Signs of the Times (1/5/16)

Armed Protestors Occupy Federal Building in Oregon

A protest in support of Oregon ranchers facing jail time for arson was followed by an occupation of a building at a national wildlife refuge led by members of a family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government. Ammon Bundy — the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights — told The Oregonian on Saturday that he and two of his brothers were among a group of dozens of people occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ammon Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns is located. Bundy said he and others are occupying the building because “the people have been abused long enough.”

Bundy said the group planned to stay at the refuge indefinitely. The armed protesters are calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. “We came very well prepared. We’re in it for the long haul,” protester John Reitzheimer said. The protesters are complaining about the amount of land controlled by the federal government as well as the sentencing of two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. But it’s not exactly a standoff. There have been no police at the snowy, desolate Malheur National Wildlife Refuge since the occupiers took over the main building Saturday, and that’s by design. Law enforcement should just wait the protesters out, experts say. “The FBI is working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and other local and state law enforcement agencies to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” the agency’s Portland office said in a statement.

Men at Center of Militia Standoff Report to Prison

The two Oregon ranchers at the center of an anti-government protest that escalated into an armed takeover of a federal wildlife building reported to prison Monday. Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted of arson for fires they started on federal property, and a judge has ordered them to return to prison for four years to satisfy minimum-sentencing laws. The Hammonds were convicted three years ago of setting fires in 2001 and 2006 on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “on which the Hammonds had grazing rights leased to them for their cattle operation,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Hammonds have said they started a fire in 2001 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and to protect their property from wildfires. But prosecutors said the Hammonds torched about 130 acres of public land in an attempt to cover up the poaching of deer on federal property. The Hammond family has “run out of hope” that the siege by self-professed patriots some 70 miles from their home in rural Oregon will change things. “Our government is so broken,” family matriarch Suzie Hammond told FoxNews.com of their ongoing legal battle. While deeply upset over their situation, Suzie Hammond stopped short of supporting the armed takeover.

Obama Announces Executive Actions on Gun Control

President Obama proposed a series of executive actions to curb gun violence Tuesday, focusing on businesses that buy and sell guns at gun shows, flea markets and online without a license — allowing buyers to evade a background check required at brick-and-mortar gun stores. Calling the issue of gun violence “one piece of unfinished business” as he enters the last full year of his presidency, Obama said he gets too many letters “to sit around and do nothing.” But anything Obama does by executive action is likely to be undone if a Republican moves into the White House in 2017.

  • Yet again, Obama bypasses Congress to establish law by fiat instead of through the Constitutionally-mandated legislative process

Only 2% Believe Guns Are our Most Important Problem

What are Americans’ chief concerns? According to Gallup survey, the top ones are the federal government itself (16%), the economy (13%), jobs (8%), immigration (8%), healthcare (6%) and terrorism (5%) on average. Only 2 percent of Americans think that gun control is the most important issue, ranking in a tie for 17th on the list of the most important problem facing the U.S. in 2015. Even right after the recent shootings, the highest monthly rating for guns was 7% compared with monthly highs of 19% for government, 17% for the economy and 16% for terrorism.

2015 a Record Year for FBI Gun Background Checks

According to FBI data posted Monday, there were 23,141,970 background checks in 2015. That beats the prior record of 21,093,273 in 2013. This means that last year was likely a record year for gun sales. FBI background checks are conducted for all gun sales that go through a federally licensed dealer, which is how the majority of guns are sold. So background checks serve as a proxy for gun sales, though not a precise measure. The sales were driven by a series of mass shootings that typically motivate buyers who fear more restrictive gun control measures. Shootings also make people feel unsafe, so they buy guns for self-protection.

Many Uninsured Say Paying a Fine is Cheaper than Insurance

Two years after the Affordable Care Act began requiring most Americans to have health insurance, 10.5 million who are eligible to buy coverage through the law’s new insurance exchanges were still uninsured this fall, according to the Obama administration. Administration officials said last month that about 2.5 million new customers had bought insurance through HealthCare.gov, the federal exchange serving 38 states, since open enrollment began on Nov. 1. The number of new enrollees is 29 percent higher than last year at this time, suggesting that the threat of a larger penalty may be motivating more people to get covered. But plenty of healthy holdouts remain. Insurers say they sorely need more healthy customers to balance out the costs of covering the sicker, older people who have flocked to exchange plans. Healthy people who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies that defray the cost of coverage may be most likely to opt out. A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than seven million people who are eligible for exchange coverage would pay less in penalties than for the least expensive insurance available to them. More than half would not qualify for subsidies, the analysis found.

