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News Brief: Biden Gun Plan, Brazil's COVID Surge, Chauvin Trial Review

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After mass shootings last month, President Biden upset some advocates of gun regulation. He suggested it was not the time for him to propose gun laws that Congress might block anyway.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The president, instead, moved forward with a proposed infrastructure bill. But today he is taking action on guns that a president can do alone. The administration is proposing new regulations for some types of firearms and accessories. If they survive a legal process and any court challenges, they would put new limits on firearms. The president also plans to appoint a gun safety advocate to lead a key federal agency.

INSKEEP: So let's discuss all this with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What would the new rules be?

KEITH: So administration officials briefed reporters last night. And the most notable, I think, proposal is that the Justice Department will issue within 30 days a proposed rule to stop the proliferation of what are known as ghost guns. These are weapons kits that people can buy on the Internet to build their own guns. And because they aren't fully assembled, they aren't currently regulated like guns. I spoke last night with Kris Brown, the president of the advocacy group Brady, and she explained what a problem these weapons have become.

KRIS BROWN: They are being sold across this country and kids not subject to any background checks, not subject to serialization. And they are being used in crimes across this country. They are being purchased and used in crimes in record numbers.

KEITH: Just a note that this regulatory process does take time - first, there's the proposed rule, then there'd be a comment period, a final rule, more waiting. And then when it's all done, as you say, there could be legal challenges. There probably will be.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You're reminding us that the Trump administration tried a lot of executive actions that eventually got batted back because they didn't follow the process very well. So that's ghost guns, something they're going to attempt anyway. What else is the president trying?

KEITH: They're also going to attempt to regulate what are known as stabilizing braces. These are things that can be used to convert an AR-style semiautomatic pistol into what is functionally a rifle. And they've been reportedly used in at least a couple of recent mass shootings. The Department of Justice will also release model legislation language for states to use if they want to pass so-called red flag laws. Many states already have. And these laws make it possible to temporarily remove guns from people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. It's seen as an effective way of reducing gun suicides.

And there will be a new report on gun trafficking and also moving money around to support community violence prevention efforts. A lot of this seems like smallish technical changes, but gun safety advocates tell me that they have been pushing for these very moves in the absence of action by Congress. And they see these as first steps. They want President Biden to say they are first steps only. As for opposition, it came fast, including from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who wrote on Twitter that President Biden was trampling over Second Amendment rights by executive fiat.

INSKEEP: I guess that requires us to repeat that these regulations only work if they're done within the law, and they plausibly could be batted back if they're not, as regulations have been in the past. But with that said, the president also has a chance to nominate someone to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ph). Who's his choice?

KEITH: So - yeah, Biden plans to nominate David Chipman, who is a senior adviser to the gun safety group Giffords. He was also an ATF agent for 25 years. Gun safety groups are cheering his nomination. They had been pushing Biden to name someone because so much regulation and oversight of firearms is done by ATF. And Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, says Chipman would have been her first choice.

SHANNON WATTS: ATF is really the key agency that enforces our nation's gun laws, and it has to have a confirmed director in order to do so and in order to do the very best job that it can. But it hasn't had a confirmed director since 2015.

KEITH: The ATF director has been a highly politicized position, nearly impossible to get confirmed by the Senate. But Democrats could potentially get him confirmed with a simple majority if every single Democrat supports him.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tamara Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: All right. As the spread of vaccines brings hope to many countries, the pandemic in Brazil is getting worse.

MARTIN: Indeed. This week, for the first time, Brazil registered more than 4,000 daily deaths, which is close to the worst day ever here in the U.S., which has been the world leader in coronavirus infections and fatalities. Scientists say the transmission rate of the virus and its variants is now accelerating. Brazil's president continues to block efforts to fight it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro. Philip, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's it like to be in Brazil right now?

REEVES: Well, Steve, it's pretty grim. I mean, cases are surging across most of the country. Health services are under enormous strain. In some places. People are dying waiting for intensive care beds because the IC unit's already full. There's a report I've just been reading this morning that hospitals in 1,000 municipalities are worried they're going to run out of oxygen soon. And towns and cities are also running out of places to bury people.

A lot of governors and mayors are imposing restrictions. Right here in Rio right now, you know, the beaches are closed; the restaurants are closed; sports clubs and so on. But many, you know, in the medical and scientific community are calling for a much more rigorous 14-day nationwide lockdown right now. Here's what President Jair Bolsonaro had to say about that yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Says, "We're not going to accept the politics of staying at home, of closing everything and locking down because the virus is never going away," he says.

It is true that poverty and hunger is rising rapidly. Bolsonaro continues to argue that that's going to do more harm than COVID.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, if he won't lock down the country, what, if anything, is the president willing to do?

