"If I were in the President's place I would not get a chance to resign. I would be lying in a pool of my own blood hearing Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, "How do I reload this damn thing?"
Details of the U.S. contribution, which is expected to total several billion dollars in direct aid or loan guarantees, have yet to be negotiated. But several congressional leaders have been alerted to the likelihood that the administration would have to act while Congress is in recess.
This early warning from the administration reflects memories of how Congress erupted with objections and hearings in 1995 when President Clinton committed $20 billion in U.S. funds to the bailout of Mexico. But administration officials said last week that their early soundings indicate that members of Congress are deeply concerned about preventing an economic collapse in Latin America that would resound in the United States, and thus they expect few objections.
The timing of an aid package for Brazil -- originally expected within the next few days -- is complicated by unexpected delays that have cropped up in dealing with the Brazilian government. The government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso faces politically risky gubernatorial elections on Sunday, which may well determine whether Brazil can execute an austerity program that is the key condition for the loans it is concurrently negotiating with the International Monetary Fund. The biggest role in the rescue program for Brazil will be taken by the International Monetary Fund, which said last week that it would contribute at least $15 billion -- and appears to be under pressure from the United States to do even more. Another $9 billion or so will come from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and the remainder from the United States and other major industrial nations.
Germany and Japan, though, have been reluctant to take part, one U.S. official noted, suggesting that Latin America is chiefly Washington's problem, not their own.
So far, U.S. officials working behind the scenes to organize the aid package have said nothing in public about the details of plans for a direct contribution to Brazil. "Brazil is very important to the economic well-being of the region, the United States and the international community, and all of us are very much focused on seeing how we can be helpful," Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said on Friday. But in a wide-ranging interview about the global economic turmoil, Rubin declined to say what strategy he would pursue in dealing with Brazil's problems and insisted that no decisions had been made about how the United States might contribute.
But he discussed Brazil as an opportunity to engage in the kind of preventive financial diplomacy that President Clinton advocated in speeches to the IMF and the World Bank here three weeks ago. At the time, Clinton argued that the monetary fund should "provide contingent finance to help countries ward off global financial contagion" rather than wait for disaster to strike. Direct U.S. aid to Brazil would clearly send a symbolic message: that after a year of trying to manage the financial crisis through the monetary fund, the United States is now ready to put a limited amount of its own capital at risk to prevent further havoc -- not only for Brazil but to stop chaos spreading to Argentina, Mexico and other countries that are major U.S. trading partners.
That would be a change of strategy. So far, the United States has operated almost entirely through international financial institutions, chiefly the IMF. But it would also be a risky move for President Clinton, economically and politically. Even though Congress objected to the $20 billion in U.S. funds committed to the bailout of Mexico, it turned out that only $12 billion was ultimately needed, and it has since been paid back, with interest. But Rubin noted on Friday that "it's a very different environment now." Other administration officials say they believe that there would be few objections in Congress to direct U.S. participation in a Brazil bailout.
"I think there are a lot more people in Congress who are now scared to death by what's been happening in the markets, and what could happen in their own districts," a White House official said last week, "and they won't say much as long as they don't have to vote on it."
By acting soon to stabilize Latin America, the administration is hoping to capitalize on two weeks of relative calm after the late-summer panic that engulfed Russia and, at its height, led to an outflow of a billion dollars a day from Brazil, for fear that it would be the next country forced to devalue its currency. Whether this calm marks the beginning of a turnaround or just another pause in the wildfires that have erupted since Thailand's currency crisis in July 1997 is a matter of considerable debate. But many experts cite the confluence of several events that have reassured jittery investors around the world: two successive interest-rate cuts in the United States, Japan's long-delayed move to prop up its banking system with $500 billion in taxpayer funds, and a steady strengthening of currencies in Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, the first signs that investors may be preparing to return.
Always circumspect when it comes to commenting publicly on markets, Rubin acknowledged that "in the last several weeks there have been a number of significant, positive developments." But the former trader, burned during a 26-year career by many false market rallies, warned that "serious issues remain" and that "it will take some time for the world to work its way out" of what he has repeatedly called "the most serious international financial disruption of the last 50 years." In fact, Rubin's aides are clearly nervous about the possibility of another outbreak that could set off a new round of panic, which has made it virtually impossible for many emerging-market countries to borrow money on world markets.
