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Analysis: Senator's remark on Sunday politics draws backlash

JACKSON •  Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi is facing criticism for saying people should avoid political activities on Sundays to keep the Sabbath holy — an idea that Hyde-Smith, herself, has not always followed.

The U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee held a hearing Wednesday on a Democratic-sponsored bill that proposes the largest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation. Republicans oppose the bill, and Hyde-Smith responded to remarks by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

"He was wondering why, on Sundays, Georgia would not participate in an electoral process of gathering signatures to registration and things on Sunday, and I would just like to respond to that," Hyde-Smith said. "Georgia's a Southern state, just like Mississippi. I cannot speak for Georgia, but I can speak for Mississippi on why we would never do that on a Sunday, or hold an election on a Sunday."

She held up a dollar bill.

"This says, 'The United States of America, In God We Trust,'" Hyde-Smith said. She also noted that the phrase is "etched in stone in the U.S. Senate chamber."

"When you swore in all of these witnesses, the last thing you said to them in your instructions was, 'So help you God,'" Hyde-Smith said. "In God's word in Exodus 20:18, it says, 'Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.'"

Hyde-Smith was inaugurated for her current term on the first Sunday of this year.

She has engaged in other political activities on Sundays. Her campaign issued a news release on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, saying that Hyde-Smith would go on a bus tour to meet voters: "On Sunday, the tour will stop for a reception at 4:30 p.m. at St. Catherine's Village in Madison."

On Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, Hyde-Smith issued a statement responding to a video clip that showed her praising a supporter by saying: "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." The timing of this skirmish was not her choice: The clip was posted to social media that day by Lamar White Jr., publisher of a Louisiana-based blog, The Bayou Brief.

Hyde-Smith said in a news release that Sunday: "In a comment on Nov. 2, I referred to accepting an invitation to a speaking engagement. In referencing the one who invited me, I used an exaggerated expression of regard, and any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous."

Hyde-Smith is white, and critics said her "public hanging" remark showed callous disregard of the history of the lynching of Black people in Mississippi. She was in a 2018 special election runoff against Democrat Mike Espy, who is Black. Espy is a former congressman and former U.S. agriculture secretary. He repeatedly criticized Hyde-Smith for the hanging remark, including during a 2020 rematch that she also won.

Ben Jealous, current president of People for the American Way and a former national president of the NAACP, is among those who responded to Hyde-Smith's comments about Sunday politicking.

"I know and love Mississippi — I've lived and worked there," Jealous wrote on Twitter. "The role that Black churches play in the state, including in encouraging civic engagement, is deeply inspiring. She knows exactly who she is targeting when she criticizes Sunday voting. Black voters will remember."

Joyce White Vance, a University of Alabama law professor and former U.S. attorney for northern Alabama, tweeted: "Mississippi Sen Hyde-Smith objects to Sunday voting because it violates her religious beliefs. Does that mean the country can't vote on Saturday because of Jewish beliefs? Or at times like Friday afternoon that conflict with Muslim prayer? She needs to read the 1st Amendment."

Regardless of any criticism about her remarks, Hyde-Smith said she remains opposed to the Democrats' proposed election changes.

"The legislation before us today would nullify Mississippi's successful voter ID law," she said in a statement. "Under S.1, in a federal election, an individual could walk into a polling place, register and vote on the spot, without ever showing any proof of identity or residency. I am totally against this and will fight it every day. We need to have confidence that our vote counts and that there's one person for one vote."

Despite federal law, many domestic abusers keep their guns in Mississippi

Last year, 23-year-old Phoenicia Ratliff of Canton was kidnapped and shot by her ex-boyfriend before he turned the gun on himself. Just a week earlier, he had been arrested on domestic violence and stalking charges.

Ratliff was one semester short of graduating from Jackson State University. She left behind a two-year-old little girl. 

“To know her was to love her,” her mother Suzanne Ratliff said. “She was always smiling — you never knew what was really going on with her because she smiled through everything.” 

Her tragic case illustrates the reality of a startling statistic: that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%. And one national study on intimate partner homicides showed women are more likely to be murdered with a gun than all other means combined.  