Even the Insured Face Crushing Medical Debt

The number of uninsured Americans has fallen by an estimated 15 million since 2013, thanks largely to the Affordable Care Act. But a new survey shows that insurance often fails as a safety net. Many insurance plans require hundreds or thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket payments, sums that can create a cascade of financial troubles for the many households living paycheck to paycheck. In the new poll, conducted by The New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 20 percent of people under age 65 with health insurance nonetheless reported having problems paying their medical bills over the last year. By comparison, 53 percent of people without insurance said the same. These financial vulnerabilities reflect the high costs of health care in the United States, the most expensive place in the world to get sick. They also highlight a substantial shift in the nature of health insurance. Since the late 1990s, insurance plans have begun asking their customers to pay an increasingly greater share of their bills out of pocket though rising deductibles and co-payments.

Medicare Changes Coming in 2016

Whether it’s coverage for end-of-life counseling or an experimental payment scheme for common surgeries, Medicare in 2016 is undergoing some of the biggest changes in its 50 years. So far, the 2016 change getting the most attention is that Medicare will pay clinicians to counsel patients about options for care at the end of life. The voluntary counseling would have been authorized earlier by President Barack Obama’s health care law but for the outcry fanned by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who charged it would lead to “death panels.” Hastily dropped from the law, the personalized counseling has been revived through new Medicare rules. Medicare will also be attempting to remake the way medical care is delivered to patients, by fostering teamwork among clinicians, emphasizing timely preventive services and paying close attention to patients’ transitions between hospital and home. Primary care doctors, the gatekeepers of health care, are the focus of much of Medicare’s effort.

Immigration Raids Spark Outcry

The Obama administration’s new raids on Central American immigrants who have deportation orders are coming under fire from all sides of the debate over how to handle those who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, many of them requesting political asylum. The raids began over the weekend in states such as Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, and mark the beginning of what is expected to be a national crackdown on Central Americans who came by the tens of thousands, often in family units. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the raids, which led to the arrests of 121 people, saying they are necessary to deter even more migrants from illegally crossing the border. Groups that advocate for more lenient immigrant policies criticized the raids as insensitive and overzealous. They rekindled their labeling of President Barack Obama as “Deporter-in-Chief,” a title they gave him after more than 2 million immigrants – a record for any president – were deported since he took office in 2008.

2015 Record Year for Mediterranean Migrant Deaths

More than 3,700 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe in 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Tuesday, making it the deadliest year on record for such deaths, a rate of more than 10 deaths each day. By comparison, 3,279 migrant deaths were recorded in the Mediterranean in 2014. More than three-quarters (77%) of the deaths occurred along the central Mediterranean route, which was typically used by people smugglers operating from Libya’s coast, the IOM said. The number of migrants entering, or attempting to enter, Europe exploded last year, as the world witnessed an unprecedented surge of people fleeing wars, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Migrant Women Suffering Sexual Abuse

Interviews with dozens of migrants, social workers and psychologists caring for traumatized new arrivals across Germany suggest that the current mass migration has been accompanied by a surge of violence against women. From forced marriages and sex trafficking to domestic abuse, women report violence from fellow refugees, smugglers, male family members and even European police officers, reports the New York Times. Among the more than one million migrants who have entered Europe over the past year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, men outnumber women by more than three to one, United Nations statistics show. Susanne Höhne, the lead psychotherapist at a center in west Berlin specializing in treating traumatized female migrants, says that almost all of the 44 women in her care — some barely adults, some over 60 — have experienced sexual violence.

Economic News

Trading was halted on the Chinese stock exchange for the first day of 2016 after China’s Shanghai composite index nosedived 6.9% Monday. Weak manufacturing data was behind the sell-off in China along with Middle East tensions, which pushed up oil prices. The dramatic drop triggered a new “circuit breaker mechanism,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, which suspends trading for 15 minutes if the index drops or rises more than 5%. It was the first time China used the new protocol.

America’s manufacturing sector shrank for the second straight month in December. The industry’s key index — ISM — hit 48.2% in December, the lowest mark since June 2009. Anything below 50% is a contraction and a month ago it hit 48.6%. The index has fallen for six straight months.

