we meant to expect them to do anything about tax havens?

The storm may be about to arrive in the United States as well.

A reporter from the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung responded to tweets about the lack of names from the United States, by saying “Just wait for what’s coming.”

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. You can write for us!

Cover Photo Credit: Jon Gosier/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

So What Is Bill Cosby Exactly Being Charged With?

The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, based just outside of Philadelphia, PA announced this morning that they are charging famed comedian Bill Cosby with aggravated indecent assault, a first-degree felony, in a 2004 sexual assault case.

This is the first criminal case against Cosby regarding his behavior toward women, which has gotten renewed scrutiny in the past year.

The case could be the biggest Hollywood celebrity trial in the social media era, and could possibly send the 78-year-old comic to prison.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman overrode the decision of the previous DA, Bruce L Castor Jr, who decided not to charge Cosby in 2005.

A Temple University employee, Andrea Constand, met him though the women’s basketball team at the university, where he was a trustee. She told police that the comic drugged and assaulted her. Contand settled a civil case with Cosby in 2005 out of court.

Pennsylvania law has a 12-year statute of limitations for felony sexual assault, which this case reaches next month.

Castor, the previous District Attorney, was sued by Constand for declining to file charges against Cosby, arguing that he defamed her by attacking her credibility.

Cosby has maintained that the sex was consensual.

Cosby created and starred in the well-known 1980s sitcom the Cosby Show, considered groundbreaking television as it depicted a loving black family, headed by two well-educated parents. He maintained a fatherly figure off-screen, often scolding young people to “pull their saggy pants up and act responsibly.”

In recent years, over 50 women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against the comedian. The women’s stories are similar, them claiming he drugged and assaulted them, but they only began to receive attention in late 2014 after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby as a hypocrite and called him a rapist during a standup routine.

Cover Photo Credit: The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Congress Sneakily Passes Provision To Discriminate Against Iranians, Sudanese And Others

The visa waiver program has undergone major changes in the US after Congress quietly passed a controversial provision that was included in an unrelated massive bill, triggering protests from civil liberties groups, minority groups and the European Union.

The legislation was tucked away in the massive omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, and it received bi-partisan support, a rarity in this Congress. President Obama signed it into law on Friday.

However, it didn’t go through without criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has slammed the legislation in a letter, saying it is not only “discriminatory, it is arbitrary.”

The new law means that dual nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan who are also a citizen of a country participating in the Visa Waiver Program are required to go to a consulate interview overseas to obtain a visa before travelling to the US for 90 days. It also means that an individual who has traveled to those countries in the last five years has to get a visa.

“This is discriminatory. It is not based on individuals’ decisions, but on parentage,” Abdi told Rise News. “It’s taking us down a dangerous path, setting a precedent that you will be treated differently because of your dual nationality.”

The changes gained traction soon after the Paris attacks, and even more so after the December 2nd shooting in San Bernardino which killed 14 people.

Syed Farook was a US citizen raised in a Pakistani household. His wife came to the US on a K1 fiancée visa granted by the US Embassy in Pakistan after clearing a background check. This was not under the Visa Waiver Program, and critics say the new law doesn’t target real threats.

Iranian dual nationals, some of the most vocal in opposition to the legislation, ask why Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are not included in the list of countries the legislation has zeroed in on.

Read More: Kim Badawi-The Stories Behind The Lens

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), is strongly opposed to the legislation. Jamal Abdi, the director of NIAC Action, said the legislation could place Iranian Americans “In a separate category to their fellow citizens.”

He expressed his concern on what the EU response will be, as the Visa Waiver Program is reciprocity. The EU will be reviewing the program in April.

“This is discriminatory. It is not based on individuals’ decisions, but on parentage,” Abdi told RISE NEWS. “It’s taking us down a dangerous path, setting a precedent that you will be treated differently because of your dual nationality.”

Under Iranian law, a child born to an Iranian citizen father is automatically an Iranian citizen, whether they are born there or not. This is the same for all four countries deemed as dangerous in the legislation. Renouncing citizenship is also a long and complicated process, according to critics.

The legislation has also angered European diplomats, and 29 European Union ambassadors, representing member states and the EU itself, signed an editorial directed at US lawmakers, arguing against the changes.

The diplomats warned this new regulation represented “the de facto introduction of a visa regime in all but name”.

They added in the letter:, “such indiscriminate action against the more than 13 million European citizens who travel to the US each year would be counterproductive, could trigger legally mandated reciprocal measures, and would do nothing to increase security while instead hurting economies on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The legislation also would not differentiate between those that travel to these countries for business, humanitarian efforts or familial reasons.

