Plumbing the depths of artificial stupidity

The Foreign Agent Registration Act is having a moment – in fact its best year since 1939, as the Justice Department charges three people with spying on Twitter users for Saudi Arabia. Since they were clearly acting like spies but not stealing government secrets or company intellectual property, FARA seems to be the only law that they could be charged with violating. Nate Jones and I debate whether the Justice Department can make the charges stick.

Nick Weaver goes off on NSO Group for its failure to supervise the way its customers intrude on cell phone contents. I’m less sure that NSO deserves its bad rap, and I wonder whether WhatsApp should have compromised what looks like 1100 legitimate law enforcement investigations because it questions 100 other investigatons using NSO malware.

Speaking of Facebook’s judgment, Paul Rosenzweig and I turn out to be surprisingly sympathetic to the company’s stand on political ads and whether “Mama Facebook” should decide their truthfulness. Meanwhile, Twitter, darling of the press, has gotten away with a no-political-ads stance that is at least as problematical.

Nate, Paul, and I go pretty far down the rabbit hole arguing whether search warrants should give police access to DNA databases.

The National Security Commission on Artificial intelligence has published its interim report, and Nick, Nate, and I can’t really quarrel with its contents, except to complain that it doesn’t break a lot of new ground.

And maybe all this AI is still a little overrated. Remember that AI fake news text generator that OpenAI claimed was “too dangerous to release”? Well it’s been released, and it turns out to be bone stupid. We test it live, and the tool has a long way to go before it can scratch its way up to “underwhelming.”

Nick tells us why nobody who ever worked with the US government should even change planes in Russia these days.

In the lightning round, Paul and I ask when blowing off Congress became a thing anybody could do. Nick dumps on both sides in the Great DOH debate. I note that Ted Cruz has called out USTR for sticking Section 230 into trade deals.

We close with This Week in Pew! Pew! Pew! It really is the 21st century now that we’re using lasers to attack talking computers. Nick explains how to order fifty copies of Skating on Stilts using your neighbor’s Amazon account and a laser.

Download the 287th Episode (mp3).

You can subscribe to The Cyberlaw Podcast using iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts, or our RSS feed!

As always, The Cyberlaw Podcast is open to feedback. Be sure to engage with @stewartbaker on Twitter. Send your questions, comments, and suggestions for topics or interviewees to CyberlawPodcast@steptoe.com. Remember: If your suggested guest appears on the show, we will send you a highly coveted Cyberlaw Podcast mug!

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not reflect the opinions of the participants’ firms, clients, or relatives.

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Democrats Can’t Quit Fantasizing About What They’d Do to Billionaires

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) tells Amy Goodman that “Markets without rules are theft.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) tweets that “billionaires should not exist.” The conversation gets people so excited that soon former cabinet secretaries are tweeting that there are no honest ways to accumulate a billion dollars, commentators are warning that “these fortunes will destroy our democracy,” and The New York Times is publishing entire news articles taking at face value the numerical fantasies of Warren’s economic advisers.

It was just another week in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, in other words, albeit with one main exception—the race saw the entrance of a brand new (though also old) billionaire! All of which gets a thorough round of yakking from Nick Gillespie, Peter Suderman, Matt Welch, and Katherine Mangu-Ward on today’s Reason Roundtable podcast. The gang also talks about the latest impeachment dramedy, the best arguments in favor of capitalism, and the life well lived of the late libertarian philanthropist and financial-markets investor Don Smith.

Audio production by Ian Keyser and Regan Taylor.

‘Amazing Plan—Distressed’ by Kevin Macleod is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Relevant links from the show:

The Reason Podcast Is Now 3 Great New Podcasts. Subscribe!” by Katherine Mangu-Ward

Democratic Wealth Tax Proposals Demonstrate Economic Ignorance,” by Veronique de Rugy

Elizabeth Warren Wants To Raise Taxes by $26 Trillion,” by Peter Suderman

Elizabeth Warren’s ‘Wealth Tax’ Is Punishment, Not Taxation,” by Ira Stoll

Leftist Tax Schemes Bash the Rich, but Depend on Their Success,” by Steven Greenhut

Warren’s Presidential Bid Aims to Blame ‘the Rich’ for America’s Problems,” by Ira Stoll

