Federal Gun Regulators Handcuffed by Legal Restrictions and Skimpy Budgets

Amid debate over gun violence, little is proposed to strengthen the U.S. agency responsible for enforcing firearms laws. President Obama has nominated a full-time director for the long-leaderless Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, and some of the administration’s gun proposals tacitly acknowledge the agency’s challenges. But the initiatives are modest, and Congress may not go along with any of them. So for now, the bureau remains systematically hobbled by purposeful restrictions that limit its investigations, flimsy laws, impotent leadership and paltry budgets.  “If you want an agency to be small and ineffective at what it does, the ATF is really the model,” said the author of a book on gun control. The Center for Public Integrity

U.S. teenage birthrate falls to record lows. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an 8 percent decline in 2011. That led to a rate of 31.3 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. The rates of preterm births and low-birth-weight babies also declined. Experts attributed the decline in the teen birthrate to the weak economy and increased use of contraception. Officials calculated that 3.6 million more babies would have been born to women in that age group over the last two decades had the teen birthrate not been falling since reaching a peak in 1991. Even with the drop, U.S. teen birthrates are higher than in other developed countries. In 2010, Russia was the country with the second-highest rate, at 30.2 per 1,000. HealthDay, Reuters, NBC News

Air bags remain life savers, but recalls soar. Already this year, Honda and Toyota have launched air bag-related recalls covering 1.5 million vehicles. That follows a record year for recalls involving air bags — 22 spread across 18 brands in 2012. The problems reflect more air bags than ever being packed into cars and trucks. They’re in new places and are more sophisticated. Still, there’s no disputing the effectiveness of the devices. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that, in one sample year, air bags saved 2,788 lives. At times, though, faulty bags might inflate when they aren’t supposed to, or can cause injuries. USA Today

Plans for trash-to-energy plants emerge across the U.S. About 100 proposals to turn trash to energy have cropped up the past six years, as local and state officials scramble to meet mandates to divert waste from landfills and find more renewable energy sources. The plants would use heat to convert waste into ash and syngas, which consists mainly of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The plants would then burn syngas in turbines to produce electricity or convert it to ethanol. Critics say the plants produce little energy and may release dioxins, particulates, heavy metals and acid gases. No such U.S. plants have yet been built but, despite resistance to a California project, most of the proposals are moving ahead. The Daily Climate

“Carbon intensity” of California’s crude fueling a debate over a state policy to combat global warming. California’s low carbon fuel standard requires fuel producers to cut the amount of carbon released in the extraction process for products they sell in the state 10 percent by 2020.  A key challenge is crude from fields that have been pumped for years and now need injections of steam — a process resulting in carbon emissions — to squeeze out more oil.  To comply with the state standard, an industry group says California refineries might have to replace some crude pumped in the state with imported low-carbon fuel. The trouble is, that substitution would involve shipping that could also produce substantial greenhouse gas emissions. San Francisco Chronicle

Compiled by Stuart Silverstein

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