Private sale, public tragedy: Years before he shot 32 people in and around Odessa, Texas, last month, the shooter tried to buy a gun from a licensed dealer. An FBI examiner reviewed court records that demonstrated a history of volatile behavior and mental health issues, and the man’s gun purchase was denied. The system worked as it should. But later, he reportedly succeeded in purchasing an AR-15-style rifle from a private seller, where no such background check was required, writes Alain Stephens of The Trace. A reporting team with CNN Investigates tells a similar story. Gun dealers are required to be licensed and their customers screened by the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But in Texas and 28 other states, private sales made between parties on an occasional basis are exempt. That’s a route frequently exploited by unlicensed dealers, the CNN team writes, and one that could be closed by a universal background check law that now has support from a large majority of American voters.
- Also: The governor of New Jersey is trying a new approach to gun control, saying the state will stop doing business with gun manufacturers and retailers that don’t abide by policies such as background checks, and it will collect information from banks about the financial institutions’ relationships with gun makers and sellers, Nick Corasaniti of The New York Times writes.
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Storm spiral: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr. threatened to fire top scientific officials over a Tweet from the National Weather Service Birmingham bureau contradicting President Trump’s assessment that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama, sources told The New York Times. The threat, and the resulting statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, rebuking the office for contradicting Trump, has angered agency staff members and former administrators who say it’s one more example of the Trump administration politicizing science, this time by undermining the work of forecasters whose very job is to dispel rumors and publish accurate information essential to matters of public safety. David W. Titley, a retired Rear Admiral and former chief operating officer at NOAA, accused the agency’s current leadership of “moral cowardice.” “Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again,” he wrote on Twitter.
- Also: U.S. Customs and Border Protection leadership tried to offer comfort Monday to people fleeing regions of the Bahamas destroyed by Hurricane Dorian, saying they would be welcomed whether or not they had full travel documents, as an act of humanitarian relief. Not so, President Trump later said. “We have to be very careful,” he told reporters. “Everybody needs totally proper documentation.”
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Retaliation for emissions pact?: President Trump wanted carmakers to support his decision to roll back vehicle emission standards, but four companies stepped out of line, deciding instead to reach an agreement with the state of California to voluntarily reduce their emissions over time. The White House responded first by predicting “business ruin” for those companies, global leaders in their industry, and now by launching an antitrust inquiry on the grounds that the California pact could limit consumer choice, Hiroko Tabuchi and Coral Davenport of The New York Times report. The Times editorial board called the Justice Department’s actions “an act of bullying” and “a nakedly political abuse of authority.” Democratic leaders of the House Judiciary Committee agree, and they plan to hold hearings and collect documents on the matter, Reuters reports.
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Vaping, vitamin E and a distressing mystery: More than 450 people have been sickened by a mysterious lung disease linked to e-cigarettes, and five people have died, as doctors and public health experts continue to work to pinpoint the cause. “The focus of our investigation is narrowing, and that is great news, but we are still faced with complex questions in this outbreak that will take time to answer,” Ileana Arias, acting deputy director for noninfectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Lena H. Sun of The Washington Post. One possible culprit is an oil derived from vitamin E that has been found in samples of various marijuana products used by people who have fallen sick. The oil is commonly sold as a nutritional supplement and topical application. Sun writes, “Its name sounds harmless, experts said, but its molecular structure could make it hazardous when inhaled.” The illnesses have not been linked to products made by Juul, the largest manufacturer of e-cigarettes. But they come just as the company has been working hard to transform its image—and the industry’s—from that of a public health scourge to providing a healthier alternative to cigarettes. That effort suffered another blow Monday, when the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter saying the company could not promote its products as a safer alternative to cigarettes without obtaining federal approval and providing scientific evidence that vaping is in fact safer, The New York Times reports. “Juul has ignored the law,” acting FDA commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless said. The FDA’s action were a factor in financial services company Piper Jaffray’s decision to lower its rating of tobacco company Altria, which owns 35 percent of Juul, CNBC reports.
- Also: Michael Bloomberg has pledged $160 million to combat vaping among teens, saying the FDA is to blame for failing to regulate the industry more quickly. “People are dying now and getting addicted,” Bloomberg said on “CBS This Morning.” “The timeline is yesterday, not tomorrow.” –– New York state plans to subpoena three companies selling vitamin E acetate as a thickening agent for black market vaping products that have been linked to the illnesses, Sun reports.
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‘Ruined’: The issue of hospitals suing patients for unpaid pills and pushing them toward financial ruin has gained some attention across the country. But reporters with Kaiser Health News found that even among hospitals with a record of taking people to court, the University of Virginia Health System is an outlier, in a big way. Jay Hancock and Elizabeth Lucas track the wreckage wrought by UVA patient lawsuits, including homes lost, wages garnished from low-income workers, and a pattern of bankruptcy filings. While Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sued an average of 240 patients each year since 2009, the rate at UVA was more than 6,000 patients sued annually, they write. The health system sued about 100 of its own employees each year and routinely blocks university student enrollment over unpaid bills. It is a nonprofit hospital system that is state-funded, with the governor sitting at the head of its board. Its tax-free status is based on the idea that it offers charity care and other community benefits, Hancock and Lucas write.
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Fast delivery, lives at stake: Two major investigations look at the human cost of Amazon’s fast delivery. Caroline O’Donovan and Ken Bensinger of Buzzfeed write about the retail giant’s deliberately decentralized delivery system and the pressure that contractors and drivers face. Amazon contracts with third parties to get packages from Amazon facilities to doorsteps, covering “the last mile.” “That means when things go wrong, as they often do under the intense pressure created by Amazon’s punishing targets—when workers are abused or underpaid, when overstretched delivery companies fall into bankruptcy, or when innocent people are killed or maimed by errant drivers—the system allows Amazon to wash its hands of any responsibility,” they write. Patricia Callahan of ProPublica looks at the problem through one horrific crash that killed a 9-month-old girl in Maine in January. The crash was one of more than 60 accidents since 2015 involving Amazon contractors that resulted in serious injury, including 10 deaths, according to ProPublica’s analysis. “You’ve got this wonderful convenience with this technology,” Tim Hauck told Callahan, “but there’s a human cost to it.” His sister, Stacey Hayes Curry, was killed last year by a driver delivering Amazon packages in San Diego.
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Boat fire: The Los Angeles Times reports that federal investigators have launched a criminal probe into the fire aboard the diving boat Conception that killed 34 people off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2, and whether the boat and its operator were in compliance with maritime safety rules. The Times reported last week that a preliminary investigation found serious deficiencies, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman,” required to alert sleeping passengers of any problems. In recent days, investigators from several agencies examined two other boats owned by operator Truth Aquatics and searched the company’s Santa Barbara Harbor office.
Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.