REEVES: Well, you know, remember, probably he was - used to be very dismissive of vaccines. He used to say that there could be nasty side effects. You know, he said he'd never take the shot himself. He's changed his tune on that. He's saying that his government's made every effort to get vaccines to Brazil, forgetting to mention, of course, that he canceled one order simply because it came from China. He's been taking a lot of flak from big business and Congress over this. People are accusing him of turning Brazil into an international pariah, and they say that that makes it harder to buy vaccines. And they say that's one reason that, so far, only 13% of Brazilians have had their first dose, although I should say the pace is now beginning to pick up somewhat after a very slow start.

INSKEEP: What does it mean for the rest of South America that the most populous country in South America would have the virus so out of control?

REEVES: Well, there's a lot of concern about this. Cases and deaths are surging to record levels in Paraguay and Uruguay and Peru, among others. There are a number of variants swirling around, but of course, a lot of the worry focuses on P.1, which first arose in northern Brazil and has spread widely in the region. Argentinean doctors have been expressing a lot of concern. Chile's introduced tougher entry requirements for Brazilians. Even Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, whose health system's a complete mess, has denounced Bolsonaro for being irresponsible.

INSKEEP: Phil, I hope you get your vaccine soon.

REEVES: Thank you (laughter). I hope so, too.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Every American who was willing to watch could see the death of George Floyd on video. Every member of a jury has seen that death again during the trial of Derek Chauvin.

MARTIN: A challenge for the former cop's defense lawyers is to persuade a jury that video does not quite show what it seems. The video shows Floyd dying on the ground as the officer crouched with a knee on his neck. The defense lawyers are now arguing that Floyd's death had something to do with his opioid addiction and underlying health concerns. Part of that argument revolves on just what Floyd said on video. But what exactly was it?

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley is covering the trial. She's in Minneapolis. Cheryl, good morning.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the question about what Floyd said?

CORLEY: Well, really, it's to shore up their contention that drugs may have been behind Floyd's death. And I'll explain how in just a moment. But it was really interesting in the trial that it was the prosecution that put three forensic scientists on the witness stand, and they testified about a few pills found in George Floyd's car and the police squad car that had been impounded. And tests showed that they contained the addictive opioid fentanol (ph) and a little concentration of methamphetamine.

Now to that audio, before the forensic scientists testified, the defense attorney, Eric Nelson, played a clip of video where it seemed Floyd may have said something about drugs. And Nelson asked Special Agent James Reyerson, when he testified, what he could make out. And Reyerson is with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and he led the investigation into Floyd's death. So take a listen to the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GEORGE FLOYD: I (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: Did you hear that?

JAMES REYERSON: Yes, I did.

NELSON: Did it appear that Mr. Floyd said I ate too many drugs?

REYERSON: Yes, it did.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the testimony there, Reyerson agreeing with the defense that Floyd is saying, quote, "I ate too many drugs." But I'm not sure that I was able to quite follow that.

CORLEY: Yeah, exactly. It's hard and - to understand. And that's what the prosecutors said. They pulled a longer version of the video, and prosecutor Matthew Franck asked Reyerson to take another listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW FRANK: Having heard it in context, are you able to tell what Mr. Floyd is saying there?

REYERSON: Yes, I believe Mr. Floyd was saying, I ain't do no drugs.

INSKEEP: I ain't do no drugs. I didn't do any drugs - the opposite meaning.

CORLEY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the testimony on exactly what George Floyd may or may not have said on video. But of course, that's just one part of this case. Another part of it is the use of force on George Floyd. And it's still the prosecution's turn. How are they continuing to make the case that the use of force was inappropriate?

CORLEY: Well, they hired LAPD Sergeant Jody Stiger. He's a law enforcement consultant and a use-of-force expert. And like many Minneapolis police officers, including the chief, he said Derek Chauvin used excessive force during the arrest of George Floyd. And he found that Chauvin's weight was on Floyd from the moment he was put on the ground until paramedics arrived. And prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked him for more of a description.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SCHLEICHER: Was it objectively reasonable or not objectively reasonable?

JODY STIGER: It was not objectively reasonable.

SCHLEICHER: And is that, then, the basis for saying it was excessive?

STIGER: Correct.

INSKEEP: How did the defense respond to that?

CORLEY: Well, the defense said there are a number of instances where Chauvin actually showed restraint. He said, for instance, Chauvin didn't use a Taser against Floyd when he saw him struggling with the officers who were trying to get him into the squad car. And Nelson said sometimes the use of force just doesn't look very pretty.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess everyone can agree on that statement, although the interpretation of the implications might be different.

Cheryl, thank you very much.

CORLEY: You're quite welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley is covering the trial of Derek Chauvin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.