"Brazil and Japan are the two obvious tinderboxes," said Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, who served as undersecretary of commerce for international affairs during Clinton's first term. "In Brazil, the issue is whether the package that is coming together will really be big enough to deal with an exploding debt problem. And in Japan the question is whether there is real reform that goes along with the money."
But after spending 18 months in negotiations with the Japanese, Rubin clearly senses that the United States has little leverage in Tokyo; its problems are chiefly rooted in political gridlock, not lack of resources.
In Brazil, though, the United States has a better chance of buying time and influencing an economic reform program, as long as it does not appear to be dictating terms publicly to Cardoso and his team. But demonstrating economic support will probably require tapping the Exchange Stabilization Fund, created during the Roosevelt administration to help stabilize the dollar. The money is under Rubin's control, with presidential approval, and he reached into it to circumvent congressional objections to aiding Mexico in 1995. But the reaction was so strong -- for a time Congress restricted tapping the fund for international bailouts -- that Rubin has been extraordinarily cautious ever since. He committed $3 billion in a "second line of defense" in emergency aid programs for Indonesia and South Korea last year, but no money was ultimately dispersed to either country. U.S. officials said that South Korea did not need the extra help, and that the collapse of the Suharto government in Indonesia so changed the political scene there that it would be too risky to offer direct U.S. aid.
In the bailout of Russia -- whose economy collapsed after President Boris Yeltsin abandoned an agreement to reform the economy and dismissed the leading reformers -- the United States offered no direct help. Those events set off a panicked exit by investors from all emerging markets, and greatly worsened Brazil's troubles. So far, Brazilian officials have successfully calmed the market by constantly talking about a forthcoming aid program from the IMF, convincing speculators that it would be dangerous to bet against the country. But at the same time, the Brazilian officials have maintained the pose that they do not really need the cash -- and are certainly in no hurry to get it.
U.S. officials and top officials of the IMF are clearly nervous, worried that the longer the negotiations drag on, the greater will be the risk of Brazil being caught in another round of market turmoil. "The Brazilians want everyone to think that it's all under control," said an investment banker involved in the talks. "But the fact is that there's still a real risk that sometime in the next 18 months the government is going to be forced to devalue" its currency, which is pegged to the dollar, but adjusts about 7.5 percent a year in a carefully controlled fall. To prevent a sudden devaluation, the Brazilian government has had to raise interest rates to more than 50 percent, choking off credit for most companies. Meanwhile, the country is slipping into recession. The aid would buy time for the Brazilians, but it is contingent on Cardoso's success in persuading the legislature to end huge deficits, chiefly through unpopular cuts in social spending.
The first deputy managing director for the International Monetary Fund, Stanley Fischer, spent Friday in Brazil to review the country's austerity plan, which is expected to be announced after Sunday's elections but before the international package, to avoid the appearance that the global lender is dictating conditions to Brazil. "Brazil has to do a lot," Fischer said last week before leaving on his trip. "In return, I expect the international community will make a large contribution Sunday, October 25, 1998.
Both sides declared victory. Gene Sperling, an adviser to President Clinton, said, "A Republican-controlled Congress came (the president's) way significantly." Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., proclaimed, "We won. We won. And we won."
At the same time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called the budget deal "a remarkably solid agreement." And House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said, "I'm very proud of what we did." But some other Republican congressmen have a much different view from their leaders. They say the deal is one-sided: Congress gave the president nearly everything he wanted without getting anything in return.
"It's outrageous that it uses one-third of the surplus on more government," said Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind. "It's a Great Society bill." "I would describe this not as a budget negotiation, but as a GOP budget surrender," added Stephen Moore, director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. Though the bill will not be finalized until Tuesday, it likely will include funds for the following Clinton-backed programs, many of which the president pushed for at the last minute:
$1.1 billion for 100,000 new school teachers, $260 million for a childhood literacy program and $40 million for after-school programs.
$18 billion for the International Monetary Fund.
$6 billion for emergency farm spending. Congress earlier had passed a $4.2 billion plan, but the president vetoed it as too small.
Roughly $500 million for new environmental programs.
$2 billion for the ongoing Bosnia mission.
More than $1 billion to handle Year 2000 computer problems.