Are Billionaires a Policy Failure?” by Matt Welch

Are Billionaires Immoral? Democrats Are Staking Out Aggressive Anti-Wealth Platforms Ahead of 2020,” by Ira Stoll

Michael Bloomberg’s Centrism Combines the Worst Instincts of the Right and Left,” by Jacob Sullum

Michael Bloomberg’s Chances of Becoming President: Slim, None, and Fat,” by Matt Welch

Reason.tv: Investor Don Smith on the Economy,” by Nick Gillespie

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In Hong Kong, Police Shot a Man While Protesters Set Another on Fire

Two Hongkongers were sent to the hospital in critical condition Monday following separate violent incidents. In one, police shot a protester at close range. In the other, protesters doused a Beijing sympathizer in gasoline and set him on fire.

Many Hongkongers are still mourning the Friday death of a 22-year-old student protester, Chow Tsz-lok, who had been hospitalized following a police encounter. The protests, now in their sixth month, have been mostly peaceful (with some notable exceptions); that’s less true of the police response. Today’s events mark a notable shift: The violence was particularly severe, it occurred during the daytime, and it spilled over into the business district, with tear gas harming those who have not taken part in protests.

Video footage of the shooting, which took place in Sai Wan Ho neighborhood, shows a police officer grabbing one black-clad protester while a second approaches the cop. The officer fired at the approaching protester, identified as 21-year-old Patrick Chow, who clutched his stomach and immediately fell to the ground. Chow remains in critical condition, according to the Hospital Authority.

That marks the third time police have fired live rounds at protesters. In early October, police shot an 18-year-old student protester named Tsang Chi-kin. Several days later, police shot a 14-year-old protester in the leg. Both survived their injuries.

Video footage of the burn victim shows a lengthy altercation between a group of Hong Kong supporters and what appears to be a single Beijing sympathizer. It escalated when a protester douses the lone Beijing supporter with gasoline and lights him on fire. The Beijing sympathizer is also in critical condition.

A third video from today shows a police officer on a motorcycle attempting to ram his vehicle into crowds of protesters. John Tse, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Police Force, says that the officer has been placed on leave and that he was just trying to separate protesters from police.

Hong Kong’s police force has been under scrutiny for use of excessive force against protesters, especially misuse of tear gas, which has been fired near public housing and into enclosed spaces, such as subway stations.

As a result of the violence, several universities have canceled classes; medics have treated several commuters who were exposed to tear gas.

The protests initially centered around a now-revoked extradition treaty proposed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The bill would have allowed Hongkongers to be extradited to Taiwan and mainland China, where the criminal justice system is arbitrary and harsh—a far cry from the due process protections that Hongkongers currently enjoy. Though Hong Kong is technically part of China, the territory operates under a “one country, two systems” policy that allows its citizens free speech, a free press, and the ability to elect some of their representatives. The policy is set to remain in place until 2047, at which point the city will be fully absorbed by the mainland. Many Hongkongers are worried that the Communist Party of China is prematurely encroaching on their rights.

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Australian Police Willing To Leer At As Many Naked Teen Bodies As It Takes To Stop Drug Overdoses

Australia’s war on drugs has led to the repulsive but perhaps inevitable spectacle of cops leering at the bodies of girls as young as 12.

Data released last week about police tactics in New South Wales, provided in response to a records request by the Redfern Legal Centre, show that law enforcement’s obsession with stamping out drug use at outdoor festivals has produced a twentyfold increase in strip searches over the course of a decade. They have increased by nearly 50 percent in the last four years. And most of the time, the cops are finding nothing.

According to the date, nearly two-thirds of the 5,400 strip searches performed by New South Wales police from 2017 to 2018 found absolutely nothing. In the past three years, more than 600 people under 18 were subjected to police strip searches. Three of them were 12 years old. Seven were 13.

More than 90 percent of these strip searches stemmed from suspicion of illegal drug possession. The New York Times and The Guardian both report that festivals in New South Wales are now thick with police and their dogs sniffing around for drugs—and, apparently, for reasons to look inside young people’s underwear.

The Guardian details the story of one 19-year-old man’s strip search. It’ll sound familiar to anybody who has experienced or read about America’s sorry handling of people who police suspect of getting high‚and about our overdependence on the flawed noses of drug-sniffing dogs:

“I knew I didn’t have anything on me, no drugs or anything, so it was no problem,” [Camille Elies] says.