Thus it means that journalists and aid workers will be penalized while foreign fighters could just lie about having travelled there, as accessing if someone has travelled to Iraq or Syria is difficult because their borders are insecure.

There are also concerns that the new legislation could violate the Iran nuclear deal, or that this is even an attempt to undermine it.

Senior Obama administration officials have expressed concerns.

Stephen Mull, the State Department official in charge of implementing the deal had warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late last week that this “could have a very negative impact on the deal.”

Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, said the changes “are aimed at harassment” and that they “blatantly violate the nuclear agreement” according to comments carried by the Iranian state-controlled press.

A portion of the Iran nuclear deal dictates that the US can not take any action that could harm Iran’s economic relationship with other countries, and since the legislations mandates that any travel to Iran for citizens in the 38 countries participating in the visa waiver program would have to obtain a visa to enter the US, there are concerns this could make businesses reluctant to travel to Iran.

Iranian officials maintain that these new restrictions violate this part of the deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry reached out to his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, to calm the stormy waters in a December 19th letter.

He stated that the US will find ways to make sure that changes to the visa waiver program will not interfere with “legitimate business interests.”

Kerry also assured Zarif that the U.S. government “remain[s] fully committed to the sanctions lifting provided for under the JCPOA.”

The head of Iran’s tourism body, Morteza Rahmani-Movahed, said Tehran would lodge a complaint to the U.N.’s tourism body, the World Tourism Organization. He told a press conference Sunday that some of the 38 VWP countries were Iranian “tourism targets.”

However, according to Fox News, Republicans have responded badly to the suggestion that they are “bending over backwards to placate the Iranian regime.”

The NIAC has committed to continuing to the fight the changes, saying on their website that they are in discussions with members of Congress “to take legislative action early next year.”

Have a news tip? Send it to editor@risenews.net. Like to write? You can become a RISE NEWS contributor.  

 Cover Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Daniel Holtzclaw Targeted Black Women Because He Thought No One Would Believe Them

Ex-police officer Daniel Holtzclaw sobbed while a judge read him the guilty verdict handed down by a Oklahoma City jury on 18 of the 36 charges for assaulting at least 13 black women.

He was found guilty Thursday of six counts of sexual battery, three counts of lewd exhibition, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of rape in the first degree, and one count of rape in the second degree. He will be sentenced next month.

The verdict came after four days of deliberation by an all white jury. Their task was not only to decide on a verdict, but in case of a guilty verdict, they were also to recommend a sentence. They’ve recommended 263 years.

Some survivors and their attorneys held an emotional press conference today in response to the verdict.

One of the survivors, Jannie Lygons said she was pulled over for no reason, and Holtzclaw forced her to give him oral sex.

“I was violated in June by a police officer,” Lygons said. “He did things to me I didn’t think a police officer would do.” She said she thought he was going to kill her.

Sade Hill, another survivor added her voice, “I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was in survivor mode, so I had to do what he was making me do.”

It’s evident that Holtzclaw used his status as a police officer to coerce and intimidate his victims.

He targeted women he didn’t think the system would believe or protect. By focusing on poor black women with criminal records who didn’t trust the police, Holtzclaw avoided getting caught.

Black women carry the added fear of sexual violence from law enforcement. This is something that is seldom included in police misconduct narratives.

“Not only is this individual stopping women who fit a profile of members of our society who are confronted rightly or wrongly by police officers all the time,” said the Oklahoma County prosecutor, Gayland Gieger. “He identifies a vulnerable society that without exception except one have an attitude for ‘What good is it gonna do? He’s a police officer. Who’s going to believe me?’”

Watch: Daniel Holtzclaw verdict reading

The make up of the jury was criticized by the Oklahoma City National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the trial. African Americans make up 16 percent of Oklahoma County’s population, but were no black people among the eight men and four women on the jury.

There is an undeniable element of race in the crimes themselves. The fear of being targeted by police is legitimate and prevalent in the black community. However discussions of police brutality are often based on abuse likely to happen to both sexes. Black women carry the added fear of sexual violence from law enforcement. This is something that is seldom included in police misconduct narratives.

Moreover, while there is certainly the reality of offending officers often not facing justice, research shows that sexual assault convictions are rare. In the cases of white men against black women, convictions are essentially non-existent.

The Black Lives Matter movement focuses on police misconduct. They’ve managed to bring race and police brutality to the national stage. But there is an aspect missing to that conversation.

Rape culture is a theory that is still often scoffed at, but it is a valid one.

Discussion on certain environments that may normalize or facilitate rape is needed, especially within the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations on police violence.

Cover Photo Credit: US Uncut/ Youtube (Screengrab)

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