Signs of the Times (3/1/13)

In Gun Debate, It’s Urban vs. Rural

The gun debate rages in two Americas. One of the biggest factors in where you stand on gun ownership and gun violence depends, literally, on where you live. A compilation of December Gallup polls showed that rural Americans — roughly one-sixth of the population — are more than twice as likely to have a gun in the home than those living in large cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are six times more likely to hunt. Rural residents are also most likely to say the best way to reduce gun violence is to better enforce current gun laws rather than pass new ones, an argument echoed by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. The National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) estimates that up to 4 million Americans shoot skeet and the same number shoots sporting clays, a rapidly growing sport. The number of high school and college students shooting competitively is growing by 10% to 15% a year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 13.7 million Americans hunted in 2011; hunting license sales were up 9% from 2006, reversing a 25-year downward trend.

U.S. Linked to New Wave of Web Censorship, Surveillance

Even the most open, democratic governments have sought laws and new forms of surveillance that many see as a new wave of censorship — and that includes the United States. The U.S. government asked Google for data on its users more than 31,000 times in 2012 alone, for example. And the government rarely obtained a search warrant first, Google recently revealed; in nearly all cases, the company ended up turning over at least some data. Some argue that heightened surveillance, restrictions on Internet freedom and even censorship are necessary to protect intellectual property rights, prevent cyberespionage, fight child pornography, and protect national interests such as nuclear power plants from hackers. However, the road to better security could also stifle free speech.

When the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) met in Dubai in December, some 89 member countries including Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, supported a treaty that would give individual governments more control over the Internet’s infrastructure. Sensing a thinly veiled attempt to suppress dissent, 55 countries — including Canada and the U.S. — said no. While the agreement has failed (for the time being), individual governments — including Canada and the U.S. — continue to introduce their own legislation to control what’s online. the Canadian government proposed Bill C-30, known as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. Proponents claimed the measure was designed to combat the exploitation of children, but it required Internet service providers to create monitoring systems that would allow the police to intercept and track all online communications — without a warrant.

  • In a world of good and evil, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line between surveillance and privacy. Only when Jesus returns to rule and reign will such dichotomies be resolved.

Massachusetts & Phoenix to Allow Boys in Girls’ Restrooms

Under a sweeping directive issued by the Massachusetts Department of Education, boys and girls who identify as the opposite sex are now allowed to use whichever school bathroom and locker room they feel most comfortable in, and schools are discouraged from using gender-based clothes and from conducting gender-based practices such as lining up children based on their sex, Baptist Press reports. The 11-page directive to the state’s public schools was issued Feb. 15, supposedly in light of a new Massachusetts law that adds “gender identity” to the state’s nondiscrimination code. Traditional groups argue the new law did not require such a wide-sweeping directive from the education department, but say it demonstrates the repercussions of passing any law that adds gender identity to state non-discrimination policies. “Transgenderism is only part of what same-sex marriage is plowing the way for,” said Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, says the new policy puts students — particularly girls — in harm’s way: “The School Commissioner’s first duty is to protect all students … not endanger them. The overriding issue with this new policy is that opening girls’ bathrooms to boys is an invasion of privacy and a threat to all students’ safety.”

Tuesday night after nearly a five-hour hearing, the Phoenix City Council passed a dramatic expansion of the city’s human relations ordinance, known as the Bathroom Bill. Under the guise of “prohibiting discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, this new law has “devastating consequences for churches, religious organizations, businesses, and families,” according to The Center for Arizona Policy. “Despite the mountain of legal testimony highlighting the numerous constitutional, moral, and ethical problems with the law, the Council, led by Mayor Greg Stanton, forced the vote through.”

  • The dissipation of the traditional & Biblical family and gender structure is further evidence of the downward moral spiral into what Jesus called “the beginning of sorrows” leading to the Tribulation

Vaccine Linked to Rare Sleep Disorder in Kids

Children in England who were given a version of the swine flu vaccine between 2009 and 2010 were at increased risk of developing narcolepsy after they got the shot, a new study suggests. The findings are similar to those of previous studies conducted in Finland and Sweden, which also found a link between the 2009 swine flu vaccine called Pandemrix (made by GlaxoSmithKline) and narcolepsy in children. However, because a large number of people were vaccinated and narcolepsy is rare, a child’s chances of developing the disorder following vaccination were “extremely small” around 1 in 55,000.