In Mississippi, where gun laws don’t mirror the prohibitions placed on domestic violence offenders in federal law, the statistic sounds a loud alarm bell. 

Under federal law, anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime, whether a misdemeanor or felony, is not allowed to purchase or possess a firearm. The same goes for anyone with a domestic abuse protection order (a specific type of restraining order) against them. The law is commonly referred to as the Lautenberg Amendment.

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have their own laws mirroring these federal prohibitions, but Mississippi does not. 

Across the state, officials are hesitant to take away offenders’ guns, and in some cases even charge abusers with other crimes, such as simple assault, to avoid the task, a top law enforcement official told Mississippi Today. 

In Forest Municipal Court, for example, Judge Norman Brown has ordered guns returned to domestic violence offenders, according to four sources, including current and former employees of the police department. 

“He has literally handed the suspects their guns back in court … and that’s with us showing there’s a history of a conviction, not just being charged,” said one former Forest police officer who now works with another agency. 

The officer remembers one particularly violent individual who had multiple run-ins with the law, including assault on a law enforcement officer and at least one misdemeanor domestic violence conviction.

“He still said that’s (his) right to own a gun,” the officer said. 

Brown declined to answer questions from Mississippi Today, saying he does not discuss cases. 

In Grenada, guns are never seized from individuals convicted of domestic violence or who are the subject of domestic abuse protections, according to an individual who works in the county court system.

These crimes aren’t being prosecuted at the federal level, either. Since 2013, the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi’s office prosecuted only three cases dealing with the unlawful possession of a gun by someone who had previously been convicted of a domestic violence crime. There were no cases prosecuted for the illegal possession of a firearm for someone under a domestic violence protection order in that same time period.

“We do train both law enforcement and prosecutors on due process requirements associated with the Lautenberg Amendment,” said Colby Jordan, director of communications for the Attorney General’s office. 

The office declined to answer any other questions about the issue, including whether Attorney General Lynn Fitch would or would not push lawmakers to develop an accompanying state law or what the office is doing aside from training on this issue. 

Efforts to align state and federal laws have proved futile in recent years. Last year, the National Rifle Association and global pandemic stomped out even the earliest conversations, according to Luke Thompson, former president of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police and the former chief of police in Byram. 

The idea was to modify the existing state statute prohibiting possession of a weapon by a convicted felon by adding “or otherwise prohibited by” the relevant federal law. 

“Any type of gun legislation in Mississippi is met with a great amount of resistance, and the (National Rifle Association) got a hint on that and bashed it real quick before we had a chance to have discussions with people and say, ‘This is what we’re trying to do,’” said Thompson. 

The National Rifle Association did not respond to Mississippi Today’s request for comment on the issue.

After being painted as “pro-gun control” and supportive of “far-left” gun laws, Thompson penned a letter in February 2020 to Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and all House Republicans explaining his position.

He described a situation that captured the problems that arise because of the lack of a state law. Officers in his department responded to an incident in which a man fired a round from his gun through the ceiling of his home during an argument with his estranged wife. During the investigation, his officers discovered he had a domestic violence conviction and seized his weapons. 

“Due to domestic offense being a state misdemeanor, federal authorities would not prosecute the possession case,” Thompson explained, going on to describe how he did not return the weapons to the offender, even when the offender and his lawyer began repeatedly contacting him over a five-year period and accusing him of illegally seizing the guns.

So Thompson set out to add the federal law language to the state law detailing which people cannot legally own or buy a gun.

“The intent was to give police chiefs an option when federal authorities would not assist and to keep local law enforcement officers safe,” he continued in his letter. 

Although he never heard back from Gunn or other lawmakers, House Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain said he’s aware of the issue Thompson was trying to address. 

“I’m aware of an inconsistency there. I’m not opposed to talking about it, but I don’t want to go into a situation where we’re having more gun control than what is needed,” said Bain, a Republican from Corinth. “But I’m not opposed to having a discussion about it with our federal prosecutors, federal authorities and local state authorities.” 

