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Dylann Roof sentenced to death

A jury on Jan. 10 condemned white supremacist Dylann Roof to death for the hate-fueled killings of nine black parishioners at a Bible study meeting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.

The same jury last month found Roof, 22, guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes resulting in death, for the shootings at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Jurors deliberated for less than three hours.

Roof stared straight ahead as the judge read through the jury’s verdict findings before announcing his death sentence, local media reported on social media.

Roof, who represented himself for the penalty phase, was unrepentant during his closing argument earlier in the day. He told jurors he still felt the massacre was something he had to do and did not ask that his life be spared.

“Today’s sentencing decision means that this case will not be over for a very long time,” Roof’s lawyers, who represented him for the guilt phase, said in a statement after the verdict was announced.

Roof still faces a trial on murder charges in state court, where prosecutors also are seeking the death penalty.

Attorney general statement on the sentencing

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch released the following statement on the sentencing of Dylann Roof:

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Storm Roof sought out and opened fire on African-American parishioners engaged in worship and bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

He did so because of their race.  And he did so to interfere with their peaceful exercise of religion.

The victims in the case led lives as compassionate civic and religious leaders; devoted public servants and teachers; and beloved family members and friends.  They include a young man in the bloom of youth and an 87-year-old grandmother who still sang in the church choir.

We remember those who have suffered, and especially those that lost their lives: Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54;

Susie Jackson, 87;

Ethel Lance, 70;

Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49;

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41;

Tywanza Sanders, 26;

Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74;

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45;

and Myra Thompson, 59.

Today, a jury of his peers considered the actions Roof took on that fateful day, and they rendered a verdict that will hold him accountable for his choices.

No verdict can bring back the nine we lost that day at Mother Emanuel.

And no verdict can heal the wounds of the five church members who survived the attack or the souls of those who lost loved ones to Roof’s callous hand.  But we hope that the completion of the prosecution provides the people of Charleston — and the people of our nation — with a measure of closure.

We thank the jurors for their service, the people of Charleston for their strength and support, and the law enforcement community in South Carolina and throughout the country for their vital work on this case.

 

Sanders, Trump score big as races head south minus 2

Bernie Sanders sailed to a big win on Feb. 9 in New Hampshire.

And Donald Trump triumphed.

A week after placing second in Iowa, both men placed first in the nation’s first presidential primary. Going into the race, polls showed Trump and Sanders as the favorites, thanks to their mutual status as outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Trump, AP reported early on Feb. 10, won New Hampshire with an 18-point lead.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, won the Granite State with a 21-point lead over Hillary Clinton.

“Together, we have sent a message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington and from Maine to California that the government of this great nation belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their super PACs,” Sanders told supporters crowded into a high school gymnasium.

“Nine months ago, we began our campaign here in the Granite State,” he said. “We had no campaign organization and we had no money. And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America, a team that defeated Barack Obama here in the Democratic primary in 2008.”

In exit polls, backers of both said they are angry with the way things are going in Washington and they’re frustrated with politics.

But it’s a long way to the nominating conventions this summer, with votes in 48 more states and U.S. territories to come.

Clinton may have all the endorsements of her party’s bold-faced names, but Sanders is winning over the young people and independents who pushed Barack Obama to the White House.

Meanwhile, many Republican Party leaders may be terrified by Trump’s ascendance, but they’ve yet to divine a way to stop the billionaire real-estate mogul. 

On Feb. 10, establishment-minded Republicans from New Hampshire expressed a mix of frustration and shame that it was their state that delivered Trump’s first victory.

“I refuse to support him under any circumstance,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman. “Trump would be a disaster.”

Cullen likened Trump to Pat Buchanan in 1996, the divisive former Nixon aide and conservative commentator who also won the New Hampshire primary. GOP leaders then quickly coalesced behind mainstream alternative Bob Dole, the former Republican Senate leader who went on win the nomination.

It wasn’t because they loved Dole, Cullen said, but because they feared Buchannan would embarrass the Republican Party. “The party was able to stop Buchannan 20 years ago,” Cullen said. “Today, they’re incapable of doing it.”

For those like Cullen who oppose Trump, it only gets worse. Marco Rubio’s underwhelming performance in New Hampshire calls into question the idea that the Florida senator might emerge as the GOP establishment’s favored alternative as the race heads for South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

Competing for the support of the same group of Republicans, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who quit the race on Feb. 10, along with Carly Fiorina) and Rubio won enough votes combined to handily beat Trump. But as they fought among themselves — four political insiders against the lone outsider — Trump won with ease.