$1.5 billion in extra funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Congress already had approved a bill to give 50,000 new housing vouchers to people moving from welfare to work, so they can live in private apartments.
The same bill also allows middle-income families to move into public housing. In some regions of the country, people with annual incomes of up to $35,000 will be eligible.
"This is the most significant progressive legislation of the Clinton administration as far as Housing and Urban Development is concerned," said HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo.
Republicans got money for some of their favored programs, too, including another $9 billion in defense spending and an extra $700 million for the drug war.
Absent, however, was a comprehensive tax-cut package.
This summer, Republicans, buoyed by huge budget surplus forecasts, pushed for a $700 billion tax cut over 10 years. The House passed a five- year, $80 billion tax cut, but the Senate didn't even vote on it.
In the end, Congress approved a tax bill worth less than $10 billion that will extend the research and development tax credit, among other things. It will be paid for with a series of minor tax and fee increases. "This was a golden opportunity to jump-start fundamental tax reform and to begin to rebate the massive surpluses back to the American public," said Scott Hodge, a senior fellow at Citizens for a Sound Economy. "And the lack of action this year makes it far more difficult to jump-start that reform next year, because you have lost momentum."
Pete Sepp, a vice president at the National Taxpayers Union, says continued inaction might cause some Republican activists to give up hope for tax reform. "(Congress) can use the Chicago Cubs' strategy only so long. After enough losing seasons, the troops just won't come out to fight," Sepp said. "The real problem is that by not passing a big tax cut this year or last year, they have allowed revenues to keep flooding in," Cato's Moore said. "That means you can't do a 20% flat tax on a revenue-neutral basis any more."
What about the spending side? How are Republicans doing on that front? Not any better, Hodge says. "The bottom line is that domestic discretionary spending is now at higher levels than anything seen during the Carter administration after adjusting for inflation," Hodge said. Moore added that in their first three budgets ('96-'98), Republicans boosted domestic spending by more than $180 billion, compared to a $155 billion increase in the three years prior to GOP control of Congress.
Why the lack of fiscal discipline, particularly this year? "By delaying as long as they have on these spending bills, they have shifted the balance of negotiating power over to the White House," Hodge said. "The White House can demagogue issues and hammer Republicans for being obstructionists if they don't go along."
If the GOP hadn't given in, the White House could have forced another government shutdown - and that's a public relations battle Republicans didn't think they could win. "The aftershock of (the shutdown of '95-'96) is still being felt," Hodge said. "They have never found their legs again."
Moore says fear of a shutdown "partly explains" Republican concessions to Clinton. "But I don't think that's the full explanation," he added. "There are only about 50 genuine fiscal conservatives in the Republican Congress now. You have a lot of Republican members who don't believe in much of anything, and those folks have hijacked the agenda," Moore said.
Dubious GOP Strategy
Republican leaders also used a questionable strategy, Moore says. They argued that by not rocking the boat, the GOP would be able to pick up a lot of seats in November. And that would put Republicans in a good position to do battle next year -especially with a weakened president facing impeachment proceedings. "But on budget issues, I'm not convinced that more Republicans would make much of a difference," Moore said. "Even if they got 60 senators, what that really does is maximize the leverage of the Jeffords and Chafees (liberal Republican senators) of the world."
Also, by caving in to Clinton, Republicans could "depress the pro-growth wing of the party in November" and lose votes, Moore said. "This shows that the GOP just doesn't play very good offensive ball," Sepp said. "They consistently get outmaneuvered by a man who has very little political power." Moore said, "Most of the big spending initiatives that Republicans are now approving would not have had a breath of life if Republicans were in the minority. They would have blocked them."
He added, "A lot of fiscal conservatives wouldn't shed tears at this point if Republicans lost control of Congress -including myself."
The Federal Communications Commission was expected to propose today that cellular phone companies make technical changes so the FBI, police and other law enforcers -- as long as a court approves -- can locate a person talking on a mobile phone.
This and other additional wiretapping capabilities being proposed aim to help law enforcers keep pace with technology. With some 66 million cellular phone customers, police want the authority to legally tap cell phones to track down drug dealers, terrorists and kidnappers. But some groups worry that such a practice could violate privacy.
The location proposal is part of a larger plan to implement a 1994 law that requires telecommunications companies to make changes in their networks so police are able to carry out court-ordered wiretaps in a world of digital technology. The proposal is based on a plan from the telecommunications industry.
