June 7, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

As the Biden administration works to tighten access to “assault weapons,” a federal judge has overturned California’s assault weapons ban. The ban has been in place for 30 years and, while U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego is allowing the state to appeal the decision before the ban evaporates, he ruled, “Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive.”

Over 94 pages, the judge said that semi-automatic rifles are used lawfully in most of the country and, “Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle.” He added, “This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection. The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns. Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes.”

Benitez said the public’s misunderstanding about AR-15 rifles is the fault of “the media,” and wrote: “One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter.”

He went on to make some comparisons:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation murder statistics do not track assault rifles, but they do show that killing by knife attack is far more common than murder by any kind of rifle. In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle. For example, according to F.B.I. statistics for 2019.
  • California saw 252 people murdered with a knife.
  • While 34 people were killed with some type of rifle — not necessarily an AR-15.
  • A Californian is three times more likely to be murdered by an attacker’s bare hands, fists, or feet, than by his rifle.
  • In 2018, the statistics were even more lopsided as California saw only 24 murders by some type of rifle.
  • The same pattern can be observed across the nation.

Benitez adapted an argument that pro-gun groups have been making for years: that the phrase “assault weapon” does not apply to the AR-15:

As an aside, the “assault weapon” epithet is a bit of a misnomer. These prohibited guns, like all guns, are dangerous weapons. However, these prohibited guns, like all guns, can be used for ill or for good. They could just as well be called “home defense rifles” or “anti-crime guns.”

The mechanical design features that identify a rifle as a California “assault weapon,” it is argued, tend to help a person shoot the rifle more accurately under pressure. The Plaintiffs make the point that this is a better condition for all lawful uses, i.e., a more accurate gun is better for everyone. After all, responsible gun-owners worry about the ending point of every round fired. If shooting in self-defense, a home defender wants every round to hit only attackers.

In contrast, the Attorney General argues that better accuracy makes it a more dangerous weapon. According to the Attorney General, “assault weapons enable a shooter to fire more rounds rapidly in a given period with greater accuracy, increasing the likelihood that more individuals will be shot and suffer more numerous injuries.”

The judge also went into deep detail about the popularity of what he called “modern sporting rifles,” saying:

Nationally, modern rifles are ubiquitous.

In 2018 alone (the most recent year with data), 1,954,000 modern rifles were manufactured or imported into the United States.

Over the last three decades, 19,797,000 modern rifles have been manufactured or imported into the United States and the numbers have been steadily increasing.

Almost one-half of all rifles (48%) produced in 2018 were modern rifles. That is 664,360 rifles.

That same year, 34% of buyers purchased a modern rifle for personal protection, while 36% purchased for target practice or informal shooting, and 29% purchased for hunting.

In contrast, only 5% of traditional rifles were bought for personal protection.

For female gun buyers in 2018, after a handgun, a modern rifle was the next most popular choice.

The same was true of all first-time gun buyers in 2018.

During 2018, approximately 18,327,314 people participated nationally in target and sport shooting specifically with modern rifles.

The judge said there are probably more AR-15 style rifles in circulation than there are F-150 pickup trucks.

Remember the stories about smokers being less likely to get COVID-19? Tobacco companies back the studies.

A man smokes a cigarette while wearing a protective mask in Detroit, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

In the early days of the pandemic, stories and studies began circulating that, for some reason, smokers in China and France seemed to be less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19. I saw a vaping news site repeat the story a couple of weeks ago. Some headlines asked if nicotine might be some kind of protector.

Later, real studies showed that far from protecting people, smoking was associated with a 14% increased chance of COVID-19 related death.

Now, tobacco watchdog groups have discovered that one of the sources of the first rumors that tobacco prevented COVID-19 was from a darling of tobacco companies whose laboratory has been funded by pro-tobacco groups. That researcher says he has not taken tobacco money in a couple of decades.

The reporting comes from two journalists — Stephane Horel of Le Monde and Ties Keyzer of The Investigative Desk.

By the way, there is some new data that indicates smokers may have smoked more during the COVID-19 lockdown. It is a fairly narrow study, but interesting all the same. Curiously, a Canadian study found just the opposite outcome.

Understanding the new CDC alarm over unvaccinated teens

It is true that teens are less susceptible to the most severe consequences of COVID-19 than seniors. In fact, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, people older than age 18 are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than younger people. By comparison, the hospitalization rate for teens with COVID-19 is about twice that of the seasonal flu. I say that because the raw figures may be more useful context than percentages.

But the newest data shows young people are far from immune. Kids who have underlying health issues are the biggest concern. New data from 14 states found:

Among 204 adolescents who were likely hospitalized primarily for COVID-19 during Jan. 1 through March 31 this year:

  • 31.4% were admitted to an intensive care unit.
  • 4.9% required invasive mechanical ventilation.
  • There were no associated deaths.

USA Today dives into the study:

About 70% of hospitalized adolescents had one or more underlying medical conditions, with the most common being obesity, chronic lung disease including asthma and neurological disorders.

But Dr. Henry Bernstein, pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, said it’s important to note that nearly 30% of hospitalized adolescents were “perfectly healthy.”

“So, it’s not just those that have underlying conditions that need to be vaccinated,” said Bernstein, who is also a member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice (ACIP). “Everyone needs to be vaccinated.”

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky used the data to push teens to get vaccinated. She said:

I am deeply concerned by the numbers of hospitalized adolescents and saddened to see the number of adolescents who required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation.

Much of this suffering can be prevented.

