Monday, December 24, 2012

Syria activists: Several die after Assad's forces use 'poisonous gases'

By Ayman Mohyeldin, NBC News

CAIRO -- Several Syrians have died after inhaling poisonous gas released by government forces in rebel-held districts of Homs, local eyewitnesses and activists claimed Monday.

Civilians were admitted to hospital with serious breathing problems after Sunday’s attack, according to doctors and groups who posted what they said was video of the aftermath to YouTube.

The gas is thought to have been a concentrated irritant, but not one of the deadly chemical weapons stockpiled by the regime of Syria president Bashar Assad.

Claims by either side in Syria’s bitter civil war are almost impossible to independently verify because journalists are rarely allowed access to the country.

Pesticide poisoning?
Mousab Azzawi, chairman of the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights and a doctor, told NBC News that his organization had received reports from three eyewitnesses on Sunday.

He said field doctors in Homs were seeing patients “losing consciousness, experiencing severe shortness of breath and vomiting.”

“To our understanding, this is similar to poisoning with pesticide,” he said, although he was not aware of any pesticide that could take the form of a gas.

Airstrike kills dozens of Syrians trying to buy bread, activists say

Azzawi added that they were “very concerned and deeply worried” that the attack might be a sign that Assad’s regime might use chemical weapons “on a very small scale.”

Walid Fares, spokesman for the Homs Revolutionary Council -- part of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella organization recognized by more than 100 countries including the United States -- issued a statement to NBC News on Monday.

It said “poisonous gases” came from shells fired by government tanks in the districts of Al Bayada and Al Khalideya.

In Syria's Aleppo, 'We're starving. I can bear it but what about my children?'

“The shells did not explode but rather emitted a cloud of white smoke and it landed in residential areas… where revolutionaries had gathered and which led to tens being injured,” the statement said.

It said symptoms included “complete absence of vision” as well as nausea, lost consciousness and severe breathing difficulty.

“The initial analysis of the doctors in the hospital confirmed that it is a poisonous gas that contains banned substances,” the statement added, citing videos that claimed to show patients being treated.

'This isn't the first time'
It said there were seven deaths as of early Monday - naming six of the victims - and close to 50 injured.

A third group, the Local Coordination Committees - a network of local opposition councils across Syria - told NBC News: "The LCC has not yet confirmed what the substance was, but doctors in Homs are confirming the use of toxic gases. This isn't the first time; residents of Homs and Zabadani were reporting the use (confirmed) of white phosphorus months ago.”

Two YouTube videos showed patients being treated in hospital for the symptoms of a gas attack. In one, a doctor says in Arabic that the gas is “definitely not Sarin” but is “definitely” poisonous.

US officials: Syria loads chemical weapons into bombs; military awaits Assad's order

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons by his regime would be "totally unacceptable." "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable," he said.
The alleged gas attack came hours after a senior Israeli defense official said he believed Syria's chemical weapons were still secure despite the civil war.
Amos Gilad told Army Radio that the both sides had become deadlocked but there was no sign of Assad heeding international calls to step down, according to a Reuters report.

"Suppose he does leave, there could be chaos ... in the Middle East you never know who will come instead. We need to stay level-headed; the entire world is dealing with this. At the moment, chemical weapons are under control," Gilad said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

That Christmas 'Star of Wonder' still leaves plenty to wonder about

Clay Frost / NBC News
The leading explanation for the blblical "Star of Wonder" is that the Three Wise Men saw a series of planetary conjunctions. Click on the image to launch a Flash interactive about the astronomical side of the Nativity story.

The Star of Bethlehem is one of the best-known parts of the Christmas story, celebrated in the Gospel of Matthew as well in as a constellation of holiday songs. It was that star that led the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus — at least if you believe the Bible. But is there anything in the astronomical record that supports the story of the "Star of Wonder"?

The answer is, maybe. The case of the Christmas Star illustrates how slippery things can get when you try to mix scripture and science.

First of all, there's no way to show a definitive connection between any astronomical phenomenon and the tale of the Nativity. On one hand, you could just say that the star was a miraculous apparition. In that case, no further evidence would be needed. On the other hand, you could say that the whole Nativity story, including the part about the Three Wise Men, is fictional. In that case, trying to find the Christmas Star would be as fruitless as trying to determine the real-life location of Dumbledore's tomb in the "Harry Potter" saga.
But if you go along with the astronomers who have looked into the likeliest scenarios to explain Matthew's references to the Christmas Star, the line of reasoning takes some surprising twists: The star could have been a series of planetary conjunctions, or a comet, or perhaps a nova. These events didn't occur during the year A.D. 1, which most people assume was the year Jesus was born. Instead, they occurred at least a couple of years earlier. They also didn't occur anywhere close to Dec. 25.

And here's what might be the most surprising twist: All this meshes with the views generally held by scriptural scholars.

Matthew's story tells of "wise men from the east" — who were actually priestly astrologers. What they saw in their astronomical calculations led them to alert Judea's king, Herod the Great, to the birth of the "king of the Jews." Herod told the astrologers to look for the infant in Bethlehem and let him know what they found. Matthew says they came upon the infant Jesus, but were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

Historical accounts suggest that Herod died around the 4 B.C. — although some scholars suggest the date could have been as early as 5 B.C. or as late as 1 B.C. Using this time frame, astronomers have checked the historical records and run computer simulations of the night sky — and they've come up with these leading candidates for the Christmas Star:

Planets: The simulations show that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, or conjunctions, in 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. The first conjunction was on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., with Venus close to Saturn in the eastern sky. The second conjunction was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews.

Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter would have passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This reversal was due to the planet's apparent retrograde motion — a phenomenon familiar to the astrologers but not necessarily noticed by the casual observer. In his book on the Christmas Star, astronomer John Mosley says this would have been a significant event, because ancient astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the "king star."

The crowning touch came on June 17 of 2 B.C., when Jupiter was so close to Venus that "they would have looked like a single star," Mosley said. His scenario implies that the climax of the Nativity story came in the spring of 2 B.C.

There's a problem with this scenario, however: It doesn't work if Herod died in 4 B.C. An astronomer at the University of Sheffield, David Hughes, has proposed a different series of planetary conjunctions in 7 B.C. This was a triple conjunction, in which Jupiter and Saturn would appear to approach each other three times between May and December. "Events indicate that Jesus Christ was probably born in the autumn of that year, around October, 7 B.C.," Hughes wrote in a paper published by the journal Nature.

Comet: Other astronomers have considered the idea that the "star" was actually a comet. The likeliest candidate would be a comet recorded by Chinese astronomers in the year 5 B.C., in the constellation Capricorn or Aquila. Comet Halley would have been visible in 11 B.C., and the record suggests that other comets might have been seen in the time frame between those two dates. "The snag is that they're not that rare," Hughes told the BBC. "They were also commonly associated with the 'four Ds' — doom, death, disease and disaster. So if it did contain a message, it would have been a bad omen."