Apartment dwellers had to shell out sharply higher rents in 2015 and are likely to get socked again this year as a labor shortage prevents construction of new complexes from keeping pace with demand, a report out Monday said. Rents for new residents of apartment complexes in the 100 largest metro areas rose 4.8% last year, the sixth straight year of hikes that exceeded a typical 2.7%, according to MPF Research. Over the six-year period, monthly rents have climbed 22.5% to an average $1,244, the largest jump in that timeframe in the 25 years that MPF has tracked the data.

In 2015, job gains in the energy sector came to a screeching halt as rock-bottom oil prices triggered layoffs of more than 258,000 workers globally, according to a comprehensive analysis by industry consultant Graves & Co. And the energy business is poised to endure a fresh round of job cuts and bankruptcies in early 2016, analysts say. The number of active oil and gas rigs in the U.S. fell 61% to 698 as of Dec. 31, compared to a year earlier, according to Baker Hughes Rig Counts.

An estimated 1 million drones were sold in the U.S. in 2015, after the Federal Aviation Administration set forth new rules requiring registration by consumers. Still, “everyone is fascinated with flight,” says Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group. At least 100 new drones are expected to be introduced at the 48th annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Middle East

Israel on Sunday indicted four Jewish extremists suspected in a July arson attack on a Palestinian home that killed a toddler and his parents — a case that has been unsolved for months and helped fuel the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The long-awaited indictment follows months of investigations into a web of Jewish extremists operating in the West Bank. The firebombing, carried out under cover of darkness while the family slept, sparked soul-searching among Israelis rattled by the horrific attack. Palestinians cite the Duma incident as a factor in the three-month wave of attacks and clashes roiling the region, saying they are frustrated by years of unchecked settler violence.

In an apparent revenge attack, the Hezbollah terror organization detonated an explosive charge against IDF forces operating on the northern border. No Israelis were injured. The IDF responded with artillery fire. The Shiite Iran-backed terror group claimed responsibility for the attack. This incident is part of Hezbollah’s revenge for the death of notorious terrorist Samir Kuntar who was killed in Syria two weeks ago, reportedly in an Israeli airstrike. Residents along the border say shelling from Israeli tanks and artillery landed in agricultural areas inside Lebanon, with some 40 shells hitting the disputed areas of Ghajar village and Shebaa Farms. Lebanon’s Al-Maidan news reported that a number of Lebanese citizens were wounded and several buildings were hit by Israeli shelling.

Islamic State

Islamic State group militants continue to launch a series of counterattacks against Iraqi government forces on the edges of the western city of Ramadi days after the militant group was driven out of the city center, according to the U.S.-led coalition. So far Iraqi government forces have successfully repelled every attack, said a coalition spokesman. The militants stuck security forces with seven suicide car bombs in two areas outside Ramadi. There were some casualties among the government troops, but the coalition did not provide a specific figure. Iraqi officials say gains in Ramadi lay the groundwork for an eventual assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city that fell to ISIS in June of 2014.

The Islamic State released a new video purporting to show the killing of five hostages who the militant group said were spying for Britain in Syria. In the footage released online Sunday, a masked man with a British accent calls British Prime Minister David Cameron a “slave of the White House,” and “mule of the Jews.” “Only an imbecile would dare to wage war against a land where the law of Allah reigns supreme,” he says. “The Islamic State, our country, is here to stay. And we will continue to wage jihad, break borders, and one day invade your land, where we will rule by the Shariah.” The video bears similarities to previous ISIL execution videos featuring Mohammed Emwazi, a London-raised militant also known as “Jihadi John,” who beheaded Western hostages. Emwazi was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria in November.

Iran

Protesters in Iran, angered at Saudi officials’ executions of a prominent Shiite cleric who rallied for political reform and 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism, broke into the Saudi embassy early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof, Iranian media reported. A huge crowd of people rushed toward the entrance gate of the building passing through resisting police forces and managed to break the gate. Protesters scaled a chain-link fence protecting the embassy, took down the Saudi flag and set fires inside. No one appeared to be injured. Also in Iran, demonstrators attacked a Saudi consulate in the city of Mashhad with parts of the building set on fire. Tensions remain high in the Middle East between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Iran’s supreme leader warned Saudi Arabia of “divine revenge” Sunday. Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni nation while Iran is Shiite. Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that it was severing ties with Iran. Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also said they are severing diplomatic ties with Iran on Monday.