John Jordan, a California winery owner who runs an outside group backing Rubio, said that “candidate logjam is all going to break in one night,” and suggested that night will be March 15, when Florida is among the states to hold their presidential primaries.

“One of them will do better than the other, and it will be impossible for the relative loser to make the case to donors that he should continue,” he said, referring to the state’s native sons, Bush and Rubio. “Donors will simply move to whoever wins that state, and it will happen nearly instantly.”

But between now and March 15 is South Carolina, Nevada and the more than a dozen states that vote on March 1. That’s time that Trump and others could use to increase their support.

Despite questions about the strength of his ground game, Trump continues to hold a commanding lead in many preference polls in the South’s first primary — and he could get a bump from his New Hampshire success.

Sanders may, too, but he has much farther to climb.

South Carolina and Nevada are more racially diverse states than Iowa and New Hampshire, which should play to Clinton’s longstanding strength with minority voters.

And unlike Republicans, Democrats give hundreds of party insiders a vote at the national convention to cast as they choose.

Among those so-called superdelegates, Clinton already has a commanding 352-delegate edge. Winning the nomination requires a total of  2,382 delegates.

“This is not a two-round boxing match, it’s a 12-round boxing match,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic strategist. “And I want to remind everybody that the last three presidents came in second in New Hampshire — Clinton, Bush and Obama.”

Candidates sprint to finish in New Hampshire, prepare for long run

Eyeing their first wins in a capricious campaign, Republican Donald Trump lashed out at his opponents on Feb. 8 while Democrat Bernie Sanders sought to play it safe on the eve of the nation’s initial primary.

GOP contenders vying for second and third saw fresh hopes for survival after New Hampshire as both parties settled in for a drawn-out slog to the nomination.

As snowfall brought yet more uncertainty to the race’s final hours, Hillary Clinton tried to move past talk of a shakeup in her campaign and controversy over comments by supporters that women should feel obliged to vote for her.

Barnstorming New Hampshire with her husband and daughter, she worked to flip Sanders’ favored critique against her by claiming that he, too, had taken big bucks from Wall Street — if only indirectly.

But it was Trump, the billionaire businessman, who launched the harshest attacks — not just against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had bested him in Iowa, but against Jeb Bush as well. The former Florida governor is one of three Republicans hoping Marco Rubio’s recent stumbles have opened a fresh path for one of them to emerge as the more mainstream alternative to Trump and Cruz.

“Jeb is having some kind of a breakdown, I think,” Trump told CNN, calling Bush, the son and brother of presidents, a spoiled child and an embarrassment to his family. “I think it’s a very sad situation that’s taking place.”

The enmity was mutual. Vying for votes in Nashua, Bush described his opponent variably as a loser, a liar, a whiner and the worst choice for president. He blasted what he said was Trump’s proclivity for “insulting women, castigating Hispanics, ridiculing the disabled and calling American POWs losers.”

Trump did get in a shot at Cruz during a massive rally in Manchester on Feb. 8. When an audience member shouted out an insult directed at Cruz – a vulgar term for “coward” — Trump repeated the term and jokingly reprimanded the woman.

Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler responded via email, saying, “Let’s not forget who whipped who in Iowa.”

Still, Trump was running ahead in New Hampshire’s pre-primary polls, as was Sanders on the Democratic side.

Not so long ago, Republicans saw New Hampshire as the proving ground that would winnow their chockablock field of candidates. Rubio’s surge into third place in Iowa one week ago raised the prospect that voters here would anoint him over Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Yet Rubio faced fresh questions about his readiness – and his ability to defeat the Democratic nominee – after Saturday’s debate, when he was mocked for reciting rote talking points about President Barack Obama over and over.

Growing doubts about Rubio seemed to portend a fight for delegates that could extend for weeks or months – to the dismay of Republican Party leaders hoping for a quick consolidation behind anyone but Cruz or Trump. Democrats are already resigned to the likelihood of a protracted primary following Sanders’ strong performance in Iowa.

Rubio insisted his repetitions were part of his plan.

“People said, ‘Oh, you said the same thing three or four times,'” Rubio told some 800 people in a school cafeteria in Londonderry. “I’m going to say it again.”

Sensing Rubio’s vulnerability, nearly everyone seemed to be on the attack.

Bush’s campaign debuted a new ad questioning Kasich’s conservative credentials, while an outside group backing Rubio pulled an ad attacking Cruz and replaced it with one assailing Bush. Christie and Bush both piled on Rubio, claiming he hadn’t been tested the way that governors have.