Bain’s counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Brice Wiggins responded similarly, saying he was open to a debate about possible legislation.

Advocates have kept their distance from the issue in recent years, though they see firsthand the failure to remove guns from the hands of abusers.

Wendy Mahoney, executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she remembers having some talks years ago.

There was always pushback, she said. She remembers one person questioning where law enforcement would put the seized guns. Then last year, she saw what happened to Thompson when he brought the issue to lawmakers.

“I don’t think we have the support to even have an open conversation right now, even though we know … in most domestic violence situations, when a gun is involved, the correlation is very high with imminent danger and death,” Mahoney said. “That should be enough to have that conversation.”

The gap in federal and state law led former U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst to launch an initiative last year to combat what he said is a “lack of knowledge” among law enforcement and courts about federal restrictions on firearm ownership. The initiative, named “Operation Phoenicia” for Ratliff, continues today under the current U.S. attorney.

“Operation Phoenicia” involves educating and training law enforcement and judges about federal domestic violence laws in addition to other efforts to crack down on domestic violence offenders with guns. 

Hurst, along with his then counterpart in the northern district of the state, vowed to prioritize prosecution of these crimes, and the efforts continue under his successor, acting U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca. The plan is to begin by identifying individuals in the city of Jackson who currently have a domestic violence protective order or a domestic violence misdemeanor and calling them into the office to put them on notice.

“We tell them it is a federal crime for them to possess a firearm and we tell them, ‘If we catch you, we will prosecute you federally,’” Hurst said. 

They are also issuing what is referred to as “call-outs,” or working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to put domestic violence victims on notice if their abuser is attempting to buy a gun. 

But as of March, no such cases have been prosecuted yet, nor have any call-ins taken place due to the pandemic, according to LaMarca. Call-outs have been ongoing through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The office is also working to ensure local state and local officials understand certain standards must be met in a domestic violence crime in order for federal prosecution to occur. For example, one deals with whether there was use or attempted use of force, while another deals with the type of relationship the victim has with the perpetrator.

LaMarca said he is collaborating with state and local officials to more fully identify certain specifics of domestic violence offenses, the relationship between the two involved individuals and the amount and type of involvement the offender has with the legal system. By doing that, officials can better understand whether the offense in question falls under the Lautenberg Amendment. 

Mahoney, whose organization works with domestic violence shelters and victims, said the mixed messages and lack of enforcement around domestic abusers with guns creates fear and distrust in victims.

“If you’re not taking away their firearm, you’re invoking more fear” in an already fearful victim, she said. “It makes the victim question, ‘Is the system really on my side to help me?'”

The post Despite federal law, many domestic abusers keep their guns in Mississippi appeared first on Mississippi Today.

1 report, 4 theories: Scientists mull clues on virus' origin

GENEVA • A team of international and Chinese scientists is poised to report on its joint search for the origins of the coronavirus that sparked a pandemic after it was first detected in China over a year ago — with four theories being considered, and one the clear frontrunner, according to experts.

The lengthy report is being published after months of wrangling, notably between U.S. and Chinese governments, over how the outbreak emerged, while scientists try to keep their focus on a so-far fruitless search for the origin of a microbe that has killed over 2.7 million people and stifled economies worldwide.

It wasn't immediately clear when the report will be released after its publication was delayed earlier this month. By many accounts, the report could offer few concrete answers, and may raise further questions.

It will offer a first glance in writing from 10 international epidemiologists, data scientists, veterinary, lab and food safety experts who visited China and the city of Wuhan — where a market was seen as the initial epicenter — earlier this year to work with Chinese counterparts who pulled up the bulk of early data.

Critics have raised questions about the objectivity of the team, insisting that China's government had a pivotal say over its composition. Defenders of the World Health Organization, which assembled the team, say it can't simply parachute in experts to tell a country what to do — let alone one as powerful as China.

"I expect that this report will only be a first step into investigating the origins of the virus and that the WHO secretariat will probably say this," said Matthew Kavanagh, director of Georgetown University's Global Health Policy and Governance Initiative at the O'Neill Institute. "And I expect some to criticize this as insufficient. I think it is key to keep in mind that WHO has very limited powers."