“But then the dog started sniffing around the car and she started saying ‘you look a bit nervous mate, you look nervous, if you have drugs on you then you might as well tell me now or I’ll take you to the strip-search tent and we’ll find them that way.'”

Elies says the officer started recording him using her body-worn camera. While he continued to deny he had any drugs, she continued to press him on why he looked “nervous”.

“I said, ‘because you are interrogating me and you have the dog there.’ She was being so rude about it as if I had done something wrong already,” he says.

Elies was eventually strip searched in a makeshift tent. Two male officers instructed him to lift his shirt, drop his pants and hold on to his genitals while they “walked around” him.

“I was a bit shook up,” he says. “I don’t know. I just, yeah, I was shook up by it to be honest.”

These intrusive searches are supposed to be justified by a recent increase in deaths by festival attendees who had taken MDMA. New South Wales has seen six such deaths in the past year, as opposed to 12 in the entire prior decade. But there are other, better methods of dealing with overdose deaths. New South Wales’ deputy coroner, Harriet Grahame, argues that the police presence actually increases, not decreases, the likelihood that somebody will get hurt. She’d rather introduce pill testing at these outdoor festivals so that people can check to make sure their MDMA is safe. After all, overdose deaths frequently happen not because people have taken too many pills, but because they aren’t aware that the pills have been adulterated, often with fentanyl, or because the drugs are much more powerful than they realize. Drug-testing stations would help users make sure they’re not taking something that will kill them.

Unfortunately, many public officials are standing fast. Here’s how New South Wales’s police minister, David Elliott, defends the police practice of leering at teens’ naked bodies:

I’ve got young children, and if I thought that the police felt that they were at risk of doing something wrong, I’d want them strip-searched.

One wonders what his children think about that.

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Radical Activists Hijacked Donald Trump Jr.’s Talk at UCLA. But They Weren’t Leftists.

Donald Trump Jr. spoke at the University of California, Los Angeles, yesterday to promote his new book, Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.

An ideological group of hateful silencers did indeed interrupt the proceedings, forcing Trump to cut short the Q&A period. But these were not intolerant, triggered leftists. They were far-right activists.

This is a reality that a more mainstream conservatism must take seriously. While criticism of the campus left is often justified—I’ve penned two articles on the subject just today—for too long the right has treated alt-right-adjacent trolling as trivial or insignificant when compared with progressive activism.

The irony of Trump Jr. promoting a book about leftist shutdown culture and instead finding himself interrupted by the right was not lost on the media outlets who covered the incident. Trump Jr. even challenged his audience to “name a time when conservatives have disrupted even the furthest leftist on a college campus.

“It doesn’t happen that way,” he insisted. “We’re willing to listen.”

Well, it depends who the “we” is. Indeed, a number of conservative campus events in recent days have been targeted by supporters of Nick Fuentes, a 21-year-old YouTuber and far-right gadfly. Fuentes describes his views as nationalist and “America First,” though he has a long history of making racist and anti-Semitic statements. His movement has recently hijacked events featuring Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R–Tex.) and folks in the Daily Wire orbit over their support for Israel and their refusal to avow that the U.S. should remain a culturally “European”—i.e., white—nation. Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro recently inveighed against this movement in his remarks at Stanford University, and was right to do so.

Trump’s talk was sponsored the young conservative group Turning Point USA, which has raised the Fuentes gang’s ire for being too moderate on social issues. At a recent TUPUSA event at Ohio State University, a Fuentes activist asked Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk and Rob Smith, “How does anal sex help us win the culture war?” The only point of this bizarre non sequitir was to shame Kirk for featuring Smith—a gay, black conservative—in his campus tour. Kirk and Smith justly mocked the questioner.

It’s great to see conservatives denouncing this racist, anti-gay, white identitarian nonsense. When the right inveighs against progressive censorship and intolerance, it really needs to stress that this is a serious problem on its radical flank as well. Far-Right Trolls Sabotage Event might not generate as many clicks in the conservative media environment as Triggered Left Wants to Silence You, but it is no less important to say.

For more on this subject, check out my book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.