  • 55,000 doesn’t seem small to me

Bumblebees Disappearing in Midwest

It’s not just honey bees that are in trouble. The fuzzy American bumblebee seems to be disappearing in the Midwest. Two new studies in Thursday’s journal Science conclude that wild bees, like the American bumblebee, are increasingly important in pollinating flowers and crops that provide us with food. And, at least in the Midwest, they seem to be dwindling in an alarming manner, possibly from disease and parasites. What’s most noticeable is the near absence of one particular species, the yellow-and-black American bumblebee. There are 4,000 species of wild bees in America and 49 of them are bumblebees.

Wealth Gap Widens for Blacks

The wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years, due largely to inequality in home ownership, income, education and inheritances. The difference in wealth between typical households in each racial group ballooned to $236,500 in 2009, up from $85,000 in 1984, according to the study, released Wednesday. By 2009, the median net worth of white families was $265,000, while blacks had only $28,500. Also the home ownership rate for whites is 28% higher than that of blacks.

America’s Energy Boom

America’s energy production is booming. What we should do about it is one of Washington’s most divisive issues. Since 2006, the country’s natural gas production has surged 30%. Oil production is up 33%. The country is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer by 2020. Champions of this boom point to the hundreds of thousands of jobs it has created and its significant contribution to reducing the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Critics counter that with those gains come real threats to the nation’s environment, particularly its water supply. They also worry that this new-found abundance will foster a greater reliance on fossil fuels and a dangerous inattention to global warming.

On Wednesday, a group from the Bipartisan Policy Center — including former senators, oil company executives, environmentalists and others with a stake in the game — released a set of recommendations on how the country can best balance these competing interests. Here’s a rundown on their suggestions: Open up areas in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida to more drilling, as well as sections off the East Coast, particularly the Mid-Atlantic states; Continue using hydraulic fracturing, but with tighter regulations, including increased federal oversight; Allow energy exports, with virtually no restrictions; Provide government cash for commercializing technology to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants; Phase out all tax credits for renewable energy by 2016 as part of broader tax reform, which would likely see tax breaks for the oil industry dry up as well.

Feds Release Illegal Immigrants

After detaining growing numbers of immigrants in deportation proceedings for years, the federal government reversed course this week, releasing more than 300 immigrants from facilities in Arizona and hundreds more in other states. The highly surprising move was made to save money in anticipation of looming budget cuts known as sequestration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said. The decision drew praise from immigrant advocates who favor alternative ways of supervising immigrants in deportation proceedings that are less disruptive to families and less costly. But the release of hundreds of detainees, with possibly more to come, outraged Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other immigration-enforcement advocates who accused the Obama administration of using federal budget cuts as an excuse to soften deportation policies to placate immigrant- rights groups.

Sequester Cutbacks Start March 1

The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war. And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.

The budget cuts scheduled to go into effect Friday are designed to save the government $85 billion this year. But officials and budget analysts say some of those short-term savings could actually cost the government money in the long run. The most obvious example: tax collections. Through across-the-board cuts, the so-called sequester would take $436 million out of the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement budget this year. Given the widely accepted belief that the IRS generates $4 in increased tax payments for every $1 in enforcement, the government could eventually lose $1.7 billion.

In the next month, Democrats and Republicans, so at odds with one another that they are no longer even negotiating to avert the across-the-board cuts set to kick in at the end of the week, will have to find a way to agree on spending levels for the remainder of this year. If they fail, they could risk a government shutdown starting March 27, when the current authorization for spending runs out.