"We think this is a positive step forward," said Stephen Colgate, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for administration. "In many kidnapping cases, it would have been very helpful to have location information." But James Dempsey, counsel to the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy group, said: "We're prepared to fight this one every step of the way." FCC Chairman Bill Kennard stressed that police would have no access to locations without a court order.
"A lot of people are saying the FCC will turn mobile phones into tracking devices for the FBI and invade Americans' privacy. I don't believe that will be the case," Kennard said. With a court order, police already can legally listen in to cell phone conversations, and, in some instances, get information on the caller's location. But not every company has the technical ability to provide a caller's location. This proposal, if adopted, would set up a nationwide requirement for companies to follow. The legal standard for obtaining a location is lower than the standard for a wiretap order in which police must show a judge there is probable cause of criminal activity. Under the proposal, police would only need to show the location is relevant to an investigation. Privacy groups say that means the government could easily track the movements not only of a suspect, but also of associates, friends or relatives. It would give police the ability to obtain the cellular phone user's location at the beginning and end of a wiretapped call, according to industry sources familiar with the plan. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
The proposal would provide police with that information based on the cellular tower, or "cell" site, where a call originated and ended. That would give information on the caller's location within several city blocks in an urban area to hundreds of square miles in a rural area. The FBI had been seeking more exact location information.
The FCC also is expected to tentatively conclude that companies must give police, as long as a court approves, additional capabilities -- beyond minimum technical standards already proposed by the industry -- so their ability to conduct wiretaps won't be thwarted.
The additional capabilities being sought by the FBI and expected to be advanced by the FCC include:
Giving police the ability to listen in on the conversations of all people on a conference call, even if some are put on hold and no longer talking to the target of a wiretap.
Giving police the ability to get information when the wiretap target has put someone on hold or dropped someone from a conference call; and to know if the wiretap target has used dialing features -- such as call waiting or call forwarding.
Giving police the number dialed by a wiretap target when the suspect, for instance, uses a credit or calling card at a pay phone.
Privacy groups and the telephone industry contend the additional capabilities sought by the FBI go beyond the 1994 law and are an attempt to broaden wiretapping powers. The FBI says it merely wants to preserve the ability to conduct legal wiretaps in a world of constantly changing technology.
The FCC is involved because the Justice Department, FBI and the telecommunications industry, after three years of negotiations, were unable to reach agreement on the larger plan for implementing the 1994 law.
All interested parties will get a chance to offer opinions on the proposal, which could be revised. Kennard wants a final plan adopted by the end of the year.
Jefferson Davis, the last American president to preside over a constitutional republic (the Confederate States of America) had this to say about the Constitution and the Union.
"I love the Union and the Constitution," he said, "but I would rather leave the Union with the Constitution than remain in the Union without it."
I would guess many Americans have no idea what Davis meant, because they have no idea what the original intent of the Constitution was. Many today, I suspect, think that the Constitution is what allows people to burn flags and dance naked in bars. In fact, the Founding Fathers had a rather more serious purpose in mind.
The first step in understanding the original intent is to recall that Colonial America existed for about 169 years before the American Revolution. These colonies existed separately and independent of each other. When they seceded from the British Empire, they did so separately and independently.
The Declaration of Independence is clear on this point. It states, "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, ... solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States" (note the plural) "... and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do ... ."
They called themselves the United States because of the Articles of Confederation. Article II of that document states, "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."
Many people today seem to think that the federal government created the states when it was the reverse. The states created the federal government as a stronger form of confederation by delegating certain of their powers to it. Thus, the purpose of the Constitution of 1787, like the Articles of Confederation, was to create a voluntary union to accomplish specific purposes, mainly to ensure a domestic free market, to provide for the common defense of the states and to deal with foreign countries with one voice.
In the original Constitution, people were not American citizens per se but were instead citizens of their respective states. The Constitution stipulated that each state would grant to the citizens of other states the rights and privileges it granted to its own. It's difficult to understand the War Between the States without understanding the loyalty Americans -- North and South -- felt for their respective states.
But what is relevant for us today is that the people in the American Republic (1787-1860) understand that the powers of the federal government were strictly limited to those spelled out in the Constitution and that the Constitution would be interpreted literally and narrowly. And, most important, that the states themselves would be the final judge of the federal government's actions.