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Dallas Transit Agency Pays $345,000 to Settle Lawsuit by Photographer Arrested for Taking Pictures

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) will pay freelance photographer Avi Adelman $345,000 to settle the lawsuit he filed after he was illegally arrested in 2016 for taking pictures at a train station. The settlement follows a federal appeals court’s September 20 ruling rejecting a qualified immunity claim by Stephanie Branch, the DART police officer who arrested Adelman for trespassing and then repeatedly lied about the incident.

Adelman had been photographing paramedics as they treated a man who had overdosed on a synthetic marijuana substitute. He spent a day in jail, but the charge against him was dropped a week later. An internal investigation found that Branch had arrested Adelman without probable cause and in violation of DART’s photography policy. The report also said Branch had made 23 “false or inaccurate statements” about the circumstances of Adelman’s arrest, including her claim that he was standing too close to the paramedics, who supposedly wanted him to step back. She was suspended for three days as a result of the investigation.

A federal judge ruled that Branch was entitled to qualified immunity against Adelman’s claim that she had violated his First Amendment rights, because case law in the 5th Circuit had not clearly established the right to take photographs of first responders in public places at the time of his arrest. But the court allowed Adelman to proceed with a claim that his unlawful arrest violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable seizures. Branch asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to reverse that decision.

The appeals court ruled that Branch was not entitled to qualified immunity against Adelman’s Fourth Amendment claim. “No reasonable officer under these circumstances would conclude that she had authority to eject a person complying with DART policies from public property—and then arrest that person for criminal trespass when he failed to depart,” the court said.

A DART policy established in June 2014 allowed people to take pictures at its stations as long as they do not “interfere with transportation or public safety activity.” The 5th Circuit pointedly rejected Branch’s excuse that she was not familiar with that policy, which was adopted while she was on sick leave. “Branch’s mistake was not reasonable,” the court said in a footnote. “She didn’t misinterpret an unclear policy or law; she simply failed to learn about DART’s updated policy. And ‘an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws [s]he is duty-bound to enforce.'”

A DART audio recording of the incident that led to Adelman’s arrest showed that everyone else at the scene recognized that Branch was out of line. “He was just taking pictures, right?” one paramedic said. “Why is she going crazy?” Elmar Lee Cannon, one of Branch’s fellow DART officers, replied: “I don’t know. That’s going to be on her. He can take all the pictures he wants. That’s why I’m not getting involved in that.” Another paramedic concurred, saying, “I don’t know where that idea [that Ademan had committed a crime] came from…because there is freedom of the press.”

Adelman, a longtime defender of the right to record public events, created an educational program on the subject for police officers. In settling the lawsuit, DART rejected his request that it post its photography policy on its website. “Many transit agencies around the country post their photography in public policies on their websites,” Adelman notes in a press release, including systems in Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Orleans, Houston, and San Francisco. He says he will donate $2,500 from his settlement to the National Press Photographers Association for legal advocacy and another $2,500 to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“I was arrested—and spent a day in jail—on a bogus ‘throw-down’ charge of criminal trespass for one reason only: to stop me from taking photographs of paramedics treating a patient in public view on public property, which is a lawful activity,” Adelman says. “The subjective personal opinions of [law enforcement] personnel should never be allowed to interfere with lawful and protected First Amendment activities. I will work with, and support, First Amendment advocacy groups to make sure arrests like this never happen again, and to defend the photographer vigorously when it does happen.”

I called DART’s media relations department to ask about the source of the funds for its $345,000 settlement payment. I will update this post if and when I get a response, but I suspect the money will come either from DART’s budget or from a liability insurance policy. Either way, Branch herself is not on the hook, which illustrates a point made by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz. Schwartz investigated the practices of 81 law enforcement agencies and found that “police officers are virtually always indemnified” in civil rights cases. During the period she studied, “governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”

That practice weakens the deterrent effect of lawsuits like this one, even if they overcome the obstacles created by the misbegotten qualified immunity doctrine. At the same time, the routine indemnification of police officers who violate people’s constitutional rights refutes a claim often made by the doctrine’s defenders, who worry that the threat of personal liability will have a chilling effect on legitimate policing.