Foreign Military Sales Growing

US foreign military sales are growing fast and they may well grow still more if a Defense Department policy easing exports of unmanned aircraft to 66 countries gets interagency and Congressional approval. New Foreign Military Sales (FMS) for fiscal year 2012 were at $64 billion. “It’s now $65 billion and will go up more this fiscal year,” DSCA deputy director Richard Genaille said at the ComDef 2012 conference. All told, Genaille said, “the FMS portfolio is valued at $385 billion dollars,” and supports “at least 3.5 million jobs, [at] a conservative estimate.” Almost every nation on Earth now buys US military gear, excepting only a handful of countries like China and Vatican City.

  • In the battle for domestic job growth, we are arming our enemies which will come back to haunt us in the near future

Economic News

The U.S. economy grew at a 0.1% annual rate from October through December, the weakest performance in nearly two years. But economists believe a steady housing rebound and solid business and consumer spending is pushing growth higher in the current quarter. Hiring has picked up in recent months, providing more income. Employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs per month in the past three months. That’s up from an average of 150,000 in the previous three months.

First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, according to a government report that showed an unexpected improvement in the labor market. The Labor Department report showed 344,000 Americans filed for jobless benefits in the latest week, down from 366,000 the previous week. Overall, average claims are down about 3% from where they were a year ago.

Orders for the factory goods that signal business investment plans jumped last month by the most in more than a year, suggesting companies are more confident about their business prospects. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for so-called core capital goods, which include industrial machinery, construction equipment and computers, rose 6.3% in January from December.

New home sales surged in January, rising almost 16% from December in another sign of an improving housing market. Sales of new single-family homes in January came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 437,000. The pace of sales was almost 29% above the January 2012 total of 339,000, and almost 16% above the revised December rate.

Nationwide, the supply of existing homes for sale has fallen for seven straight months, hitting an almost eight-year low in January. Much of the country is now a seller’s market. Competing offers for the same homes are rising in more markets, especially in the West. The shortage of sellers, the primary force behind higher prices, is expected to ease as prices rise, economists say.

Persecution Watch

As police looked on, militants attacked a Christian church in central India earlier this month, causing severe injuries to some and sending the pastor into hiding, World Watch Monitor reports. The assault took place during the second day of a Feb. 7-9 revival meeting at India Christian Assembly of God Church in the city of Rajnandgaon, in the overwhelmingly Hindu state of Chhattisgarh. The revival meeting included a graduation ceremony of 14 students who attended a short Bible-training program, and around 300 Christians had gathered for the event. Around 3 p.m. on the second day, a group of more than 30 young men from several Hindu nationalist groups disrupted the meeting and started to interrogate the pastor and other church leaders. “They started to manhandle and beat people, tear Bibles, abused the God of Christians and strode over children,” witnesses said. More attackers joined in, beating men, women and children with sticks and iron rods and damaging church property and vehicles. “There was chaos and Christians started to flee for their lives in whichever direction they could,” witnesses said. Police were summoned, but they did not intervene and “played the role of mere spectators.” Attacks continued until 6 p.m., and some Christians were admitted to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Three incidents of violence against ministers in Tanzania have left believers in the eastern African nation concerned over the future of religious freedom, Open Doors USA reports. On Feb. 17, gunmen shot and killed a Catholic priest on the island of Zanzibar. Police say they have arrested three suspects in connection with the murder, but their motive remains unknown. On Feb. 2, on mainland Tanzania, an Assemblies of God minister, Pastor Mathayo Kachili, was hacked to death in the Geita region when he intervened in an altercation between villagers over the slaughter of an animal. On Dec. 26, Catholic priest Father Ambrose Mkenda sustained serious injuries when unknown gunmen shot at him. He sustained two bullet wounds, one to the cheek and one to the back, and underwent surgery to extract the bullets. Father Anthony Makunde, secretary general of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, told a local newspaper, The Guardian, that the situation signaled a plot to destroy peace in the country. Tanzania is ranked No. 24 on the 2013 Open Doors World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians; it was previously unranked. Tanzania is a majority-Christian country with a substantial Muslim population, and Islamic extremism is the main persecution dynamic for the country.