In the North, however, there arose new feelings of nationalism and a belief that a strong central government should provide economic benefits -- protective tariffs and infrastructure, for example. Southerners disagreed; hence the split. Because the North prevailed and amended the Constitution to expand the powers of the federal government, that's what we live under today.
But Davis also said that questions that are settled by force and violence remain forever unsettled and will arise again. And so, today, we are seeing more and more people object to an unlimited central government. It seems sometimes that human "progress" travels in a circle rather than a straight line.
The Egyptian, Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed, is now in jail in Tanzania, charged by local prosecutors with bombing the embassy there.
The mainstream environmental movement denounced the arson, but some are surprised such an attack didn't happen sooner. "I know in my heart there has been an environmental time-bomb waiting to go off in Vail and other ski areas for a long time," said environmental writer J.D. Braselton.
Colorado voters blocked funding for a state tourism board. Roman Catholic church leaders have condemned the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots near resort towns. "A classic story in Telluride is of two people who came here to build trophy homes. And they built them on mesas facing each other. Each then filed suit against the other because they didn't want to see another home," said Peter Spencer, a former mayor in Telluride, in southwest Colorado.
The next step is to buy a second home, often much bigger than their main residence, which ultimately leads to skyrocketing property values that force the working population to move to less desirable areas and commute many miles over snow-covered mountain passes. "We lose employees on a regular basis to jobs down valley, where they live," said Bob McLaurin, Vail town manager. He worries that someday there won't be anybody available to answer police or fire calls, or serve tourists in restaurants.
Friends say Edward Abbey, author of the book "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a fictionalized account of his guerrilla-style attacks on mining and dam-building, would turn over in his grave if he could see the effects of the tourism that replaced them. "There will be more impact through industrial tourism than all the mining, logging and ranching combined," said Ken Sleight, a Moab, Utah, outfitter who served as the model for the outfitter "Seldom Seen Smith" in Abbey's book, a major force in launching the environmental movement in the Southwest.
Dan Kitchen, an Aspen environmentalist once convicted of cutting down a fence a homeowner had built to keep wildlife out, calls ski areas "developmental terrorists" because they finance much of their operations through the sale of million-dollar monster homes.
Colorado traditionalists have another gripe. Tourism and other service jobs pay an average of $13,000 annually, compared with the $40,000 in wages miners or loggers might earn, says Greg Walcher, president of Club 20, a western Colorado trade promotion group. They blame past efforts by environmentalists for helping drive away the higher paying jobs, and now see the same pattern surfacing again. "The environmental movement is at least partly responsible for a massive shift away from our traditional industries. Tourism is all some of these towns have left. An attack on the ski industry is an attack on the economy of western Colorado," Walcher said.
A recent economic study done for the U.S. Forest Service found that from 65 percent to 75 percent of the jobs in the White River National Forest, site of more ski areas than any other national forest, are in tourism. The saying goes that the most common greeting in western Colorado is: "Can I take your order?"
Why? Mr. Beers fears the reason is that in his position as grants administrator he turned down funding for animal-rights applicants. The agency, he told this newspaper's August Gribben, is "getting tighter with the animal-rights people and trying to distance itself from hunters, fishermen and trappers. [Service officials] have been trying to fire me for months." But there doesn't seem to be any rational explanation for treatment that seems to be out of all proportion to anything he might have done.
At issue are grants sought by the Fund for Animals for, among other things, developing and distributing to the general public informational materials about Yellowstone bison. Anyone can develop and distribute such information, but not everyone can get tax dollars to do so. The grant money comes from an excise tax on anyone who buys firearms, ammunition or archery equipment. The agency's federal aid division, where Mr. Beers worked, then disburses the money to state fish and game agencies to promote sound management and conservation of wildlife, create habitat, train hunters on safety measures and to construct shooting ranges -- all under strict guidelines.
Among those guidelines is one requiring cooperation with state fish and game agencies, which is, after all, the point of the act. The animal-rights grant proposal made no mention of such cooperation, failed to meet other guidelines as well, and Mr. Beers turned it down in May 1997. He says superiors called him in and pressured him to approve the grants even though they clearly did not meet the requirements. A colleague of Mr. Beers, since retired, said he was called into the same "unusual" meeting and challenged about his refusal to go along with a grant for an anti-hunting education program. Both men stood by their original recommendations.