All of them filled their calendars with campaign events in South Carolina, the next state to vote, signaling they had no intention of dropping out no matter the verdict in New Hampshire.

In the week since Clinton eked out a win in the leadoff Iowa caucuses, her campaign has worked aggressively to lower expectations for New Hampshire, where Sanders has maintained a sizable lead despite Clinton’s victory here eight years ago. Sanders, a Vermont senator, is well known to voters in neighboring New Hampshire.

Clinton was shouldering renewed troubles amid talk of a possible campaign reshuffling. Although campaign manager Robby Mook is expected to stay, some Clinton allies have said new advisers may be brought in after Feb. 9.

The former first lady insisted it was all overblown.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about or who they are talking to,” Clinton said on MSNBC. “We’re going to take stock, but it’s going to be the campaign that I’ve got.”

Sanders, wary of upsetting a race trending his way, stuck to core campaign themes as he addressed cheering supporters in Nashua. In recent days Bill Clinton has accused some Sanders’ supporters of waging “sexist” attacks, and feminist Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have criticized women who aren’t supporting Clinton.

Yet Sanders passed up all that on Feb. 8, instead telling supporters in Nashua, “We have come a long way in the last nine months.” But his campaign did take issue with Clinton’s claim that Sanders benefited from Wall Street money donated to Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, with campaign manager Jeff Weaver arguing it “suggests the kind of disarray that the Clinton campaign finds itself in today.”

GOP candidates reach out to poor voters but have nothing to offer them

Republican presidential candidates said Saturday their party must do more to convince poor Americans that conservative policy — and not an active federal government — will expand economic opportunity.

But the White House hopefuls, addressing a conservative economic forum in the early voting state of South Carolina, didn’t agree on the details and had nothing new or specific to offer other than their wish that poor people would vote for them.

Moderated by House Speaker Paul Ryan, the event gave a half dozen candidates the chance to champion long-standing conservative ideas about alleviating poverty, such as letting states spend federal money on safety net programs without federal strings. That’s already happening in Wisconsin, where Republicans have started testing food stamp recipients for alcohol and drugs and have created lists of what they can and cannot buy with public assistance.

Ryan also said that spending public money on independent charter schools and providing vouchers for private-school tuition would help the poor, although many such schools are run as for-profits and have lower standards and success rates than public schools. In addition, in many cases vouchers do not cover the entire tuition at good schools and poor people can’t afford to pay the difference, as wealthy and middle-class parents can.

For the past 30 years, conservative Republicans have said that eliminating taxes on corporations and the wealthy would help the poor, but that approach known popularly as “trickle-down” economics, has had the opposite effect. The gap between rich and poor is wider than it’s ever been. In states such as Wisconsin that have provided generous tax cuts to the wealthy, the middle class is shrinking at historically high rates.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bragged that he doubled a key tax credit for low-income workers in his state, but he met opposition from 2016 rival Ben Carson, who countered that the federal Earned Income Tax Credit is a “manipulation” of the tax code.

Carson calls for an across-the-board tax rate, with no deductions or credits for any household or business. He criticized progressive income tax rates — the framework that has endured though decades of Republican and Democratic administration. “That’s called socialism,” he said. “That doesn’t work in America.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pitched his “fair tax,” a single-rate consumption tax to replace all other taxes on wages, investments and inheritance. “It’s a powerful unlocking of the economy,” Huckabee said. However, he said he would allow something similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit to ease the tax burden on low-income households.

Responding to Carson, Christie said he does not necessarily prefer the complications of the existing tax code. “If we were starting from the beginning … we could do things a lot differently,” Christie said. But, “We have to be practical.”

Missing from the lineup Saturday were two leading GOP contenders: businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

During his remarks, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was interrupted multiple times by protesters angry about his immigration policy.

“He has brought fear to our community and we are here to tell him that our community needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Yadira Dument of New York, one of several protesters escorted from the forum by police and security guards. As a pair of protesters shouted, Rubio said, “We are going to enforce our immigration laws.”

Rubio was key in a bipartisan effort to overhaul immigration law in the past, but he backed away from the initiative when it failed to pass in 2013. Now, as a presidential candidate in a party whose grassroots voters support deporting Latino immigrants and building a wall on the Mexican border, he’s running away from it.

The conference came as Republicans try to improve their standing among poor Americans, who favored President Barack Obama in 2012, according to surveys of voters leaving the polling station.