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Student Government Votes to Support Activists Who Think The Harvard Crimson Shouldn’t Even Quote ICE in Stories

Harvard’s student government, the Undergraduate Council, has voted to support Act on a Dream, an activist student group calling for a boycott of The Harvard Crimson.

The council’s statement does not specifically endorse the boycott. But it does express solidarity with Act on a Dream, whose members want the student newspaper to apologize for seeking comment from representatives of U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement in articles.

As I noted in my previous coverage of this kerfuffle, seeking comment from relevant parties is standard journalistic practice and ought to be commended. Instead, the activists have somehow convinced themselves that when The Crimson talks to ICE, it makes the campus less safe for undocumented immigrants.

“In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off, regardless of how they are contacted,” the activist group’s leaders wrote in their petition.

This concern is silly, and none of the activists have offered any evidence it is legitimate.

And yet yesterday the council voted 15–13–4 to pass a statement in support of this unfounded fear.

“It is necessary for the Undergraduate Council to acknowledge the concerns raised by numerous groups and students on campus over the past few weeks and to recognize the validity of their expressed fear and feelings of unsafety,” the statement said.

The Crimson‘s own coverage of the vote points out that several campus groups, including both Act on a Dream and Harvard’s chapter of the College Democrats, are refusing to speak to the paper until it bows to the demands. Time and time again ,sources of institutional authority at Harvard have not simply failed to rebuke unreasonable demands from the campus’s progressive sect but have actively sided with them.

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Is Someone of Recent Gibraltarian Origin “Hispanic?”

Lagrua v. Ward, 136 Misc. 655 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1987) involved a New York police officer who, to benefit from an affirmative action program, sought to change his ethnic classification with the police department from white to Hispanic. To substantiate his claim of Hispanic identity, Lagrua claimed that his mother was born in Gibraltar and that his maternal grandparents were of Hispanic origin. He also claimed that he had joined the Police Department’s Hispanic Organization. The officer in charge of such things could not substantiate that Lagrua had ever been a member of the Hispanic Society. Moreover, though originally part of Spain, “Gibraltar is and has been under British rule since 1718; the culture there is mixed, the official language is English and the law is based on English Common law. Although Spanish is widely spoken the Gibraltarian way of life is predominantly British.” The department therefore determined that Lagrua was not Hispanic, a conclusion accepted by the police department’s equal opportunity office. On appeal to the New York State Supreme Court, the court concluded that this decision was not erroneous, and therefore ruled that Lagrua would remain classified as white.

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At D.C. Rally, Activists Want Trump to Know That They Vape and They Vote

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Several thousand activists gathered Saturday on the National Mall to voice their opposition to a federal ban on flavored nicotine vaping products. The ban, they say, will be lethal for the vaping industry, and for millions of ex-smokers who have relied on these products to quit cigarettes.

The crowd was blanketed by a heavy fog of fragrant-smelling vape clouds, but the message was crystal clear: If President Donald Trump continues with his plans for a flavor ban, he risks alienating a large, motivated bloc of single-issue voters who might otherwise be in his camp.

“We have an audience, in the short term, of one,” says Greg Conley, executive director of the United Vapers Alliance, which organized the rally. “Thousands of consumers and small business owners [have] made it very loud and clear that if [Trump] allowed this to go through, it could cost him reelection in 2020.”

In September, prompted partly by a rise in teen vaping and partly by the spread of a fatal vaping-related lung disease, Trump announced that the federal government would ban most flavored nicotine vaping products and push forward the deadline for when vaping products are required to get FDA approval from 2022 to May 2020. Last Friday, the president also said that he would raise the age required to buy vaping products to 21.

But those laws are unlikely to stop the problems they are supposed to solve. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published last week, has given yet more support to the theory that the vaping-related lung disease is caused by a vitamin E acetate found in illicit THC vaping cartridges, not the flavored nicotine products that would be subject to Trump’s ban.

For many at Saturday’s rally, Trump’s prohibitionist impulse is a stab in the back from a president they were counting on to take a deregulatory approach to their industry.

“I voted for Trump on the promise that he going to go in and undo regulations [and] allow small businesses to flourish,” Matthew Kleizo, the owner of several Florida vape stores, told Reason. The president’s support for a flavor ban, he warned, “will come back to bite him.”