Nova or supernova: The Chinese were particularly good at chronicling supernovae, and the fact that none was recorded during the time frame in question has led most astronomers to discount a supernova as the explanation for the Christmas Star. However, astronomer Mark Kidger argues in his book, "The Star of Bethlehem," that the comet seen by the Chinese in 5 B.C. was actually a nova — that is, a suddenly brightening star. The temporary brightening may not have caused a worldwide marvel, but if it came after a series of planetary conjunctions, it could have been enough of a signal to send the wise men on their way.
Kidger's scenario calls for the climax of the Christmas Star story to come in March of 5 B.C., after months of buildup. He even names his candidate for the Christmas Star: DO Aquilae, which is just faintly visible today.

What scholars say: None of these scenarios would be consistent with Western Christianity's traditional schedule for the Christmas season, which calls for the "12 Days of Christmas" to begin on Dec. 25 and wind up with the arrival of the Three Kings on Epiphany, Jan. 6. However, scriptural scholars have pointed out that none of the Gospels refers to the date of Jesus' birth. In fact, the Gospel of Luke’s account about shepherds being out in their fields might make more sense if the birth occurred during the spring lambing season.

So how did Dec. 25, A.D. 1, get set as Jesus' birthdate? The current counting system for years (A.D. and B.C.) was set up in the sixth century by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus, who combined his reading of scripture, Roman history and end-of-the-world numerology to pick Year 1. Scriptural scholars now agree, however, that the timing of the Nativity story would make more sense if the birth occurred earlier than that — because of the timing of Herod's death as well as a better understanding of the chronology for Roman emperors and governors.

As for the December date: Scholars say that the early Christian church wasn't all that interested in marking the day of Jesus' birth. For example, a 3rd-century theologian named Origen mocked the Romans for making such a big deal over divine birthdays.

Around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria noted that the favored dates for the birth were in the March-April-May time frame — which would be consistent with the astronomical scenarios for the Christmas star.
It wasn't until the mid-4th century that Dec. 25 started showing up in church literature. The conventional wisdom is that Christmas was set in December after Constantine the Great's conversion to Christianity in 312, to bring the Christian holiday into line with pagan celebrations of the solstice. But Andrew McGowan, warden and president of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne in Australia, argues in favor of an alternate explanation: that church leaders wanted to link their date for Jesus' conception with the presumed date of his death, on March 25. If you add nine months to March 25, you get Dec. 25 as the date of birth.

"Connecting Jesus' conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together," McGowan writes in this month's essay for Bible History Today.

The tale of Christmas and the Star of Wonder shows how astronomy and numerology can get tangled up with religion. But we're familiar with that, right? After all, we've just been through the apocalyptic angst surrounding the turnover of the Maya Long Count calendar. Fortunately, this week's turn of the calendar has a much more positive spin. So here's wishing you a wonderful holiday season of your choice — whether it celebrates Christmas or the solstice, the new year on the Gregorian calendar, or the new baktun for the Maya.

More about the science of the season:

AP: Jack Klugman, star of 'The Odd Couple,' 'Quincy, M.E.,' dies at 90

Nina Prommer / EPA file
Jack Klugman in Santa Monica, Calif., in June 2008.

LOS ANGELES -- Jack Klugman, the prolific, craggy-faced character actor and regular guy who was loved by millions as the messy one in TV's "The Odd Couple" and the crime-fighting coroner in "Quincy, M.E.," died Monday, a son told the Associated Press. He was 90.

Klugman, who lost his voice to throat cancer in the 1980s and trained himself to speak again, died with his wife at his side.

"He had a great life and he enjoyed every moment of it and he would encourage others to do the same," son Adam Klugman said.

Adam Klugman said he was spending Christmas with his brother, David, and their families. Their father had been convalescing for some time but had apparently died suddenly and they were not sure of the exact cause.

His was a city actor ideal for "The Odd Couple," which ran from 1970 to 1975 and was based on Neil Simon's play about mismatched roommates, divorced New Yorkers who end up living together. The show teamed Klugman -- the sloppy sports writer Oscar Madison -- and Tony Randall -- the fussy photographer Felix Unger -- in the roles played by Walter Matthau and Art Carney on Broadway and Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the 1968 film. Klugman had already had a taste of the show when he replaced Matthau on Broadway and he learned to roll with the quick-thinking Randall, with whom he had worked in 1955 on the CBS series "Appointment with Adventure."

"There's nobody better to improvise with than Tony," Klugman said. "A script might say, 'Oscar teaches Felix football.' There would be four blank pages. He would provoke me into reacting to what he did. Mine was the easy part."

Reuters file
Actors Jack Klugman, left, portraying Oscar Madison, and Tony Randall, portraying Felix Unger, in a scene from their 1970's television series "The Odd Couple."

They were battlers on screen, and the best of friends in real life. When Randall died in 2004 at age 84, Klugman told CNN: "A world without Tony Randall is a world that I cannot recognize."

In "Quincy, M.E.," which ran from 1976 to 1983, Klugman played an idealistic, tough-minded medical examiner who tussled with his boss by uncovering evidence of murder in cases where others saw natural causes.

"We had some wonderful writers," he said in a 1987 Associated Press interview. "Quincy was a muckraker, like Upton Sinclair, who wrote about injustices. He was my ideal as a youngster, my author, my hero.
"Everybody said, 'Quincy'll never be a hit.' I said, 'You guys are wrong. He's two heroes in one, a cop and a doctor.' A coroner has power. He can tell the police commissioner to investigate a murder. I saw the opportunity to do what I'd gotten into the theater to do -- give a message.

"They were going to do cops and robbers with 'Quincy.' I said, 'You promised me I could do causes.' They said, 'Nobody wants to see that.' I said, 'Look at the success of "60 Minutes." They want to see it if you present it as entertainment.'"

For his 1987 role as 81-year-old Nat in the Broadway production of "I'm Not Rappaport," Klugman wore leg weights to learn to shuffle like an elderly man. He said he would wear them for an hour before each performance, "to remember to keep that shuffle."

"The guy is so vital emotionally, but physically he can't be," Klugman said.

"We treat old people so badly. There is nothing easy about 80."

Odd Couple - Outtakes from TV Series   

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born in Philadelphia and began his acting career in college drama (Carnegie Institute of Technology). After serving in the Army during World War I, he went on to summer stock and off-Broadway, rooming with fellow actor Charles Bronson as both looked for paying jobs. He made his Broadway debut in 1952 in a revival of "Golden Boy." His film credits included Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men" and Blake Edwards' "Days of Wine and Roses" and an early television highlight was appearing with Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda in a production of "The Petrified Forest." His performance in the classic 1959 musical "Gypsy" brought him a Tony nomination for best featured (supporting) actor in a musical.

He also appeared in several episodes of "The Twilight Zone," including a memorable 1963 one in which he played a negligent father whose son is seriously wounded in Vietnam. His other TV shows included "The Defenders" and the soap opera "The Greatest Gift."

In a 1987 interview in the New York Daily News, he said, "once I did three hourlong shows in 2½ weeks. Think we'd do that now? Huh! But then it was great. I did summer stock, played the classics. Me!"
Throat cancer took away his raspy voice for several years in the 1980s. When he was back on the stage for a 1993 revival of "Three Men on a Horse," The Associated Press review said, "His voice may be a little scratchy but his timing is as impeccable as ever."