Until they are fully vaccinated, adolescents should continue to wear masks and take precautions when around others who are not vaccinated to protect themselves, and their family, friends, and community. I ask parents, relatives and close friends to join me and talk with teens about the importance of these prevention strategies and to encourage them to get vaccinated. If parents or their teenagers have questions or concerns, I suggest they talk with their adolescent’s healthcare provider, local health department or neighborhood pharmacist.

Do teens need parental consent to get COVID-19 vaccines?

The Kaiser Family Foundation looked at state laws to figure out where young people could get a COVID-19 vaccination without parental consent.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

Kaiser found that most states require parental consent at this point, though the landscape may shift some as more jurisdictions seek to encourage the vaccination of young people:

Most states (41) require parental consent for vaccination of minors below the age of 18, although one of these states (Nebraska) requires consent below age 19. There are some exceptions to these requirements:

  • Many allow for certain minors, such as those who are emancipated, homeless or living apart from their parent or guardian, or married, to self-consent.
  • Cities in two states (San Francisco in California and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania) have moved to allow minors, ages 12 and older, to self-consent for COVID-19 vaccination.
  • In one state (Arizona), if a parent refuses to consent for COVID-19 vaccination, but if a child or a doctor requests it, a court order can be obtained to allow for vaccination.

In 5 states, a minor’s ability to self-consent is based on a specific age as follows:

  • Two states where a minor must be at least 16 (Rhode Island and South Carolina)
  • One state where a minor must be at least 15 (Oregon)
  • One state where a minor must be at least 14 (Alabama)
  • One state where a minor must be at least 11 (DC; in DC, each healthcare provider may institute additional requirements which could include requiring a parent or guardian to be present).

The remaining 5 states apply the “mature minor doctrine”, meaning that there is no specific age cut-off but providers have discretion to decide if a minor possesses the maturity to consent for themselves (Arkansas, Idaho, North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington).

The legal landscape may be shifting slightly. Similar to laws in a handful of states allowing minors to self-consent for certain other services (e.g., HIV and STI testing and treatment), some cities and states are moving to allow self-consent for minors for the COVID-19 vaccination specifically, in an effort to increase vaccinations among young people.

Trying to find a paddleboard or kayak? You are up a creek.

The DCist says paddleboard manufacturers are not just sold out, they have been sold out for a year and there is no end in sight.

Paddling.com says one of the root causes is a plastics shortage.

California’s drought just gets worse as heat breaks records

A boat crosses Lake Oroville below trees scorched in the 2020 North Complex Fire, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Oroville, Calif. At the time of this photo, the reservoir was at 39 percent of capacity and 46 percent of its historical average. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Bismarck, North Dakota, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, both topped 100 degrees over the weekend. Fargo and Green Bay also spiked heat records over the last couple of days. Meanwhile, the Northeast will see record temperaturess this week. Some agriculture experts are beginning to worry about corn and even soybean crops that are in their early stages right now.

Utah’s governor is asking for prayers to break the drought.

California’s reservoirs are starting the dry season way below normal. That almost certainly signals a desperate fire season ahead. These are the numbers the state’s drought managers want you to see:

(California Data Exchange Center/Department of Water Resources via SFGate)

(U.S. Drought Monitor)

Before you shirk it off as, “Well, it sucks to be there,” remember that California supplies a big part of America’s food. SFGate reminds us:

The one-pager conveys the perilous state of California’s water supply and reveals that the situation is especially dire in the Northern California watersheds that provide drinking water to nearly 30 million Californians and irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that supply more than a quarter of the nation’s food supply.

The most alarming takeaway from the graphs is that this year’s water supply in Northern California’s four largest watersheds is tracking below the most severe years in the last drought. The 2021 numbers are below the 2014 and 2015 ones on the Feather River that pours into Lake Oroville, the Yuba River that feeds into the Feather River, the American River that runs into Folsom Lake and the system of rivers that flow into Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir.

The (San Jose) Mercury News explores what is behind the drought.

Will more aid and money slow immigration from Central America?

Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Central America this week has a goal of trying to help Central American governments slow immigration to the U.S. by stimulating the local economies. It is a visit that will have implications far beyond the border.

You can look here to find year-by-year data on how much taxpayer money has gone to individual countries. You can also see the names of top contractors who do the work in those countries.

For example, these are USAID partners in Guatemala:


One of the follow-up questions is how much money actually gets to the people who need it. The New York Times points out:

Half a dozen development experts who have worked with or for the contractors said the companies could easily take about 50 percent of the aid money they receive and direct it toward overhead — including generous salaries for executives — and company profits. When asked about that figure, U.S.A.I.D. did not contest it.

“It’s a business,” said Carlos Ponce, a professor of nonprofit management at Columbia University who has worked for several U.S.-funded programs in the region. “And the same implementers win the contracts again and again, despite having implemented badly in the past, not showing any level of impact and not changing anything.”

U.S.A.I.D. would not provide an estimate of how much taxpayer money spent on specific projects in Central America gets eaten up by administrative costs, noting that the agency is “legally restricted” from sharing its partners’ “proprietary information.”

“It’s an incredibly not-transparent situation,” said Eric Olson, an expert on foreign aid to Central America at the Seattle International Foundation. “It’s like this is a national secret.”

600 quakes this weekend on the Mexico-US border

Earthquakes occur constantly and this weekend was a particularly active weekend. The quakes were centered near Calipatria, California, along the San Andreas Fault and about 30 miles north of the Mexican border, the U.S. Geological Survey map shows. The most active quake zones are not heavily populated.

Four of the quakes measured greater than magnitude 4, and 29 were greater than magnitude 3. The Los Angeles Times reminds us that quake swarms may or may not precede something bigger: “An average of five earthquakes with magnitudes between 5.0 and 6.0 occur per year in California and Nevada, according to a recent three-year data sample.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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