Ryan said the old “War on Poverty,” a phalanx of government programs largely from Democratic administrations, “has been a stalemate.” Conservatism, he argued, “can open up a renaissance,” dismantling a system that “isolates the poor.”

He failed to explain, however, what he would do differently that might realistically help the poor.

About one in seven people lives below the federal poverty rate, which in 2014 was measured at about $19,000 per year for a two-parent household with one child, the government says.

The candidates Saturday mostly agreed that traditional welfare discourages work. They also rejected a minimum-wage increase and said the private sector and religious community should take on more responsibility for fighting poverty, but couldn’t say how the former tactic would work or how the latter one would be encouraged.

“Compassion is not measured by how much money you spend in Washington,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush contended. Instead, he said, “It’s acting on your sense of consciousness.” But considering the excesses of Wall Street and corporate America, it seems obvious that a sense of consciousness exists in the most influential sectors, which are overwhelmingly Republican.

Bush has proposed eliminating several federal programs and shifting money to states in the form of block grants to help poor families. He hasn’t explained how this would improve on the current system.

Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said the federal government should empower states, but Christie said Obama “doesn’t trust governors,” Democratic or Republican, to enact locally tailored programs. Perhaps that’s because Republican states have ignored the poor and dismantled programs to help them.

Christie said his party must reach out in ways it hasn’t. “We need to be going into African-American churches … into the Hispanic community,” he said. “We need to go there, show up and campaign in places where we are uncomfortable.”

That last confession, perhaps, was the most genuine thing said on Saturday afternoon.

Year in Review: Uprisings confront racism, Black Lives Matter movement matures

Murders at a historically black church in the South.

Arsons at temples, mosques and chapels.

Police killings of unarmed black men and teens.

Citizens pledging allegiance to a Confederate flag.

Politicians seeking to build a wall to the south and proposing to ban people of an entire faith from entering the country.

Courts and lawmakers rolling back voting rights. 

And even the revelation that a fictional civil rights legend to many was first a racist.

In 2015, there were celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and tributes to the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, but racism overran the nation — and no one could claim it was a hidden factor of American life.

In 2015, the path to Martin Luther King’s dream was littered with barriers and Black Lives Matter proved to be more than a fleeting campaign.

In January, President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union to the nation: “We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many and that on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.”

But the events of 2015 would reveal that Americans don’t agree that the right to vote is sacred or entirely understand a father who fears for his son’s safety on the streets.

Obama, in the State of the Union address, looked back to an earlier speech in which he said there is no liberal or conservative America, no black or white America, but a United States. But the United States was not united in 2015 and all the signs suggested greater division to come, as polarization in the two parties deepened.

In February, the U.S. Justice Department released its report on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014 and complaints of race-based bias against the police department. Shortly afterward, the president, commemorating the anniversary of the Selma march, said it would be a mistake is “to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished. … We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

Open ears heard Donald Trump officially enter the presidential race and ride to the top of the polls in his party largely on the popularity of racist rants.

Open hearts ached after a white supremacist killed nine people attending a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the mourning was followed with a serious feud, mostly in the South, over the appropriateness of public institutions flying the Confederate flag.

Open eyes read news of each development in police killings of black men and black teenagers in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland and also in Madison, where there were no charges brought against the white officer who killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr., and in Milwaukee, where a white officer was fired but not charged in the shooting of Dontre Hamilton in April 2014. In fact, the latter officer was granted disability pay.

The year ended with a focus on Chicago, where a white police officer was indicted for first-degree murder more than a year after he fatally shot a black teen 16 times. Protesters marched on city hall, the courthouse, the state center and the Magnificent Mile to demand the ouster of the police chief, Cook County’s chief prosecutor and the resignation of Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the release of a dashcam video showing the teenager moving away from the officer as he was shot.

In mid-December, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would investigate patterns of racial disparity in the use of force by Chicago police officers. The wide-ranging probe could lead to calls for sweeping changes at one of the country’s largest police departments and elsewhere in 2016.

Or not. 

Alleged Colorado shooter had been charged with animal abuse, domestic violence

A profile is emerging of the gunman in custody for a shootout yesterday in which three people were killed and nine injured at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

Armed with a military assault weapon, Robert Lewis Dear, 57, allegedly held police at bay for hours during a snowy afternoon shootout that started without warning.

Bearded, tall, stocky and wild-eyed, Dear reportedly had a history of run-ins with the law, including for domestic violence and animal abuse. People who lived near Dear said he frequently handed out anti-Obama literature but his ideology was hard to fathom due to the incoherent nature of his ramblings.