James Howard, who owns two stores with his wife in Colorado Springs, expressed a similar sentiment. “I’m a right-leaning independent. I support Trump. I 100 percent do not support this at all. This is not a conservative tactic,” he said Saturday.

On a sound stage, speakers talked of being disappointed and even betrayed by Trump and his flavor ban, which they considered arbitrary and “un-American.” In the crowd, store owners and others held signs that said, “We Vape, We Vote.” A flavor ban, they warned, would be fatal to an industry that The Washington Post as recently as September dubbed “a miraculous small-business success story.”

Analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Post found that the number of tobacconists (a category that includes vape shops) had grown over 100 percent in the last decade, far faster than other retail. The number of people employed by these tobacconists had grown at a similar rate. Two-thirds of vape-shop workers are employed by businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

A study from the Vapor Technology Association (VTA), a trade association, found that the industry has created, either directly or indirectly, some 166,007 jobs.

For others, the issue of a flavor ban was more personal. Flavored nicotine vaping products had been essential in helping them quitting smoking. A ban, they said, might prevent others from doing the same, or even encourage some vapers go back to cigarettes.

Lots of attendees at the rally sported Mad Libs–style T-shirts on which they filled out their name, the number of years they smoked, and the flavor that helped them quit.

A group of thirtysomethings from North Carolina told Reason that they couldn’t have quit without flavors, listing candy cane, apple butter toast, and “Propaganda Illuminati” (apparently a fruity flavor) as the ones that helped them the most.

“This is not a lifestyle, it’s life or death,” said one speaker from the stage. She asked if anyone in the crowd had lost a loved one to a smoking-related illness. Almost everyone had.

The individual anecdotes are backed up by the data, says Sally Satel, an addiction psychiatrist at the American Enterprise Institute who attended Saturday’s rally.

“When flavors are threatened or aren’t available, they’ll return to smoking or they’ll go to a black market vape in that situation,” said Satel. “We’ve already seen what black market THC does. We’re setting ourselves up for the same situation.”

In January, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found those who used nicotine vaping products to quit smoking cigarettes were twice as likely to be smoke-free a year later, compared to those who used other cessation devices, such as nicotine gum or patches.

In addition to Saturday’s rally, the VTA has run anti-flavor-ban digital ads around Trump campaign events and television ads on Fox News, all in an effort to reach the president.

“I think [Trump] is reachable. I think that once they sit down and really think through this, they’re going to realize a flavor ban is not the right way to go for public health, and certainly not the right way to go for the economy,” says Tony Abboud, executive director of the VTA.

Only time will tell how successful vapers’ activism will be in staving off the pending ban. Even if the administration were to put a freeze on a flavor ban, the requirement that all nicotine vaping products receive FDA approval—which can cost as much as $500,000—will still kill off much of the industry.

This morning, Trump announced via Twitter that he would be meeting with vaping industry representatives and public health officials.

At the very least, Saturday’s rally demonstrated that there is a whole industry and a whole community who want the government to leave them alone, and who are willing to travel to the capital from across the country to say so.

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Biker Gang Leader’s DIY Guns Are Part of a Predictable Prohibition Story

As a convicted felon, Bruce Sartwell isn’t legally allowed to own firearms. But the regional president of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club obviously isn’t the kind of guy who cares about what he’s legally allowed to do; when he was arrested in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, he was found to be in possession of a rifle he’d made himself, as well as unregistered “silencers” (sound suppressors), parts, and the equipment needed to manufacture more weapons.

The story of a criminal making guns that he needs for his “trade” is all very predictable if you’ve been paying attention to events around the world. It also casts further doubt on the claims of gun control advocates that their favored restrictions will make the country safer.

According to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

On Oct. 30, 2019, a search warrant executed at Sartwell’s residence resulted in the recovery of an AR-15 styled ‘ghost gun’ – a firearm without any manufacturing or serial numbers – and firearm manufacturing tools and assembly parts including milling equipment, buffer spring, buffer tube, air-powered water dremel polish and a drill press. Two firearm silencers concealed in false bottom compartments, a guide for assembly and disassembly of an AR-15 rifle, 20 knives, a black powder handgun, a flare gun, and various ammunition compatible with the AR-15 styled rifle were also found. In the basement of the house, a floor-length mirror concealed the entrance to a hidden storage area that was found to contain a safe with silencer parts and a firearm assembly instruction book.