"The only really stupid thing I ever did in my life was to start smoking," he said in 1996. Seeing people smoking in television and films, he added, "disgusts me, it makes me so angry -- kids are watching."
In his later years, he guest-starred on TV series including "Third Watch" and "Crossing Jordan" and appeared in a 2010 theatrical film, "Camera Obscura."

Klugman's hobby was horse racing and he eventually took up raising them, too.

Quincy M.E. (1982)   

"I always loved to gamble," he said. "I never got close to a horse. Fate dealt me a terrible blow when it gave me a good horse the first time out. I thought how easy this is.

"Now I love being around them."

Klugman's wife, actress-comedian Brett Somers, played his ex-wife, Blanche, in the "Odd Couple" series. The couple, who married in 1953 and had two sons, Adam and David, had been estranged for years at the time of her death in 2007.

In February 2008, at age 85, Klugman married longtime girlfriend Peggy Crosby.

In 1997, Klugman was sued by an ex-girlfriend, Barbara Neugass, who claimed he had promised to support her for the rest of her life. But a jury rejected her claim.

-- Biographical material in this story was written by former AP staffer Polly Anderson.

The story behind Mitt Romney’s loss in the presidential campaign to President Obama


A video from a May fund-raiser in Florida showed Romney characterizing nearly half of Americans as “victims” who want government aid. (Associated Press photo of Mother Jones video)

By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / December 22, 2012
It was two weeks before Election Day when Mitt Romney’s political ­director signed a memo that all but ridiculed the notion that the Republican presidential nominee, with his “better ground game,” could lose the key state of Ohio or the election. The race is “unmistakably moving in Mitt Romney’s direction,” the memo said.

But the claims proved wildly off the mark, a fact embarrassingly underscored when the high-tech voter turnout system that Romney himself called “state of the art” crashed at the worst moment, on Election Day.

To this day, Romney’s aides wonder how it all went so wrong.

They console each other with claims that the election was much closer than realized, saying that Romney would be president if roughly 370,000 people in swing states had voted differently. Romney himself blamed demographic shifts and Obama’s “gifts”: ­federal largesse targeted to Democratic constituencies.

But a reconstruction by the Globe of how the campaign unfolded shows that Romney’s problems went deeper than is widely understood. His campaign made a series of costly financial, strategic, and political mistakes that, in retrospect, all but assured the candidate’s defeat, given the revolutionary turnout tactics and tactical smarts of President Obama’s operation.

One of the gravest errors, many say, was the Romney team’s failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate’s personal qualities and leadership gifts. The effect was to open the way for Obama to define Romney through an early blitz of negative advertising. Election Day polls showed that the vast majority of voters concluded that Romney did not really care about average people.

These failures are now the subject of scrutiny by national GOP ­officials who say they plan to “reverse engineer” the ­Romney effort to understand what went wrong. A number of Romney’s top aides stressed in interviews that, while they ­remain proud of their work, they feel an obligation to ­acknowledge their numerous mistakes so lessons are learned.

Rich Beeson, the Romney political director who co­authored the now-discredited Ohio memo, said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and ­offices,” Beeson said. “They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,” something that Romney did not have the staff to match.

Republicans, as it happened, had lost track of their own winning formula.

Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophis­ticated field organization to turn them out. Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.

But losing seemed a remote and unlikely prospect when Romney gathered advisers in Boston and planned the campaign they all believed would put him in the White House.

Private nature

Romney’s inner circle of family and friends understood the candidate’s weakness all too well: He was a deeply private person, with an aversion to reveal­ing too much of himself to the public. They worried that unless the candidate opened up, he would too easily be ­reduced to caricature, as a calculating man of astounding wealth, a man unable to relate to average folks, a man whose Mormon faith put him outside the mainstream.

Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, drew up a list of 12 people whose lives had been helped by his father in ways that were publicly unknown but had been deeply personal and significant, such as assisting a dying teenager in writing a will or quietly helping families in financial need. Such compelling ­vignettes would have been welcome material in almost any other campaign. But Romney’s strategists worried that stressing his personal side would backfire, and a rift opened ­between some in Romney’s circle and his strategists that lasted until the convention. More than being reticent, Romney was at first far from sold on a second presidential run. Haunted by his 2008 loss, he initially told his family he would not do it. While candidates often try to portray themselves as reluctant, Tagg insisted his father’s stance was genuine.

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run,” said Tagg, who worked with his mother, Ann, to persuade his father to seek the presidency. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside. He is a very private person who loves his family deeply and wants to be with them, but he has deep faith in God and he loves his country, but he doesn’t love the attention.”

Adding to the discomfort was Romney’s inability to persuade one of his most valued advisers to join the team. Mike Murphy, who had engineered Romney’s successful race for governor of Massachusetts, under­stood Romney like few others. While Murphy said he was flattered by Romney’s overture, he decided to remain in California, where he was working as a screenwriter and part-time political commentator. So Romney eventually picked as his strategist a man with whom Murphy had repeatedly clashed, Stuart Stevens.

Stevens had helped guide the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, but he was equally well known as an ­author and screenwriter. He had scripted episodes of “Northern Exposure” and told remarkable stories about himself, such as when he wrote in Outside magazine about taking “some of the banned performance-enhancing drugs that are often abused in the ­endurance sports I participate in, like cycling and cross-country skiing.” He seemed like an unusual match for the strait-laced Romney, but some felt that was precisely what the candidate needed.

Stevens had clashed over the years with other campaign consultants, and sniping about his work from the outside came quickly. He had worked on Romney’s 2008 campaign, but had to share power with other advisers, an unworkable arrangement. This time, Romney promised Stevens and partner Russ Schriefer full control.

Stevens wanted to keep the focus on Obama’s handling of the economy and what Romney would do to fix it. A candidate’s biography was of lesser importance. “When you come into a job interview, you don’t start showing family pictures,” ­Stevens said in a postelection interview.

Family members kept pushing for a film or series of advertisements that would show how Romney had helped average people in personal ways, based on Tagg’s list of 12 people, along with clips about how Romney raised his family. The film project was to be overseen by documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley, a longtime family friend who had been allowed to film portions of Romney’s 2008 campaign. But the plan was rejected, leading some in the family to blame Stevens.

Stevens said he did not kill the documentary. But he said he did have a strategic vision that went another way, one he grounded in four questions he put to voters in focus groups.

“There [were] different ­areas that you could go into,” Stevens said. “Talk about Mitt’s business record, Mitt‘s personal story, what Mitt would do as president . . . and why Barack Obama is bad. We tested all four equally. We were open to doing any combination, and the one that tested far and away the best, people wanted to know what Mitt Romney would do as president.”

Romney made the final call: This was Stevens’ campaign to win or lose. And the outlook seemed bright. The veteran GOP pollster Romney hired, Neil Newhouse, found that only 20 percent of those surveyed thought the country was on the right track.

It was, Newhouse said, “extra­ordinarily negative. We figured those numbers probably wouldn’t hold, but if they were anything near that, we were probably in very good shape.”

Organizing strategy

President Obama’s strategy had very different roots.

