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Cash pours into U.S. gun-control efforts ahead of midterms, NRA uncharacteristically quiet

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: gun-control lobby in the U.S. has made a huge increase in spending on ads and campaign support heading into the midterm elections; facial recognition going mainstream for border security

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A man openly carries his AR-15 at a pro gun rally on April 21 in Boulder, Colo. Support for stricter gun control in the U.S. is high — 61 per cent, according to a Gallup survey released last week. (Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Gun control voices have been much louder in this midterm election cycle, outspending the pro-gun lobby on ads and campaign support.
  • Travellers on the world's longest sea bridge will soon be able to pass through border control in little more than a second, as computers scan their fingerprints and faces.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Gun control and the U.S. midterms

There is no mystery about the motivations of the man who has been charged with gunning down 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., on Saturday morning.

According to investigators, the suspect proclaimed his anti-Semitism as he sprayed the sanctuary with bullets, and even paused during his shootout with police to say, "I just want to kill Jews." He also freely shared his hatred on social media.

But the sorrow and outrage over the underpinnings of the massacre obscures a stark truth about how it was carried out — with the aid of an AR-15 rifle, yet again.

A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Saturday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The lightweight semi-automatic is based on the M-16, the U.S. military's weapon of choice. It's one of the most popular guns in America, with an estimated 8 million of them sold.

And it has played a part in a startling number of the country's deadliest mass shootings, inflating the body counts in Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., San Bernardino, Cal., Las Vegas, Nev., Sutherland Springs, Tex., and Parkland, Fla.

All told, since the summer of 2012, 176 people have died in massacres where the suspect used an AR-15. That number rises to 225 dead if you include the 2016 shooting at Orlando's Pulse Nightclub, where the suspect wielded an almost identical weapon, the SIG Sauer MCX.

Donald Trump responded to the synagogue shooting by calling for more armed guards in houses of worship and other public places.

The proposal was rejected by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who noted that the "common denominator" in every mass shooting in America is a gun.

Assault weapons like the AR-15, capable of firing a vast number of bullets in a short space of time, were banned for a decade in the United States following a series of deadly mass shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fatalities caused by such rifles dropped, although killings by other semi-automatics went up.  

Gun enthusiasts look at AR-15 assault rifles at a 2016 gun show in Forth Worth, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When the ban came up for renewal in 2004, the Republican controlled Congress let it lapse, despite polling that suggested it remained a popular gun control measure with the public.

But should Democrats take control of the House and Senate come next week's midterm elections, such a prohibition might be back on the table.

Support for stricter gun control remains high — 61 per cent, according to a Gallup survey released last week. Support is particularly strong among Democrats, who are 87 per cent in favour. Sixty-one per cent of independents also support tougher gun laws, versus just 31 per cent of Republicans, according to Gallup.

And gun control voices have been much stronger in this election cycle.

As of last week, gun control groups had outspent their foes in terms of ads and donations to candidates. That's a huge turnaround from 2016, when pro-gun groups spent nearly $55 million supporting Trump and attacking Hillary Clinton, more than 10 times their opponents.

Last month, a Wall St. Journal report counted 102,000 gun-control-themed ads that had been aired in battleground states, versus just 4,500 in the 2014 midterms. And messages calling for stronger gun laws make up 11 per cent of this year's total ad buy, compared to just three per cent in 2014.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-funded gun control organization, has spent more than $10 million US in just four states, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. It has spent a further $5 million on a series of powerful digital ads, like this one:

What is most striking, however, is the virtual silence of the NRA in this campaign.

As of the beginning of October, the gun lobby had spent just $1.6 million US on ads and campaign contributions, compared to $16 million by the same point in the 2014 cycle.

The NRA's membership numbers have plummeted over the past two years, and it took in $35 million less in dues in 2017 than the year before. It is currently operating in the red.

Some of that may have to do with America's evolving gun debate, although revelations about the organization's close ties to the Russian government surely haven't helped the bottom line either.

For now, the reality remains that America is an exceptionally violent place, where gun deaths too often come in great number.

So far in 2018, there have been 365 mass shootings which have claimed 431 lives and wounded 1,358.


Facial recognition

Travellers on the world's longest sea bridge will soon be able to pass through border control in little more than a second, as computers scan their fingerprints and faces.