Still another problem for Mr. Beers may have been his work on developing an international agreement on humane trapping standards. Animal-rights activists tried to kill any agreement in hopes that the fur trade between the United States and Europe would die with it; no one would want to be accused of doing business with a country where inhumane trapping might be going on. His work helped make an agreement possible.
Then, in November 1997, the agency abruptly announced it was transferring him to a regional office in Massachusetts, one of many actions the agency has taken against him that violate the agency's own policies and rules, he says. Why put a man whose duties are national in nature under a regional office? Mr. Beers appealed the move to the Merit System Protection Board's Office of Special Counsel -- which investigates complaints of federal employees -- and for a time the transfer was postponed.
But in August 1998, the National Trappers Association gave him its conservation award -- in part for his work on the humane trapping standards --and the agency refused to allow him to receive it. After Mr. Gribben's story appeared shortly thereafter, Fish and Wildlife notified him that he had been fired and locked him out of his office. Mr. Beers appealed again to the Office of Special Counsel, and for the time being is on paid leave, waiting for an explanation for what happened to him.
The story gets stranger still. A Fish and Wildlife Service computer specialist named Bonnie Kline, who happens to be a friend of Mr. Beers, says agency superiors warned her that she was not to cooperate with any investigation that the Office of Special Counsel might be conducting into his situation. She says the agency has since tried to transfer her out of her information-security duties, and, when she declined, treated her with such hostility and veiled threats that she felt obliged to retain legal counsel and file her own complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. For someone who has received numerous agency awards for her work, this isn't the kind of reward she was expecting.
The head of a conservation watchdog group, the National Wilderness Institute, blamed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for politicizing the Fish and Wildlife Service to the point that it had no room for Mr. Beers and Ms. Kline. "There's no place for politically incorrect career biologists like Jim Beers," said Rob Gordon of NWI. Ms. Kline's mistake was to stumble into a "political hornet's nest," he said.
A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service declined comment on Mr. Beers and Ms. Kline. He did say the agency supports hunting both for recreation and for management of wildlife. Perhaps the agency should try explaining that to Mr. Beers and Ms. Kline.
"Every time Clinton starts talking about gun control, business goes up at gun shows," said Mr. Cutelli, who puts on the St. Louis Weapon Collectors Gun & Knife shows.
Mr. Clinton's latest anti-gun remarks and the pending implementation of the "permanent" Brady gun-control act on Nov. 30 have sent customers pouring into gun shops and shows.
The new gun law institutes a procedure called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The system is similar to a credit-card approval system. If someone wants to buy a firearm, the gun dealer types the person's name, birthdate and gender into a computer and phones in the data to a central FBI computer. After checking the criminal records, NICS approves or disapproves within 30 seconds.
The law will supersede the current Brady act, which requires a criminal background check and a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. The instant check will do away with the five-day wait. But under the new law, buyers of rifles and shotguns must be checked, too. That provision has set off a gun-buying rush.
"Gun sales are way up. They have been since June for me ... two or three times normal," said Chip Johnson, owner of Direct Firearms in Gower, Mo.
"This is happening all across the nation," said Richard Feldman, director of the American Shooting Sports Council in Atlanta. "It's not a selling frenzy yet. That will come next month, in the last two weeks of November," Mr. Feldman said. "But in talking to distributors, a number of the big chains have stores which have sold out of their fall stocks of rifles and shotguns."
Carl Nassau finds it all a bit irrational. "Whenever they enact any kind of gun law, it raises paranoia. People think the FBI will know their history. So they will go and buy the guns before the change," said Mr. Nassau, who owns Nassau Sporting Goods in St. Charles, Mo. "There are people who don't want guns, but they will go out and buy them anyway," Mr. Nassau said. "People perceive it as 'My last chance to buy a gun.' ... It's a panic."
Mr. Nassau believes the NICS procedure will not be such a big change. "There are still legal qualifications to own a gun. Now, rather than the local sheriff in some states, the FBI is going to do the background check," Mr. Nassau said.
The NICS system does not supersede existing state gun laws.