Afghanistan

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of two suicide bombings carried out near Kabul’s international airport on Monday. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on Twitter that the attacker was targeting foreigners. No one was killed, but at least 28 people were injured in the incident. On Monday morning, another suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle near the airport’s main entrance. The attacker was the only casualty in that incident. The airport — part of which is used for military purposes — was also targeted in a suicide bombing last week. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that attack as well, saying they were targeting a military convoy of the U.S.-led coalition.

China

China landed a civilian plane on one of its controversial man-made islands in the South China Sea over the weekend. According to the Wall Street Journal, the flight already has drawn a protest from Vietnam, which accused China of violating its sovereignty. China landed a Cessna at Fiery Cross Reef on Saturday to test one of its new runways built on top of the artificial reef — part of the disputed Spratly Islands. On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “concerned” by China’s action. “To begin flight operations at this new airfield in a disputed area raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” he said. “We again call for all claimants to halt land reclamation, further development of new facilities, and the militarization on their outposts, and instead focus on reaching agreement on acceptable behavior in disputed areas.”

Puerto Rico

For years, Puerto Rico’s population has been going down amid an ongoing economic crisis, heavy taxation, inefficient government and soaring debt. The island, whose residents are U.S. citizens, has been struggling with a massive debt load for the past year. Now Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla says the island will not be able to pay the $37.3 million owed to bondholders Monday and will begin withholding cash from a trust fund devoted to future payments. The move heightens tensions between the U.S. territory and its creditors. Puerto Rico first defaulted on $57.3 million in debt about five months ago.

Environment

The escape of tons of natural gas from storage under a Los Angeles neighborhood is not likely to be fixed for at least another two months because of the specific dynamics of the leak, according to officials. The leak at Porter Ranch, already several months old, has forced the relocation of several thousand residents who said the stench made them sick. The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the leak persists because workers were unable to plug it and instead have to drill two relief wells. The natural repository is huge — nearly one cubic mile at a depth of a mile and a half, according to the newspaper — and holds natural gas brought from as far away as Canada. The gas company holds it underground, then distributes it to nearly 22 million customers in the region.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck eastern India in the hours before sunrise Monday killing at least eight people, injuring 100 and causing major structural damage to several buildings. Three of the deaths were due to falling debris in and around Imphal, the capital of Manipur state. Five others deaths in other parts of the state were also due to falling debris. In Imphal, the powerful tremor left large cracks in walls and a portion of a popular market building collapsed. A newly constructed six-story building also collapsed in Imphal. Authorities are offering financial help to rebuild damaged homes of nearly 2,000 people after the strong earthquake left them homeless.

Weather

At least 40 people have been killed in the Plains and Midwest from a combination of tornadoes and flooding over a multi-day stretch of dangerous weather as of Tuesday morning. Floodwaters have started to recede in Missouri and Illinois, but the extensive damage left behind will require weeks or months to clean up. At least 29 people have lost their lives in the floods, and most of those deaths were caused by vehicles being swept away by swift-moving floodwaters. Downstream, the Mississippi River has yet to crest along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, and residents have been warned that flooding could worsen in the coming days. Officials may be faced with the difficult decision of opening spillways to lessen the impacts of the flooding, but that would threaten hundreds of homes in the water’s path. Record flooding along some tributaries after torrential post-Christmas weekend rain has sent the Mississippi River to levels not seen since the Great Flood of 1993, and that excess water will continue to flow downstream triggering flooding in the Lower Mississippi Valley into mid-January.

A series of storm systems will continue to impact California and other parts of the West through late this week. Periods of rain, heavy at times, could contribute to mud and debris flows while snow piles up in the mountains. The Southwest will also see some much needed rain and mountain snow from this wet weather pattern. The National Weather Service has posted flash flood watches for parts of California. Winter storm warnings, advisories and watches have also been posted from California’s Sierra Nevada and the mountains of Southern California to parts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. A powerful Pacific jet stream is directing the series of Pacific frontal systems into the West Coast, and will continue to do so into this weekend. As much as 15 inches of rain could fall in the next 16 days in Northern California, with about 2 feet of snow expected in the highest points of the Sierra Nevada.

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