His national field director, Jeremy Bird, drew his inspiration from the time around 2001 when he witnessed, as a young Harvard Divinity student, a group of African-American students in a Roxbury church, pressing their case for school funding with members of the Boston City Council.

It was a model, in miniature, of grass-roots engagement that would shape Bird’s career in politics and attract him to Obama, who had himself been a community organizer.

Bird was confident that Obama would commit massive resources to building an organization that zeroed in on individual voters. It would be like that Roxbury church encounter, multiplied a thousand times.

“I had watched a group of young people come together; I watched them organize at local level,” Bird said.

And Bird had learned another lesson. He lived in Massachusetts when Romney was elected governor, had studied him and voted against him, and was determined to do everything possible to prevent him from ­becoming president.

So it was that Bird and his colleagues drew up plans to ­expand the electorate into one that could reelect Obama. In Ohio, for example, a “barber shop and beauty salon” strategy was designed to get likely Obama supporters, particularly African-Americans, to register to vote when they went for a haircut. “Faith captains” were assigned to churches to encourage parishioners to turn out for Obama. “Condo captains” were told to know every potential Obama voter in their building. The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics: Each Obama worker would be ­responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney’s team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference.

Technical edge

A first-class ground operation in 2012 required leading-edge technology, and here also an early gap opened between Obama and Romney.

The goal was to create the political equivalent of a Facebook or Twitter, a platform that would change the way presidential campaigns are run. And Obama’s team found just the man for the job: a 34-year-old programming whiz named Harper Reed, who got his start as an 11-year-old pecking on an Apple II and had never held a top job in a political campaign. With his wildly flowing black hair, big earrings, and bigger glasses, he was not long on humil­ity — his website proclaimed that “I am pretty awesome” — but his talents were real.

As Reed assembled his team, he insisted on being given leeway to hire some of the best techies in the country, from ­Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter. Moreover, he insisted the team be largely internal, rather than have the enterprise be divided up among outside consultants.

The group was haunted by the failure of a similar venture in Obama’s 2008 campaign, when a get-out-the-vote computer program called Houdini crashed and could have cost the election if the race had been closer. This time, Reed and his team created a successor that they named Gordon, after the person who punched Houdini in the stomach shortly before the magician died.

Separately, the Obama team created a system called ­Narwahl, named after an Arctic whale, which linked disparate computer programs together. Narwahl and Gordon would be tested repeatedly in exercises that Obama’s team called “game day.” Every imaginable failure would be thrown at the systems — hacker attacks, database meltdowns, Internet failures — and the team would be challenged to write up a manual for how to deal with each ­disaster. It was, they said, more fun than the fantasy war game Dungeons & Dragons.

Election app

Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, did not have the luxury of Reed’s time or resources. Moffatt came from the world of politics, had worked at the Republican National Committee and had long believed Romney would be the best GOP candidate for president.

Moffatt played catch-up from the start. He had 14 people working for him in the primaries and then, around May 1, he submitted a general election plan that required at least 110 people and would eventually have 160. Obama was far ahead. Moffatt recalled his assign­ment in daunting terms: “Can we do 80 percent of what the Obama campaign is doing, in 20 percent of the time, at 10 percent of the cost?”

Moffatt’s team nonetheless managed to create big projects on short notice. For example, one of the highest priorities was a Facebook app that would ­enable the Romney campaign to locate voters who otherwise could not be found by telephone. By some estimates, half of younger voters do not have a landline or cannot be reached by cellphone. Three weeks before Election Day, the app was unveiled by the campaign and downloaded by 40,000 Romney supporters.

There was only one problem. Months earlier, Obama’s campaign had developed a similar app, which had been downloaded by 1 million people.

Defining Romney

David Axelrod, Obama’s ­senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift.

For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy.

“I questioned why they didn’t spend more time and ­energy early defining Romney in a fuller way so people could identify with him,” Axelrod said in a postelection interview.

“One of my conclusions is so much of his life was kind of walled off from use. His faith is important to him, but they didn’t want to talk about that. His business was important, but they didn’t want to talk about that much. His governorship was important to him, but his signature achievement [health care] was unhelpful to them in the Republican primary. My feeling is you have to build a candidacy on the foundation of biography. That is what authenticates your message. I was always waiting for that happen.”

Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond.

From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.

The candidate’s life

Beth Myers, one of ­Romney’s top advisers, had a nagging worry. Obama’s campaign was running ads in markets such as suburban Virginia designed to appeal to women voters. Myers wondered if the Romney campaign should ­invest in a direct response.

“I wish I had expressed my deep concern more vociferously at that point; this was May, June, when they really went on the offense,” Myers said. “I ­remember thinking, ‘This bothers me.’ ’’

That worry was a window into greater concerns about how the Romney campaign was handling its advertising money.

In campaign postmortems, Republicans have been criticized for spending too much on advertising compared with Democrats, even as some ­reports said Obama was able to book television spots more cheaply, run more ads in key states, and reach key voters more effectively.

The Obama campaign used a program called “the ­optimizer” that linked data from its voter databases, focus groups, and television ratings to determine how to reach people who do not typically see campaign ads. As a result, Obama purchased ads on channels such as TV Land and Hallmark that were watched by voters who rarely saw news programs where ads often appear.

Stevens said the criticism of the Romney ad strategy is misguided. When advertising by the campaigns is compared, he said, Obama spent twice as much as Romney.

In any case, as Romney continued to run negative ads, the pressure mounted from ­Romney’s family and friends to tell more about his life as the GOP convention approached.

Ann Romney, who had long pushed for more focus on her husband’s personal story, made her point directly in a convention video: “If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they’ve lived their life.” A Vermont couple appeared on the convention stage to tell the emotional story of how Romney, as a Mormon leader, helped their dying 14-year-old son, David Oparowski, write his will. “How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski, the boy’s mother, said in her speech.

But Romney’s campaign, still concerned about highlighting Mormonism and taking the focus away from the economy, arranged for the testimonial and an accompanying video to come before commercial television networks broadcast the proceedings. Instead, prime-time viewers saw Clint Eastwood pretending to talk to Obama in an empty chair.

47 percent

Shortly after Romney wrapped up the nomination, he stopped by for a conversation with Myers to discuss an idea that he believed would be the key to winning the presidency. He called it the Manhattan Project.

Named after the government program to build the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project was designed to turn a perceived weakness — Romney’s much-anticipated matchup with Obama in the fall debates — into the campaign’s greatest strength.

So Romney proposed months of intense preparation, with 16 mock debates. (Obama did 11.) Then, just as Romney seemed ready, the campaign ­received news that a video had been leaked in which the candidate characterized 47 percent of Americans as “victims” who wanted government benefits and would never vote for him. That left the impression that Romney was referring not just to people on welfare but also to recipients of Social Security and veterans benefits. It seemed to confirm the worst view of ­Romney, that he didn’t care about average people. His poll numbers plummeted.

If the Manhattan Project was ever needed, it was now.