The Daily Beast obtained records from the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina, where Dear was a longtime resident with a lengthy history of incident reports. Those included domestic battery, threatening and spying on neighbors, abusing animals and making unwanted advances toward a female neighbor.

Neighbors who lived beside Dear’s former South Carolina home in Walterboro told AP that he hid food in the woods as if he was a survivalist and said he lived off selling prints of his uncle’s paintings of Southern plantations and the Masters golf tournament.

John Hood said Saturday that when he moved to Walterboro, Dear was living in a doublewide mobile home next door. Hood said Dear seemed to be a loner and very strange but not dangerous. He pointed to a wooden fence separating their land and said he put it up because Dear liked to skinny dip.

Hood said that Dear rarely talked and, when he did, he tended to offer unsolicited advice such as recommending that Hood put a metal roof on his house so the U.S. government couldn’t spy on him.

“He was really strange and out there, but I never thought he would do any harm,” he said.

Dear also lived part-time in North Carolina, spending part of his time in a cabin in Black Mountain with no electricity or running water.

He tended to avoid eye contact, said James Russell, who lived a few hundred feet down the mountain from Dear’s cabin. “If you talked to him, nothing with him was very cognitive,” Russell said.

Other neighbors knew Dear too, but they didn’t want to give their names to AP because they said they were scared of him.

Russell and others said the only companion they saw with him was a mangy dog that looked to be in such bad shape they called animal control because they worried he was beating it.

Following the shootout, law enforcement officials closed off an address for Dear in what the Daily Beast called “the remote town” of Hartsel, Colorado, about 60 miles west of Colorado Springs.

There, about a dozen police vehicles and fire trucks were parked today outside a small white trailer belonging to Dear located on a sprawling swath of land, AP reported. Property records indicate Dear purchased the land about a year ago.

An official said authorities searched the trailer but found no explosives. The official, who has direct knowledge of the case, said authorities also talked with a woman who was living in the trailer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation.

Jamie Heffelman, owner of the Highline Cafe in Hartsel, said residents would occasionally see the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound Dear at the post office to get his mail but he never said much.

“Nobody really knows him. He stays to himself,” she said.

Planned Parenthood under constant fire

Police have not disclosed a motive, but Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said people can make “inferences from where it took place,” referring to the clinic.

A Roman Catholic priest who has held weekly Mass in front of the clinic for 20 years, however, told The Associated Press that Dear wasn’t part of his group. Anti-choice groups picket PP clinics every day, carrying signs of bloody babies and dolls and accosting women entering the premises with dire warnings.

Planned Parenthood has been under increased attack since July — from Congress to state legislatures to the Republican campaign trail — over an undercover video made by virulent anti-choice activists and released to the press. The video appeared to show PP personnel negotiating the sale of fetal organs, but later it was determined that the piece had been misleadingly edited.

Investigations by states and Congress found no wrongdoing in connection with PP’s handling of fetal tissue. Instead, it was learned that PP and other abortion clinics allow pregnant women to donate their fetal tissue to researchers if they wish, and the researchers pay for the cost of maintaining and transporting the tissue.

Still, the National Abortion Federation, an association of service providers, has seen a rise in threats at clinics nationwide since the video’s release. Republican presidential candidates have made it a central issue in their campaigns.

Arsonists have attacked four PP clinics since September.

At a vigil Saturday at All Souls Unitarian Church, Rev. Nori Rost called the gunman a “domestic terrorist.” In the back of the room, someone held a sign that said: “Women’s bodies are not battlefields. Neither is our town.”

Vicki Cowart, the regional head of Planned Parenthood, drew a standing ovation when she walked to the pulpit. She promised to quickly reopen the clinic. “We will adapt. We will square our shoulders and we will go on,” she said.

Cowart told AP that the gunman “broke in” to the clinic Friday but didn’t get past a locked door leading to the main part of the facility. She said there was no armed security when the shooting began.

In the parking lot of the two-story building, one man said the gunman shot at him as he pulled his car out, blasting two holes in his windshield. Inside, one worker ducked under a table and called her brother to tell him to take care of her kids if she was killed.

At one point, an officer whispered reports into his radio as he crept through the building. Others relayed information from surveillance cameras and victims in hiding. “We’ve got a report of a victim texting from just east of the lobby,” someone said.