An irrational fear of scarcity is another factor. "When I was in the Army in '67, '68, a guy told us when we got overseas to Vietnam that we should never say -- even in jest -- anything about a shortage," Mr. Nassau said. "In Korea, in years prior, someone said the Army didn't have enough toilet paper. That whole area was dry of toilet paper for three months, because everybody grabbed four rolls and stuck them in their foot lockers."
One possible side effect of the new law could be a decrease in the number of small gun dealers.
"Three years ago, when the government went to fingerprinting and increased the price of a gun dealer's license, it made it a lot more difficult and a lot of dealers quit," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson thinks 30 percent to 40 percent of gun dealers will quit because of the cost of the NICS system for a dealer.
"The people who buy maybe 12 guns every six months or so and sell three will quit, Mr. Nassau said. "They were never really in the business anyway."
To most people, including archeologists, the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah remains metaphorical, a warning to sinful humans from the authors of Genesis. No satisfactory archeological evidence of the five lost Cities of the Plain, of which Sodom and Gomorrah were two, has ever been unearthed.
However, Michael Sanders, a Leeds-born biblical scholar living in Irvine, California, believes that new satellite photographs from Nasa, the American space agency, may show that Sodom and Gomorrah not only existed, but also that they were probably destroyed in a catastrophe about 5,000 years ago, and that their ruins were engulfed beneath the salty waters of the Dead Sea.
Sanders, 58, hopes to lead an expedition to Israel early next year to test his theories. He intends to explore the 1,200ft depths of the Dead Sea in the two-man Delta mini-submarine that discovered the sunken liner Lusitania, closely examining strange shapes that appear on the satellite photographs like ruined buildings. "The idea that Lot's wife could be turned into a pillar of salt, or that God could destroy evil cities, well, even religious people draw a line at stories like these, saying they're fable and myth," said Sanders. "So, if we can come up with proof that one of the most unlikely stories in the Old Testament was actually true, that will have a very profound impact on how people view the truth of Bible."
Sanders's theory, which he believes is validated by the photographs, draws on archeological research that began more than 30 years ago. In the late 1960s P W Lapp, the archeologist, excavated the site of Bab Edh-Dhra on the edge of the Lisan peninsula, which juts into the Dead Sea, and estimated that the remains of more than 500,000 people were buried in a cemetery there. Between 1973 and 1979 four more small sites, all with large numbers of buried bodies, were found in the same area by the archeologists Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub, who believed they might contain the dead from the remaining Cities of the Plain.
The odd thing about these discoveries, Sanders points out, is that the cemeteries already existed in 3200BC, much earlier than the small towns nearby. What is even stranger is that the enormous cemeteries or charnel houses were discovered in an area that is now one of the most arid and bleak on earth. "It's land that cannot grow enough today to feed even a small village," says Sanders.
Why, then, should this part of the Jordan Valley have been described in Genesis 13:10 as lush and verdant and as capable of supporting life as the Nile delta?
"And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered in everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zo'ar; this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah," reads the Bible.
Sanders asks: "Whoever wrote this story, and where did they get that peculiar notion from? Because even in that time the area was nothing like that. It seems a preposterous story."
The climate and topography of the now arid area must have changed dramatically over the ages if it had been capable of supporting the numbers of people found buried there. Sanders says that what was once a verdant idyll was probably ravaged about 5,000 years ago by an earthquake resulting in an explosive expulsion of pitch, which caught fire - this fits in neatly with the haunting passage in Genesis 19: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But when his [Lot's] wife looked back from behind him, she became a pillar of salt."
It seems likely that after the natural disaster the area's green fields gradually disappeared and were replaced by infertile deserts. The cities' remains appear also to have been subjected to another natural change - the rising waters of the sea. The satellite photographs show three clear and startling anomalies, which could be architectural ruins, deep beneath the surface of the northern end of the Dead Sea. Drawing on other Nasa images clearly indicating that the waters lay further south at one time, Sanders believes these unexplained forms could be the Cities of the Plain.
Rich Slater, the geologist who will lead the dive on the Delta mini-submarine, is optimistic about the expedition's chances of uncovering Sodom and Gomorrah. "I think the satellite photos clearly show the Dead Sea covers more area in the north now than in the past," he says. "So if there were cities there they would definitely be underwater. And salt preserves things well. We might find that Sodom and Gomorrah are in pretty good condition."
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