Middle East

The European Union issued its Jerusalem Report 2012 on Wednesday giving advice and recommendations to its 27 member states about issues between Israel and the Palestinians. Among the more noteworthy items in the report was a recommendation for EU member states to engage in a full-scale economic boycott of Israeli businesses and communities in the West Bank. In the report, the EU suggests its member states “prevent, discourage and raise awareness about problematic implications of financial transactions, including foreign direct investments from within the EU in support of settlement activities, infrastructure and services (and to) ensure that imports of settlement products do not benefit from preferential tariffs and make sure that all such products are clearly labeled as originating from Israeli-occupied areas.

Reports are coming out of the Middle East that appear to confirm that a top Iranian general was killed in the recent Israeli airstrike on a Syrian weapons convoy. The convoy was believed to be carrying advanced weapons to Lebanon for use by Hezbollah terrorists and was destroyed by Israeli jets. The news that one of Iran’s highest-ranking generals was involved in this operation is a confirmation that Iran is actively working to support, fund, train and lead the terrorists who are attacking Israel.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr issued a statement on Monday condemning Israeli policies in regards to Palestinian security prisoners and warned of a deterioration in regional relationships. He also urged the international community to take a firm stance against Israel’s “inhuman practices against the Palestinian prisoners.” The comments came as Egypt’s tourism minister visited Teheran in a bid to lure tourists from the Islamic Republic to Egypt, the latest sing in a thawing of relations between Israel’s next door neighbor and its most dangerous enemy.

  • End-time pressure and persecution against Israel continues to ramp up

Syria

The Obama administration said Thursday that it will provide the Syrian opposition with an additional $60 million in assistance and — in a significant policy shift — will for the first time provide nonlethal aid like food and medical supplies to rebels battling to oust President Bashar Assad. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new support and the decision to back the rebel fighters on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria in Rome, where European nations were also expected to signal their intention to provide fresh assistance to the opposition, possibly including defensive military hardware. Weapons that Western officials say were bought by Saudi Arabia and funneled to opposition fighters in Syria have been a factor in the rebels’ small tactical gains this winter.

Iran

Diplomats emerged Wednesday from an unusually secretive round of talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program with a joint announcement to hold a follow-up meeting within weeks. Citing the delicacy of the negotiations, representatives of the so-called P5+1 — the six-nation diplomatic bloc consisting of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — did not reveal details of a new proposal submitted to the Iranians at Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Bangladesh

Protesters clashed with police for a second day Friday as the death toll rose to at least 44 in clashes triggered by a death sentence given to an Islamic party leader for crimes linked to Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Delwar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party had called for protests after Friday’s Islamic prayers, and authorities responded by dispatching thousands of police and paramilitary troops to clamp down on Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

Mexico

More than 26,000 people have gone missing in Mexico over the past six years as violence surged and the country’s government cracked down on drug cartels. Mexico’s Interior Ministry announced the staggering statistic on Tuesday but noted that authorities don’t have data about how many of the disappearances are connected with organized crime. In the northern Mexican state of Coahuila alone, officials reported nearly 2,000 disappearances between 2006 and 2012, Human Rights Watch said. Rights groups and activists have long said that forced disappearances are among the most troubling problems Mexico faces. The new government has formed a special working group to focus on finding the missing.

Wildfires

Flames from a ferocious wildfire burned palm trees along residential streets and came very close to homes in inland Southern California, but waning winds have helped firefighters stop its progress. Residents from two streets in Riverside County were advised to evacuate Thursday night at the peak of the fire that burned about 150 acres in and around Rancho Jurupa Regional Park. “This ‘wet season’ has been quite dry,” says weather.com Senior Meteorologist Jon Erdman. “Riverside has picked up only 36% of their average rainfall since fall.”

Weather

A massive, slow-moving storm paralyzed parts of the nation’s midsection with heavy, wet snow Tuesday, straining power lines, closing schools, clogging roadways and delaying hundreds of flights before churning eastward, where forecasters expected it to dump 5-8 inches of snow in southeast Michigan on Wednesday afternoon and up to a foot in northern New England by later in the evening. The storm’s toll was still being tallied in deaths and damage as remnants of the storm hit portions of New Hampshire and Maine early Thursday morning. Up to 10 inches of snow is expected in the interior regions of Maine and eastern New Hampshire. As it marched on, officials said at least seven people have been killed.

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