Obama unprepared

Obama played right into the strategy. After some lethargic rehearsals, in which Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts played the Romney role, Obama never mentioned the 47 percent controversy during the first debate. The president skipped at least two practice sessions at which he was going to review material. Obama seemed as unready as Romney was ready. “This was an exposure of Mitt Romney that people hadn’t seen before,” said ­Newhouse. “He had been a caricature who’d outsourced jobs, offshored jobs. The Mitt ­Romney they saw in debates was articulate, thoughtful, and had a plan.” Romney’s rating went up by 9 points in some key states, although that subsided as Obama performed strongly in the subsequent two debates.

Romney’s aides were gleeful. They had — fortuitously, it now seemed — made a strategic ­decision to spend heavily on October advertising, the opposite of the Obama campaign’s ­approach.

This surprised Axelrod, who questioned what he called Romney’s “backloaded” ad strategy, saying he could not think of a single effective ad in any presidential campaign that began airing after Labor Day.

Stevens, however, thought money for late advertising was important. “It was a hard decision,” Stevens said at a post-election seminar at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, “but we ­enjoyed spending that money in October.”

Like the Alamo

Tagg Romney could not figure it out. Why had Obama spent so heavily during the primaries when he had no primary opponent? Only later did Tagg realize this was a key to Obama’s victory.

“We were looking at all the money they were spending in the primary and we were thinking ‘what are they spending all their money on? They’re wasting a lot of money.’ They weren’t. They were paying staffers in Florida” and elsewhere.

If Romney’s Manhattan Project had been debate preparation, then Obama’s was the ground game.

Building on its 2008 field organ­ization, Obama’s campaign had far more people on the ground, for longer periods, and backed by better data. In Florida, for example, the ­Romney campaign said it had fewer than 200 staff members on the ground, a huge commitment of its total of 500 nationwide. But the Obama campaign had 770 staff in Florida out of 3,000 or so nationwide.

“They had more staff in Florida than we had in the country, and for longer,” said Romney adviser Ron Kaufman.

Indeed, in swing state after swing state, the Obama field team was much bigger than the Romney troops. Obama had 123 offices in Ohio, compared with Romney’s 40. Obama had 59 offices in Colorado, compared with Romney’s 15, accord­ing to statistics compiled by the Obama campaign.

Stevens said he expressed alarm about the Democrat’s early advantage in money and staff. He said Obama’s decision to reject public financing for the fall campaign (a move Romney followed) worked to Obama’s advantage ­because Obama used primary funds to prepare for the general election, and it meant there was no ceiling on how much could be spent.

“It is like sitting in the ­Alamo,” Stevens said in the postelection interview, comparing the siege by Mexican troops in 1836 to competing against the superior forces of the Obama campaign. “Yes, it is alarming. There are a lot of Santa Anna’s soldiers out there.”

Ground game

Romney’s confidence remained strong as Election Day approached. While public polls showed Obama in control, some of Romney’s internal polls showed him winning.

But Obama’s field organization was too strong. In Florida, 266,000 more Hispanics voted than four years earlier. “They altered the face of the election by driving up the Latino turnout,” Romney political director Rich Beeson said. “They told us they would do it. I didn’t think they would do it, and they did.”

Ohio was the greatest surprise of all. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse calculated that 209,000 more African-Americans voted this year than in 2008 in Ohio, while 329,000 fewer whites had voted.

“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Newhouse said. “If that is what the Obama campaign achieved, hats off to them.’’

A key difference was the depth of voter contact. Romney took comfort in polls that showed voters had been contacted equally by both campaigns. But the polls were misleading, perhaps equating a recorded robocall on the phone with a house call by a worker.

“It wasn’t well understood what they were doing,” Newhouse said. “We asked the question in polls, ‘Have you been contacted by campaigns?’ Our overall contact was pretty similar. But their in-person contact was beating us by 3 to 2.”

Kevin Madden, a longtime Romney confidant who served as a spokesman in the final months of the campaign, said that he regrets that the campaign did not adhere to what worked for Republicans in 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection with an innovative ground game.

“We were in position of arguing against something that I had seen proven correct in 2004,” Madden said. “We have to remember that the nature of campaigns has changed. We did it in right in 2004 and we have lost a step.”

System failure

As dawn broke on Election Day, 800 Romney volunteers filled the floor of TD Garden in Boston. This was the centerpiece of the campaign’s turnout operation, code named ORCA, that was supposed to swallow Obama’s Narwhal program. But the Romney team was so determined to keep ORCA secret that it had never run a test at TD Garden; it had only gone through some lesser runs in a different building.

The ORCA workers were supposed to be in contact with more than 30,000 volunteers stationed at polling places across the country. Those volunteers were told to bring a smartphone and go to a secure Web page on which they could report the names of everyone who voted. In this way, the Romney campaign could determine if supporters had failed to show up and urge them to vote.

But as volunteers on Election Day began tapping in the names of voters, it became clear something was wrong.

The system was so overloaded with incoming data from volunteers that it exceeded capacity and crashed.

The Obama campaign, which had suffered a similar meltdown in 2008 and had been zealous about testing its systems this time around, had no glitches. Tens of thousands of Obama volunteers across the country sent real-time data from polling places, enabling workers at Chicago headquarters to ensure that expected vote totals were on track. More importantly, the field organization put in place by Jeremy Bird hit its goals, turning out the needed number of voters to reelect the president.

Call the president

As Romney’s campaign plane landed at Logan International Airport at around 6 p.m. on Election Day, he turned on his iPad and opened the Drudge Report. “Uh oh,” someone said upon seeing reports of early exit polls. But Romney still had hope.

Arriving at his suite in the Westin Boston Waterfront ­hotel, Romney received regular updates from his staff. He made small talk about the Patriots and the Celtics and played with his grandchildren. He was about to concede around 11:15 p.m when Republican strategist Karl Rove made his now-infamous appearance on Fox News Channel, insisting that his own network was wrong in calling Ohio for the president.

The concession call was canceled, followed by an hour of uncertainty. Then, after Fox ­executives dismissed Rove’s concerns and stood by the network’s projection, Romney said: Call the president.

Lessons learned

Exit polls told a stunning story. The majority of voters preferred Romney’s visions, values, and leadership. But he had clearly failed to address the problem that Romney’s own family worried about from the start. Obama beat Romney by an astonishing 81 to 18 percent margin on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.”

That finding still frustrates those closest to Romney. His former lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, who believed the campaign wasted an opportunity to highlight Romney’s life at the convention, said, “even at the end of the campaign, I never felt that the American people understood Mitt Romney’s genuine character and that is a terrible shame.”

Romney, who did not respond to an interview request, was ultimately responsible for his campaign’s failings. Republicans variously blamed factors such as a candidate who was too moderate or not moderate enough, a lower-than-expected turnout of white voters for Romney coupled with a heavy minority vote for Obama, and the president’s leadership during the Sandy storm.

Inevitably, much of the blame has been directed at ­Stevens, and he hasn’t ducked it. “If there’s blame to be thrown, throw it my way,” he said. But he said it should be noted that Obama had no primary opponents, giving him an enormous advantage.