In the end, a six-year veteran University of Colorado police officer was killed. Two civilians also died, though their identities weren’t immediately released. Five other officers and four people were hospitalized.

Cowart said all 15 clinic employees survived and worked hard to make sure everyone else got into safe spaces and stayed quiet.

The attack marked the latest mass shooting to stun the nation, and drew the now-familiar questions about a gunman’s motives and whether anyone, from government to relatives, could have done anything to prevent an attack.

President Obama issued a statement today calling for gun control.

“If we truly care about this — if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience — then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them,” Obama said.

Colorado Springs is home to a very large population of born-again Christians. The anti-gay hate group Focus on the Family is headquartered there.

Sanders is headed into a critical stretch against Clinton

If October proved a pivotal month for Hillary Rodham Clinton, November may be a make-or-break stretch for Bernie Sanders in his quest to topple his well-known Democratic rival.

After filling arenas with fervent supporters over the summer, Sanders now faces a series of hurdles: He is trying to present sharp policy contrasts with Clinton without ceding the high road and going negative. He’s planning a big speech to explain what he means by democratic socialism, a label that makes some Democrats uncomfortable but captures his political philosophy. And he wants to prove to Democrats he could go the distance.

“The campaign right now is really at a crossroads,” Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal said. “People want to win, and I think the biggest problem for Sanders at this point is convincing the Democratic and progressive communities that it’s not just about raising the issues.”

The importance of the coming weeks has not been lost on the Vermont independent senator and his aides, who have switched to a more aggressive critique of Clinton’s record since her strong performance during the first debate. Sanders has coupled that with a series of daytime and late night TV interviews to show a softer side of his personality even as popular culture plays up his cantankerous edge — as when Larry David spoofed him on “Saturday Night Live.”

His team is coming out with its first television ads early next month, giving voters a fuller look at his biography.

Sanders is competitive with Clinton in the first contests of Iowa and New Hampshire, and his fundraising has been stronger than expected — more than $40 million raised, mostly online. He’s still drawing large crowds; a college forum at George Mason University in Virginia on Wednesday filled a small field house with 1,700 students, as people at 300 colleges watched online.

He’s trying to expand his coalition beyond white liberals, college students and working-class supporters. But he has a major deficit with black voters who are crucial in South Carolina, which follows New Hampshire on the calendar, and among Latinos who are influential in Nevada, the fourth contest, suggesting he’ll need the first two states to provide him with a sling-shot. Sanders has a past in the civil rights movement but a political career rooted in mostly white Vermont.

“We’ve got to begin to build bridges to people now, sooner rather than later,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ senior adviser. “But a lot of what we’re hoping to do will be premised on early success in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Clinton was helped by a fortuitous sequence of events in October after struggling for months to address her use of a private email system at the State Department. Then the former secretary of state performed well in the first Democratic debate, smiling when Sanders quipped that the nation wasn’t interested in her “damn emails.”

When Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not run, it eliminated a competitor. And she withstood a daylong grilling by a Republican-led congressional committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

In the debate, Clinton seized upon Sanders’ comments about people “shouting” about gun control, saying “sometimes when a woman talks, some people think it’s shouting.” Sanders’ team interpreted her comments as accusing him of being sexist and readied a series of policy contrasts with Clinton in response.

Before thousands of Iowa Democrats last weekend, Sanders questioned Clinton’s slow path to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and noted that Clinton did not join him in voting against the Iraq war.

Sanders said her recent retelling of the events that led her husband, President Bill Clinton, to sign the Defense of Marriage Act — she called it a “defensive action” — was misleading. And he has pushed back against the notion that Clinton would police Wall Street.

“Who is going to take on the corporate interests and Wall Street?” Sanders asked in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose. “That’s the issue. And if people think Hillary Clinton is that candidate, go for it.”

Sanders swears off running negative ads but he says voters should know where the candidates differ.

“We’ve always thought that voters would accept that kind of dialogue in a campaign,” Devine said. “If you’re asked about differences you have with your opponent, then you talk about them.”

But his willingness to implicitly contrast his record with Clinton’s risks crossing the line and turning into a character attack.

“Going after her is a twofold problem,” said Joe Trippi, who advised ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “It goes against your brand, and you’re attacking someone who is well-liked by her supporters.”

The senator expects to address his political philosophy before the next Democratic debate on Nov. 14.

But left unsaid: Is the country ready to elect a quasi-socialist president?

“Through no fault of his own, people don’t know what to make of it,” said Gina Glantz, manager of Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably hear the socialism and not the democratic.”