The “up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000” that Sartwell faces applies to possession of unregistered sound suppressors, but could also indicate that the rifle he made is fully automatic and therefore subject to (rather silly) special rules and penalties. After all, if you’re a professional criminal and you’ve committed to off-the-books firearms manufacturing, the sky is the limit.

That’s certainly been the case in Australia, whose relatively restrictive gun laws make many American political hopefuls swoon over dreams of licensing and confiscation. There, motorcycle gangs have evolved into sophisticated crime syndicates, and they’ve taken to manufacturing their own weapons. That often means submachine guns, sometimes in wholesale lots, as well as firearms disguised as pens and key fobs.

“Drivers for domestic illicit manufacture of (submachine guns) include their lethality, compact size and the fact that fully functioning submachine guns are not, and never have been, available to licensed firearm owners in Australia,” according to the Australian Crime Commission (now folded into the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission). “The simplicity of design of single-shot pen guns and key rings and the potential for concealment will continue to act as a driver for continued illicit manufacture of these firearms.”

“Sub-machine guns are perhaps the most widely documented craft-produced small arms in circulation,” reports the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. “Their high rate of fire and low cost make them attractive to organized criminal groups.”

Ease of manufacture is another attraction of submachine guns. Many designs dating to World War II were specifically intended to be knocked out under the crudest possible conditions.

“A drill press, some welding equipment and blueprints from the internet are all that’s needed to create one of these potentially devastating weapons, a fact that presents a real challenge for Israel and countries around the world that are trying to prevent such guns from winding up in the hands of terrorists and criminals,” the Times of Israel noted three years ago about the proliferation of illegally manufactured submachine guns.

Submachine guns are the products of choice for Brazil’s underground manufacturers, who have developed a remarkably supportive community despite their competitive efforts.

“Amateur gunsmiths exchange experiences, tips, and information about parts, weld types, and techniques openly in forums and comment sections. Knowledge exchange contributes to improved weapons manufacturing. In some cases, the differentiation between an artisanal weapon and an industrial weapon only comes from expert work,” the BBC reported earlier this year (translated from Portuguese).

That the Outlaw Motorcycle Club’s Sartwell didn’t choose to make a simple submachine gun but built at least one AR-15 instead is probably an indication of the nuances of American culture. The AR-15 holds an iconic status in the United States, vilified by gun-haters and flaunted by supporters of self-defense rights. It’s the default choice of long gun for many Americans.

Partially as a result of that preference, Americans have done a lot of groundwork for the informal manufacture of AR-15s (as well as other guns)—legally at the moment for most people. Eighty-percent receivers, necessarily unregulated (at some point it’s just a hunk of metal, not a gun) but ready to be finished into an operating firearm component, are widely available. So are tools that could be used in any workshop for a host of projects—including making a firearm. Making guns has become a hobby, fueled by America’s contentious politics.

And now we have 3D printers and CNC (computer numerical control) machines that ease firearm manufacture. That includes the Ghost Gunner CNC milling machine, which “is specially designed to manufacture a growing library of mil-spec 80 percent lowers to completion,” according to its vendor, Defense Distributed.

None of this knowledge or capability is going away if authoritarian politicians follow through on their promises to impose tighter restrictions on firearms including so-called “assault weapons” like the AR-15.

Sartwell was caught because, as a gang leader with a criminal record, he was on law enforcement radar and he received dozens of packages from China that raised officials’ suspicions. Upon opening a shipment, agents found a sound suppressor—a simple device that pretty much anybody can make at home but that’s highly regulated and a crime for a convicted felon to possess. They subsequently raided his house and discovered his gun-manufacturing operation.

Most Americans haven’t attracted that kind of attention and are perhaps less inclined to order felony convictions to their home addresses via international mail. Many thousands of people already have the skills and equipment to do what Sartwell did, but quietly and unobserved.

If politicians follow through on promises to further restrict the legal manufacture of firearms, they’ll find Americans more than ready to emulate the defiant efforts of people around the world—often criminals, but also regular people unwilling to be disarmed by their governments. Rather than reinforcing the rule of law, tighter restrictions will unleash an uncontrollable underground firearms industry.

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