In the coming months, ­Romney, ever the data-driven analyst, plans to contemplate how his political life came to an end, and what the party should do next, according to his son Tagg. The fight for the ideological soul of the party will play out for months. But recommendations are already pouring in for the party to create a ground-game infrastructure long before a nominee is selected, to catch up to the Democratic advantage in high-tech turnout operations, and to find ways to make the party more inclusive for minorities and women.

Romney himself will make the case to the party for many such changes, according to Tagg.

“Having been through it, you know so much more than when you haven’t,” Tagg said.

Michael Kranish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@GlobeKranish. He is the coauthor, with the Globe’s Scott Helman, of “The Real Romney.”

Barack Obama 'eager' to fall off fiscal cliff, says senior Republican senator

Senator John Barrasso tells Fox News Sunday he thinks the president is 'eager to go off fiscal cliff for political purposes'
US president Barack Obama

Barack Obama, the US president, has been accused of 'sensing victory at the bottom of the fiscal cliff' by a senior Republican senator. Photograph: Larry Downing/Reuters 

President Barack Obama has been accused by a senior Republican of being eager to take the US over the fiscal cliff for political gain, as Washington edges closer to a year-end deadline with no deal in sight.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Senator John Barrasso, the third-highest ranking senator in the GOP, suggested that the president "sensed victory at the bottom of the cliff".

Earlier, Obama called on Congress to "cool off" over the holiday break, amid rising rhetoric on both sides. On Friday, the White House raised the prospect of settling for a stopgap measure to avert the punitive tax rises and swingeing spending cuts which are due to come in effect on 1 January. The president had previously pushed for a grand compromise to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

But with just nine days to go until the year-end deadline, Democrats and Republicans are seemingly still some way off from any agreement, be it to a comprehensive deal or short-term measures.

Asked if he believed that the US was heading towards missing the deadline, and thus falling off the fiscal cliff, Barrasso said: "I believe we are. I believe the president is eager to go over the cliff for political purposes. He senses a victory at the bottom of the cliff. I think it hurts our county and it hurts our economy."

Speaking on the same show the Democrat senator Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate budget committee, held out some hope of a comprehensive solution ahead of 1 January, rather than scaled-down package that could merely kick the debate into 2013.

"I would hope we have one last attempt," he said.

Conrad suggested that the two sides could come to a compromise somewhere between the president's last offer and a plan that was put forward by John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

Obama had been pushing a plan that would have seen tax revenues rise by $1.6tn over the next decade, with a hike in the rate for those earning upwards of $250,000 a year central to proposals. Boehner has argued that such a move would be a "crippling blow" and that it was not accompanied by a large enough swipe at federal spending.

His "plan B" would have pushed more limited tax increases on those earning in excess of $1m. But even that was not enough to assuage Tea Party-backed Republicans in Congress, who rebelled against the proposal on Thursday.

The White House has indicated that it is willing to move the threshold for those targeted for more tax to $400,000. But with anti-tax House representatives in no mood to compromise it is uncertain if this offer, or even a greater concession by Democrats to move the line to $500,000, will get much traction in the House.

Obama is currently on holiday in Hawaii. Before leaving he urged both sides of the aisle to have a rethink over the consequences of not reaching a deal.

The fiscal cliff represents some $600bn worth of spending cuts and tax increases which will hit all Americans which are due to be automatically triggered on 1 January, in the event of no deal over how to stabilise national debt. Experts have warned that the situation would be catastrophic for the fragile US economic recovery.

"Now is not the time for more self-inflicted wounds, certainly not those coming from Washington," Obama said on Friday. As such he urged Democrats and Republicans to "cool off" over the Christmas break and return to Congress in a mood to compromise.

Aides have said that despite being on vacation in Hawaii, the president will be receiving regular briefings on the state of talks and is prepared to come back to Washington early, if events demand.
Ted Nugent blames Connecticut shooting on political correctness, moral decline in editorial

By Zeke Jennings |

on December 19, 2012 at 9:18 PM, 

updated December 19, 2012 at 9:26 PM
Ted Nugent blamed political correctness and moral decline for a recent shooting in Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 children in an editorial for the Washington Times.File photo 

With the issue of gun control more hotly debated than ever following Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., it should be no surprise that Ted Nugent– a board member of the National Rifle Association and staunch Second Amendment supporter – would make his opinion known.

The rocker, outdoorsman and political activist penned an editorial for the Washington Times in which he blamed the massacre that left 20 children dead on political correctness out of control and a decline in moral values.

“The ugly and dangerous truth is that we live in an embarrassing, politically correct culture that exalts and rejoices in the bizarre; aggressively promotes an ‘anything goes’ value system; and vilifies, condemns and mocks traditional societal values and customs at every opportunity,” Nugent wrote.

“We’ve embraced a culture of contempt that attacks the very institutions that make for a healthy and strong society, and then we’re shocked when it spirals out of control. The only thing I’m shocked about is that anybody is shocked.”

Nugent also accused anti-gun proponents of using the mass shooting to further their agenda.

“Some blabbermouths already are using the Connecticut school massacre to promote their anti-gun agenda even though more gun laws won’t prevent a psychotic from getting a gun and killing us,” he wrote.

Nugent, a Detroit native who owns property in Jackson County, isn’t the only Michigan-born celebrity known for his political opinions to weigh in on the subject.
Ted Nugent rips Bob Costas for gun control segment during Sunday Night Football 

By Zeke Jennings |
on December 03, 2012 at 10:30 AM,
updated December 03, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Ted Nugent and Ace Frehley show 
Rocker, outdoorsman and political activist Ted Nugent had some choice words for sports journalist Bob Costas this morning. J. Scott Park |

Following the murder-suicide incident involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher on Saturday, NBC’s Bob Costas used his halftime segment during “Sunday Night Football” to lobby to a national audience for stronger gun-control laws.

“If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today,” Costas said.

Perkins was Belcher’s girlfriend and mother of the couple’s 3-month-old daughter.

Second Amendment advocate Ted Nugent ripped Costas via Twitter this morning, including these posts:

“We thought Bob Costas was smarter than that. Only fools blame tools instead of human failings. Shame Bob,” and “Blaming guns for crime is like blaming helmuts (sic) for headbutts. … Uve lost it.”

It’s no surprise Nugent – one of the Second Amendment’s most-outspoken proponents – would be offended by Costas’s remarks. Many others are questioning the iconic sports journalist’s decision to use the platform to make a political statement, as well.

Do you think Costas acted appropriately in using a sports platform to speak on gun control?

Flint native Michael Moore calls for gun control in light of Connecticut school shooting

Gary Ridley | By Gary Ridley |
on December 14, 2012 at 2:45 PM, 
updated December 14, 2012 at 3:16 PM

michael moore.jpg
Michael Moore           

FLINT, MI -- Filmmaker Michael Moore, who was born in Flint, is calling for stricter gun control laws via his Twitter feed following a shooting at Connecticut elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, that has left nearly 30 people dead.

A gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., killed 26 people  -- including 18 children, according to the Associated Press. 

A law enforcement official in Washington said the attacker was a 20-year-old man with ties to the school and that one of the guns was a .223-caliber rifle, the Associated Press is reporting. Officials believe two guns were used.