The 55-kilometre-long Hong Kong to Macau span, which opened to traffic last week, has a border post where it meets mainland China in Zhuhai. The South China Morning Post reports that a raft of technology, including high-resolution cameras and thermal scanners, is being installed to allow the matching of licence plates to faces and biometric information stored in China's immigration database.

A view of the vehicle security checkpoint on the Zuhai side of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Truck and bus operators will serve as the guinea pigs when the technology is rolled out in the coming months, but the idea is to eventually expand the service to all drivers.

(The system's thermal scanners will do double duty — checking for fevers to help prevent the spread of sickness, and ensuring that no one tries to defeat the system with a picture or cutout.)

China, which is in the midst of a $150 billion US push to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, has been expanding the reach of facial recognition technology on an almost daily basis.

Last week, authorities debuted a new, automated clearance system at Shanghai's Hongqiao International Airport. It uses facial recognition to check-in passengers and their luggage, screen for security, and perform final boarding verifications, all in a matter of seconds.

A similar system will be a central feature of Beijing's new $12 billion US international airport when it opens next fall, which has been designed to handle 100 million passengers a year.  

Travellers pass through automated immigration checks in the departure hall of immigration building of the Hong Kong Zhuhai Macau Bridge in Hong Kong. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE)

The goal of the Chinese government is to develop a system that can identify each and every one of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds, and without human involvement.

Facial recognition has already popped up in some odd, everyday places in China, like a "smile-to-pay" program for KFC restaurants, at automated teller machines, and at railway stations where police scan crowds using specialized glasses hooked into their database of wanted criminals.

In the southern city of Shenzhen, police have been having great success cutting down on jaywalking by using facial recognition to send the perpetrators text messages and shame them by displaying their "crime" and identity on giant screens at major intersections.

Such advances aren't limited to the Far East, however.

This week, it emerged that Amazon Inc. has been pitching its facial recognition software, called Rekognition, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to aid with "criminal investigations."

A customer tries Alipay's facial recognition payment solution, 'Smile to Pay,' at KFC's KPRO restaurant in Hangzhou, China. (Reuters)

At least two American police departments are already using the software, despite concerns about its accuracy. Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union tested the program by running the faces of all 535 members of Congress against a public database of 25,000 mugshots, and came up with 28 false matches. (Amazon says the data was skewed because the ACLU set Rekognition's "confidence threshold" at 80 per cent, instead of the 95 per cent recommended for law enforcement users.)

Like or not, facial recognition is the future.

Last month, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration unveiled its plan to make the technology the cornerstone of airport screening, with an eye to eventually expanding its use to everything from check-in to duty-free purchases.  

In Canada, the federal government is exploring using AI and facial recognition to help sort immigration and refugee claims.  

All of which seems like a bridge too far for privacy and human rights advocates.


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A few words on ... 

Canadian acts of remembrance for Pittsburgh's victims.


Quote of the moment

"We are waiting for the miracle from God."

Nugroho Budi Wiryanto, deputy chief of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency, on the dim prospect of finding survivors from the ocean crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 early this morning, carrying 189 passengers and crew.

Members of a rescue team bring ashore personal items and wreckage at the port in Tanjung Priok, Jakarta, on Monday after they were recovered from the sea where Lion Air flight JT 610 crashed off the north coast earlier in the day. (Resmi Malau/AFP/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • 'We'll survive this too': The Tree of Life massacre and American anti-Semitism (CBC)
  • 90% of world's children are breathing toxic air, says WHO (Guardian)
  • Toronto mother, son reunited 31 years after his abduction (CBC)
  • Merkel says she won't seek re-election in 2021 (Deutsche Welle)
  • Ex-husband charged after Winnipeg woman finds cameras in her home (CBC)
  • Warnings of Sri Lankan 'bloodbath' as political tensions rise (Al Jazeera)
  • The fetishization of Mr. Rogers' 'Look for the helpers' advice (The Atlantic)
  • Baby Driver II: 5-year-old Chinese boy joy rides 2 km in plastic jeep (South China Morning Post)

Today in history

Oct. 29,1980: Martin Short, from Second City to your TV

Before SCTV and SNL, Martin Short was a Toronto improv comedy legend looking for his big American break. The Associates, a short-lived sitcom about New York lawyers, wasn't it. And neither was I'm a Big Girl Now, the ABC comedy he's promoting during this appearance on CBC's The Bob McLean Show. Was he gathering source material for Jiminy Glick?

The Toronto comedian talks about leaving the Second City comedy troupe to seek out a career in the TV biz. 9:37

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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