The Wuhan trip is billed as Phase 1 in a vast undertaking to flesh out the origins of the virus.

The WHO has bristled at depictions of the mission as an "investigation" — saying that smacks of an invasive forensic probe that wasn't called for under the resolution adopted unanimously by the agency's member states in May that paved the way for the collaboration. The WHO and China later ironed out the ground rules.

Team member Vladimir Dedkov, an epidemiologist and deputy director of research at the St. Petersburg Pasteur Institute in Russia, summarized the four main leads first laid out at a marathon news conference in China last month about the suspected origins of the first infection in humans. They were, in order of likelihood: from a bat through an intermediary animal; straight from a bat; via contaminated frozen food products; from a leak from a laboratory like the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Officials in China, as well as Chinese team leader Liang Wannian, have promoted the third theory — the cold-chain one — while the U.S. administration under President Donald Trump played up the fourth one, of the lab leak. But Dedkov said those two hypothesis were far down the list of likely sources.

He suggested frozen products on which the virus was found were most likely contaminated by infected people. An infected person also likely brought and spread the virus at the Wuhan market associated with the outbreak, where some of the contaminated products were later found.

"In general, all the conditions for the spread of infection were present at this market," Dedkov said in an interview. "Therefore, most likely, there was a mass infection of people who were connected by location."

"At this point, there are no facts suggesting that there was a leak" from a lab, Dedkov said. "If suddenly scientific facts appear from somewhere, then accordingly, the priority of the version will change. But, at this particular moment, no."

Suspicions about political meddling have dogged the mission, and the international team leader — the WHO's Peter Ben Embarek — acknowledged in interviews last week that unspecified "pressures" might weigh on its members. Liang, in a Chinese newspaper interview, also bemoaned political pressure on the team.

Delays in deploying the international team to China, repeated slippage in the timing of publication of the report, and rejiggering of the plans for it — an initial summary of findings was jettisoned as an idea — have only fanned speculation that the scientists have been steered by political authorities or others.

"The last understanding we had was that it is expected to come out this week — we'll have to see if that actually happens," the U.S. charge d'affaires in Geneva, Mark Cassayre, said on Wednesday. "We have a clear understanding that other studies will be required."

He said the U.S. was hopeful the report would be a "real step forward for the world understanding the origins of the virus, so that we can better prepare for future pandemics. That's really what this is about."

The WHO leadership, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, repeatedly praised the Chinese government's early response to the outbreak, though recordings of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press exposed how top WHO officials were frustrated at China's lack of cooperation.

The international team was wholly reliant on data collected by Chinese scientists after the outbreak surfaced, and Dedkov called the visit to Wuhan an "analytical trip, mainly for the purpose of retrospective analysis in the sense that we studied only those facts that were obtained earlier."

"We did not collect any samples ourselves, we didn't carry out any laboratory studies there, we just analyzed what we were being shown," he said. If some data had not been collected, it wasn't because the Chinese wanted to conceal something, he added.

The team's visit was politically sensitive for China — which is concerned about any allegations it didn't handle the initial outbreak properly. Shortly after the outbreak, the Chinese government detained some Chinese doctors who sought to raise the alarm.

The report, which Ben Embarek said last week took up about 280 pages, is set to lay out recommendations and lay the groundwork for next steps — such as whether the team, or others, get new access to China for further analysis. Ultimately, the aim is to find clues to help prevent another such pandemic in the future.

Georgetown's Kavanagh said he hasn't seen the report — but has suspicions about what it will say.

"Based on what we have heard so far I expect that the report will likely lend some credence to a link between wildlife farming and COVID-19, but without full evidence about exactly how the move from animals into humans might have occurred," he said.

Dedkov said planning of "real-time research" is next, but noted there's no guarantee future trips will find all the answers.

"But one can try," he added. "Of course, if the source of the origin of the virus is found, it will help answer many questions and, in general, will dissipate this unnecessary political tension around the virus."