Moore has posted multiple Tweets in the past hour on the subject:

  • "Only minutes away from pundits & politicians say, 'This isn't the time to talk about gun control.' Really? When is that moment?"
  • "The way to honor these dead children is to demand strict gun control, free mental health care and an end to violence as public policy."
  • "Too soon to speak out about a gun-crazy nation? No, too late. At least THIRTY-ONE school shootings since Columbine."
  • "Just 18 hrs ago, those Republicans in the Michigan House rammed thru a bill making it LEGAL to carry a gun into a school or day care center."
Conservative author Ann Coulter released a tweet of her own following the shooting:
  • "Only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder: concealed-carry laws"

‘No desire’ for the latest Romney excuse

Mitt and Ann Romney
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tagg Romney, you know, the eldest son of Mitt Romney who wanted to “take a swing” at President Obama
after the second debate, made an unbelievable revelation in an interview with the Boston Globe. Turns out, his dad never really wanted to be president.

“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire to . . . run,” Tagg told Michael Kranish of the Globe. “If he could have found someone else to take his place . . . he would have been ecstatic to step aside.” Kranish also noted that “Tagg … worked with his mother, Ann, to persuade his father to seek the presidency.”

On the one hand, I am inclined to believe Tagg. His father ran one of the worst presidential campaigns in modern memory. Perhaps it’s a former Massachusetts governor thing. Mike Dukakis didn’t do so hot as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. Also, Romney never offered a credible rationale for why he wanted to sit in the Oval Office other than he wanted to sit in the Oval Office.

On the other hand, I say horse hockey to Tagg’s assertion. His father spent the better part of six years running for the White House. And he did so in a manner that led to frequent charges of ideological promiscuity and a deep-seated mistrust among conservatives. Have we already forgotten how “anybody but Mitt” was the GOP mantra until there was nobody but Mitt left to take the nomination? Also, for a man who didn’t want to be president, he sure had no problem burying his competition under an avalanche of negative ads or tacking to the right of them on whatever issue when it was necessary to get the job done.

The one thing I believe fully is that Ann was totally behind the effort to get her husband to run again. The Post’s Philip Rucker reported that friends of the Romneys said that the would-be first lady was taking her husband’s loss especially hard because she “believed up until the end that ascending to the White House was their destiny.” Romney had to learn a life lesson the hard way: The White House is earned.

Another lesson learned the hard way is that the American people don’t like to feel like the person running for president is doing them a favor. That we should be so “lucky” to have someone like them in the White House, as Ann said of her husband during a September radio interview in Iowa. But it worked out in the end. The man who had “no desire to run” learned that the American people had no desire to have him in the White House.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) sells everything from its political agenda to its merchandise with a simple equation: more guns equal more freedom. The NRA steadfastly maintains that the 30,000 gun-related deaths with firearms in the United States every year are a small price to pay to guarantee freedom.
"A people cannot long retain their freedom, whose government is incapable of protecting them." 

- Oliver Ellsworth, a drafter of the constitution, advocate for a strong federal government, and the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
When gun enthusiasts talk about "freedom," they have something specific in mind—freedom from government oppression. In their view, unfettered access to firearms is the key ingredient to protecting individual rights from overreaching by government. They argue that the only way to keep centralized authority in check is to ensure that individual citizens retain the capability to confront the government with force of arms. 

As NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has said, “The people have a right to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.” 
This idea, which we call “insurrectionism,” is part of a broader ideological perspective that opposes a strong, activist government in nearly all of its forms. Insurrectionist philosophy degrades the democratic values and institutions that protect all of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Gun lobby extremists have been perfectly willing to trample on any freedom that gets in the way of their pursuit of unrestricted private access to firearms (i.e., property rights, access to justice, freedom of information, public safety, etc.). This toxic mix of ideology and firepower has moved beyond rhetoric and resulted in real violence in our country.

FBI Gun Background Check
Database Missing Millions Of Records On Mentally Ill

The Huffington Post | By Jeffrey Young Posted: 12/21/2012 2:30 pm EST | Updated: 12/21/2012 2:59 pm EST 

Feedral safeguards meant to keep guns out of the hands of potentially violent individuals have a huge shortcoming: the database used for background checks may be missing millions of records about people with mental illnesses who are forbidden to own firearms

Despite improvements in recent years, state governments are failing to submit records to the Federal Bureau of Investigations of people with mental illnesses who have been institutionalized or otherwise deemed by authorities to be dangerous to themselves or others, 

The New York Times reported Friday. The Times cited a 2011 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 700 city officials that is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), an outspoken proponent of stricter gun control laws .

The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence. 

The firearms used to murder 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., last week were legally purchased by one of the victims, Nancy Lanza, 52. Lanza was the mother of the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who committed suicide at the scene of the massacre. 

Current gun laws to prevent people with mental illnesses from buying firearms apply to people who may not be prone to violence while leaving out others who may be, The Huffington Post reported Monday. 

People who have been institutionalized or subject to legal sanctions related to their mental health conditions can't buy guns, regardless of whether their illnesses are associated with violence. At the same time, individuals with mental illnesses or histories of violence who haven't been processed by the legal system don't fall under these rules. 

The weapons used in the Newtown murders and the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., last year that took six lives and severely wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) were purchased legally by people not subject to gun law restrictions, as were the firearms used by the alleged killer of 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater this year. 

Nevertheless, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre on Friday called for the government to establish a registry of everyone in America with a mental illness. "How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame," he said a news conference during which he took no questions from reporters. "A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?" 

Advocates for people with mental illnesses object to characterizations of such individuals as inherently dangerous and argue that broadening restrictions against gun ownership by including more people in the background check database encourages unfair stereotyping. Requiring people with mental illnesses to essentially register with the FBI could discourage them from seeking treatment, the National Alliance on Mental Illness contends. 

U.S. gun control laws dating to the 1968 limit firearms ownership for categories of citizens including those with felony convictions and people designated by a court or another official body as a danger to themselves or others, who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or who have pleaded insanity in a criminal trial. 

To improve enforcement of these restrictions, the federal government established the the National Instant Criminal Background Check Systems Index as part of the so-called Brady Bill of 1993. The system is designed to screen people prohibited by law from legally obtaining firearms. 

The background checks database has 7.3 million active records of people not allowed to buy guns, and 1.4 million of those records were related to mental illnesses as of Dec. 31, 2011, according to an FBI report. 

The database consists in part of information states submit to the FBI. But states have failed to provide federal authorities with records of people who fall under the mental illness provisions of gun control laws, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Nineteen states have transmitted fewer than 100 records to the FBI relating to people with mental illnesses, according to the Mayors Against Illegal Guns report. "That suggests that millions of names are missing from the federal database, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials say," The New York Times reported. 

The man who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 shouldn't have been allowed to purchase firearms, but Virginia failed to submit his records to the FBI -- so he passed a background check. The following year, Congress tied federal crime-fighting dollars to states' submission of such information. 

Since the change in law, the number of mental-health records in the FBI database has more than doubled, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Virginia has significantly improved its performance since the Virginia Tech killings, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Virginia, led by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, has led the nation in reporting. Mr. McDonnell is an advocate of gun rights, but he also has emphasized the importance of the national database for background checks. Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Related on HuffPost:

Gaps in F.B.I. Data Undercut Background Checks for Guns

Mary F. Calvert for The New York Times 

Dennis Pratte, owner of a gun store in Falls Church, Va., said he sold weapons only to buyers who cleared a background check.