Country music struggles with its Confederate flag past

Country artists are struggling to articulate their feelings about the Confederate flag’s history and symbolism amid heightened debate following the recent massacre at a South Carolina church.

The killing of nine churchgoers on June 17 renewed calls for the emblem to be removed from government displays — both chambers of South Carolina’s legislature and Gov. Nikki Haley agreed on legislation that brought the flag down from its place on the statehouse grounds on July 10 — as well as from other aspects of American culture, including on television, in sports and in popular art.

Mainstream country music has been quietly distancing itself from the Confederate flag for decades, with many adopting the U.S. flag instead, the genre’s own history paralleling changing public sentiment.

“You won’t find it being used by young country acts today, partly because it doesn’t mean the same thing to them,” said Robert K. Oermann, author and columnist for MusicRow magazine. “Partly because some of them aren’t Southern and partly because if you want to appeal to a national audience, why would you do that?”

The Confederate flag was not commonly used by country artists until the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s, when it was adopted by some Southern country and rock artists who identified as outlaw musicians appealing to blue-collar fans, Oermann said.

David Allan Coe, Hank Williams Jr., the country group Alabama and rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd all used the flag on stage or in merchandise, or referenced the flag or the Confederacy in song lyrics.

But the symbol quickly fell out of favor as country music became more commercial in the 1980s and the industry sought to reach wider audiences in the suburbs and urban areas outside of the South.

Only a small number of country artists have been willing to speak on the issue in the weeks since the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting. John Rich, of the duo Big and Rich, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he agreed with the call to remove the Confederate flag from its pole outside the South Carolina state Capitol. Charlie Daniels wrote a long column on his website addressing the most recent controversy over the flag.

“The Confederate battle flag was a sign of defiance, a sign of pride, a declaration of a geographical area that you were proud to be from,” Daniels wrote. “That’s all it is to me and all it ever has been to me.”

Daniels said he opposes racism and believes that every person, regardless of skin color, deserves the exact same rights and advantages.

“Unfortunately, the Confederate battle flag has been adopted by hate groups — and individuals like Dylann Roof (charged with murder in the church shootings) — to supposedly represent them and their hateful view of the races,” Daniels said on his website.

Several country artists didn’t respond or their representatives declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press, including Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Charley Pride, Colt Ford and Hank Williams Jr.

Country artists take a big risk in addressing controversial social and political issues. Just two years ago, Brad Paisley was criticized for recording a song called “Accidental Racist” with rapper LL Cool J that ultimately sought to explore racial tensions but came across as naive and ill-advised.

Diane Pecknold, an associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of Louisville who has written extensively about the history of country music, said country music has a strong association to patriotism and promoting viewpoints that are inclusive of all races and cultures, noting that Paisley, Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks all have songs that are explicitly anti-racist.

“You can criticize them for being naive or being post-racial in a way that ignores contemporary and institutionalized racism,” Pecknold said. “You can criticize them for failing to conceptualize it in a meaningful way, but you still have to say that they are talking about race and an ideal of America that is anti-racist.”

Rucker, a black artist who hails from Charleston, chose to communicate directly to his fans on Twitter: “Incredibly proud of my city for handling this tragedy with love. Thankful to be a part of a community that can come together in a time of need.”

The Confederate flag comes down in South Carolina today

South Carolina officials were preparing on July 10 to quietly and quickly remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse where it has flown for more than a half-century.

The state planned a simple, short ceremony at 10 a.m. EST to remove the rebel banner, which was surrounded in its final hours by ropes and barricades.

“We will bring it down with dignity and we will make sure it is stored in its rightful place,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said.

Authorities will escort a special van used to transport historical artifacts that will take the flag to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. There, it eventually will be housed in a multimillion-dollar shrine lawmakers promised to build as part of a compromise to get the bill ordering the flag’s removal through the House.

“No one should ever drive by the Statehouse and feel pain,” Haley said early on July 10 on NBC’s “Today” show. “No one should ever drive by the Statehouse and feel like they don’t belong.”

South Carolina’s leaders first flew the battle flag over the Statehouse dome in 1961 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It remained there to represent official opposition to the civil rights movement.

Decades later, mass protests against the flag by those who said it was a symbol of racism and white supremacy led to a compromise in 2000 with lawmakers who insisted that it symbolized Southern heritage and states’ rights. The two sides came to an agreement to move the flag from the dome to a 30-foot pole next to a Confederate monument in front of the Statehouse.