Published: December 20, 2012

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Nearly two decades after lawmakers began requiring background checks for gun buyers, significant gaps in the F.B.I.’s database of criminal and mental health records allow thousands of people to buy firearms every year who should be barred from doing so.

The database is incomplete because many states have not provided federal authorities with comprehensive records of people involuntarily committed or otherwise ruled mentally ill. Records are also spotty for several other categories of prohibited buyers, including those who have tested positive for illegal drugs or have a history of domestic violence.

While some states, including New York, have submitted more than 100,000 names of mentally ill people to the F.B.I. database, 19 — including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland and Maine — have submitted fewer than 100 records and Rhode Island has submitted none, according to federal data compiled by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. That suggests that millions of names are missing from the federal database, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials say.

“Until it has all the records of people out there in the country who have been deemed too dangerous to own a firearm, the background check system still looks like Swiss cheese,” said Mark Glaze, director of the group. The gaps exist because the system is voluntary; the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal government cannot force state officials to participate in the federal background check system. As a result, when a gun dealer asks the F.B.I. to check a buyer’s history, the bureau sometimes allows the sale to proceed, even though the purchaser should have been prohibited from acquiring a weapon, because its database is missing the relevant records.

While the database flaws do not appear to have been a factor in the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, they have been linked to other attacks, including the Virginia Tech mass murder in 2007. In that case, a Virginia state judge had declared the gunman mentally ill, but the record of that proceeding was not submitted to the F.B.I. He was able to pass a background check and buy the weapons he used to kill 32 people and wound 17 others.

Since then, Virginia has increased its submissions to the F.B.I. But other states have not taken similar steps because of lack of political will, technical obstacles and state privacy laws, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which conducted a survey of states last year about their compliance. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York is a co-chairman of the group.

A July report by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan Congressional watchdog, found that the total number of mental health records submitted by states to the background check system increased to 1.2 million from about 126,000 between 2004 and 2011, but that the increase largely reflected the efforts of just 12 states. And, it found, 30 states were not making noncriminal records — like positive drug test results for people on probation — available to the system.

Charles H. Ramsey, the police commissioner in Philadelphia, said the system needed to be strengthened immediately. “There is a lot of data sitting in different places, and we need to be able to access it in a timely fashion,” he said. “It ought to be a top priority now.”

The gaps in the database have exacerbated the effect of a loophole that results in violent felons, fugitives and the mentally ill being able to buy firearms when the F.B.I. cannot determine the person’s history during a three-day waiting period.

Roughly 97 percent of the time, specialists said, the F.B.I. can provide an instant answer, but sometimes an ambiguity — an arrest record that does not say whether someone was convicted, or a common name — requires calling local courthouses to track down the information.

That can cause delays as local officials search through records, some of which are not yet digitized, law enforcement officials said. If the F.B.I. investigation is not completed within the waiting period, would-be gun buyers are permitted to go ahead.

Since 2005, 22,162 firearms — including nearly 3,000 this year — have been bought after the waiting period by people later determined to have been disqualified because of their criminal and mental histories, according to an examination of F.B.I. data.

Some of the weapons were used in violent crimes, including a fatal drive-by shooting, but it is not clear how many were linked to criminal acts, because authorities are barred by Congress from tracking such information.

Many of the guns were not swiftly confiscated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as federal law requires, according to current and former federal law enforcement officials and government documents. It could take weeks or months to collect them, if ever, the officials said, because the agency is too thinly stretched to make retrieval a high priority.

The bureau and several of its agents said in interviews that they focused on trying to recover firearms from felons who had recently committed a violent crime or were under a restraining order. But Scot Thomasson, a former chief of the A.T.F.’s firearms operations division who retired this year, said that Congress, facing pressure from gun lobbyists, had made it hard for the agency to do its job by restricting its funding, forcing tough decisions.

“If you are an agent and are hot on the trail of a guy who killed a lot of people,” he said, “you are not going to turn around and work on one of these cases.”

Some gun shops say they sell to buyers who have not been cleared in the three-day window, including Bass Pro Shops, which has 58 stores in the United States. “We follow the law,” said Larry L. Whiteley, a spokesman. But if a buyer is “jittery or acting funny,” he said, “we won’t sell them the firearm.”

Other businesses — including the country’s largest gun dealer, Walmart — say they do not sell firearms to buyers if the F.B.I. has not responded in the three-day window. Dennis Pratte, owner of the NOVA weapons store in Falls Church, Va., said, “We are just as concerned about firearms getting into the wrong hands as the state police or the F.B.I.”

After the school shooting in Newtown, in which 20 first graders and six adults were killed, pressure has mounted on President Obama and lawmakers to strengthen federal gun laws. On Wednesday, Mr. Obama said Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would lead a task force to propose ways to limit sales of assault weapons and close loopholes.

That probably will focus attention on the F.B.I.’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system, which was required by the 1993 Brady background-check law.

At an office building in Clarksburg, W.Va., servers and backup drives hum in a huge basement. Upstairs, workers with headsets sit in cubicles, taking calls from gun dealers across the country. In 2012, about 17 million background checks have been done through the F.B.I.’s system.

The background check requirements apply only to licensed dealers, not the private sellers who account for an estimated 40 percent of sales. Restrictions imposed by Congress on government tracking of firearms make it hard to know exactly how many weapons are sold each year, but according to the A.T.F., more than five million firearms are manufactured each year for sale in the United States, and about three million more such weapons are imported. Those numbers do not account for the sale of used guns.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress enacted a law designed to improve the background check system, including directing federal agencies to share relevant data with the F.B.I. and setting up a special grant program to encourage states to share more information with the federal government. But only states that also set up a system for people to petition to get their gun purchasing rights restored were eligible under the law — a key concession to the National Rifle Association — which proved to be an extra hurdle many states have not yet overcome.

While the law also allowed the Justice Department to withhold some general law enforcement grant money from states that did not submit their records to the system, the department has not imposed any such penalties, the G.A.O. found. After the January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that left Representative Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded, the Justice Department developed a blueprint to close the holes in the background check system, including steps that could be taken by executive order and not require Congressional action. But the recommendations were largely shelved at the time because the political atmosphere was deeply hostile to new gun control steps.

Lawmakers and groups for gun control have pushed a bill called the Fix Gun Checks Act, co-sponsored by Representative Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Charles E. Schumer, both New York Democrats, to resolve many of the problems. Their proposals, however, have faced stiff opposition from gun rights advocates. This week, Ms. McCarthy, whose husband died in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road 19 years ago, called for her legislation to move, saying the Newtown schoolchildren massacre had changed the political environment.

“There’s always sadness after a mass shooting — there’s public mourning,” she said. “But this time I’m also seeing a lot of anger. Anger from people fed up with gun violence in America. Anger from people fed up with the gun lobby’s tactics in Washington. And anger from people fed up with the lack of courage that too many of the politicians here have.”