Thousands of people showed up for the transfer. Flag supporters shouted, “Off the dome and in your face!” at protesters who wanted the flag gone, a line of police in special gear separating the two sides. A pair of Citadel cadets, one white and one black, lowered the flag from the dome as a dozen Confederate re-enactors marched to the brand new flagpole and raised the rebel banner.

Organizers didn’t give out details of what will happen Friday, but said the removal will be short, simple and dignified. The flagpole will also be taken down, but no time frame has been announced for that.

The flag is coming down 23 days after the massacre of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight others inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Haley signed the bill with 13 pens. Nine of them went to the families of the victims.

Authorities say they believe the killings were racially motivated. By posing with the Confederate flag before the shootings, suspect Dylann Storm Roof, who has not yet entered a plea to nine counts of murder, convinced some that the flag’s reputation for white supremacy and racial oppression had trumped its symbolism of Southern heritage and ancestral pride.

“People say he was wrapped in hate, that he was a hateful person,” said Democratic Rep. Justin Bamberg. “Well, his hate was wrapped in the cloak of that Confederate flag. That is why that flag is coming down.”

Supporters of the flag were disappointed, but resigned.

“It’s just like the conclusion of the war itself,” said Rep. Mike Pitts, who submitted several amendments to fly a different flag on the pole that all failed. “The issue was settled, and the nation came back together to move on.”

States across the nation are moving on without their Confederate symbols. The rebel flag is gone from the Alabama Capitol, and the U.S. House voted that it can no longer fly at historic federal cemeteries in the Deep South. A city council committee in Memphis wants to move a statue and the remains of Civil War hero and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest out of a prominent park, and officials in Alaska want a new moniker for a U.S. Census district named for Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton.

Haley said the removal of symbols that have become divisive is the right thing to do for the family members of those killed at Charleston’s Emanuel AME.

“We saw the families show the world what true grace and forgiveness look like,” Haley said. “That set off an action of compassion by people in South Carolina and all over this country. They stopped looking at their differences and started looking at their similarities.”

UPDATED: Walker weakens gun laws in Wisconsin; | Congress still unlikely to act on gun control

The slaughter of nine people in a South Carolina church left prospects that Congress will curb guns right where they’ve been for years — remote.

And, as if to illustrate that, Gov. Scott Walker signed GOP legislation weakening the state’s gun laws on June 24.

In a public signing event at the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, the Republican governor — who is expected to soon announce his candidacy for president — signed into law two bills easing restrictions on guns. One measure eliminates the state’s 48-hour waiting period for handgun purchases and the other allows off-duty, retired and out-of-state police officers to carry firearms on school grounds.

“If we had pulled back on this, I think it would have given people the erroneous opinion that what we signed into law today had anything to do with what happened in Charleston,” Walker said at the ceremony, according to The AP.

Walker, who has a rating of 100 percent from the NRA, previously made Wisconsin the 49th state to legalize concealed carry and signed into law a “castle doctrine” bill giving homeowners more legal protections when they  shoot someone.

The new laws took effect on June 26.

At the federal level

Conceding that congressional action was unlikely soon, President Barack Obama said lawmakers will tighten federal firearms restrictions when they believe the public demands reform.

“I am not resigned,” Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco in June. “I have faith we will eventually do the right thing.”

Others said there was little evidence that the killing of nine black parishioners by the white alleged gunman, Dylann Roof, would make congressional action more likely, considering recent history.

“I’m skeptical it’s going to change peoples’ minds who weren’t converted by Newtown,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Murphy was part of the Senate’s failed efforts to strengthen background checks following the 2012 massacre of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

If anything, the odds of congressional action seem slimmer with both the House and Senate dominated by Republicans, who traditionally have been less sympathetic to curbs on gun ownership.

“The question remains how we keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them without violating the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans,” said U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “There’s ample time to learn more about what happened and debate ways to prevent these kinds of senseless acts.”

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam would not address whether the Charleston shootings would change lawmakers’ attitudes, saying, “As the NRA has done for decades, we will not comment until all the facts are known.”

In 2013, the Senate’s bipartisan attempt to require background checks of all firearms purchasers at gun shows and on the Internet failed by a 54-46 vote. That was six short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster against the bill.

A similar measure never reached the floor of the GOP-controlled House.

“I’d like to say these shootings in Charleston will be a turning point, enough for Congress to fight back against the gun lobby and take some serious action about gun laws. But I don’t want to be naive,” said Chelsea Parsons, who oversees gun policy for the liberal Center for American Progress.