Nation roundup for September 23


Obama salutes Navy Yard victims

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Sunday memorialized the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting by calling for a transformation in the nation’s gun laws to address an epidemic of gun violence, saying, “There’s nothing inevitable about it.”

Reprising his role of the nation’s consoler in chief after yet another mass shooting, Obama said Americans should honor the victims of last Monday’s shooting by insisting on a change in gun laws. “It ought to obsess us,” Obama said.

“Sometimes I fear there is a creeping resignation that these tragedies are just somehow the way it is, that this is somehow the new normal. We cannot accept this,” Obama said.

He said no other advanced nation endures the kind of gun violence seen in the United States, and blamed mass shootings in America on laws that fail “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and dangerous people.”

“What’s different in America is it’s easy to get your hands on a gun,” he said. He acknowledged “the politics are difficult,” a lesson he learned after failing to get expanded background checks for gun buyers through the Democratic-controlled Senate this spring.

“And that’s sometimes where the resignation comes from: the sense that our politics are frozen and that nothing will change. Well, I cannot accept that,” Obama said. “By now, though, it should be clear that the change we need will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington. Change will come the only way it ever has come, and that’s from the American people.”

Obama joined military leaders in eulogizing the 12 victims killed in last Monday’s shooting, speaking from the parade grounds at the Marine Barracks, a site personally selected by Thomas Jefferson because of its close marching distance to the Navy Yard. The memorial service came on the first day of fall, which shone brightly in Washington, with sun sparkling off the instruments being played by the Navy Band and the gold dress uniform buttons worn by so many in the crowd.

The invitation-only crowd included around 4,000 mourners, with the victims’ tearful, black-clad family members directly in front of the speakers’ stage. The president and first lady met privately with the families before the service, White House officials said.

Poll: Government fails on gun rights

WASHINGTON (AP) — A New Jersey college student wants Congress to stand strong against tougher gun laws. A Colorado software executive thinks the federal government goes too far in protecting gun rights. A child-care worker in Wisconsin just wants the shootings in her city to stop.

Even as the debate over tightening national gun control laws is rekindled after the latest mass shooting, a growing number of Americans are questioning the government’s stewardship of the right to bear arms, according to a poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Asked to size up how the government is doing on protecting a variety of rights and freedoms spelled out in the Bill of Rights and federal law, Americans pointed to slippage almost everywhere but most dramatically on the matters of guns and voting rights. The impression of a declining track record on gun rights turned up everywhere: among Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old, city dwellers and those in small towns.

Overall, 44 percent of Americans think the federal government is doing a good job of safeguarding the right to keep and bear arms, down from 57 percent two years earlier. Of course, not everyone wants the government to go all out to safeguard Second Amendment rights, and that affects how people assess the government’s success at protecting the right.

Republicans and independents were far more likely than Democrats to give the government poor marks for protecting gun rights.

Among Republicans, 36 percent said the government was doing a good job protecting the right to bear arms, down from 51 percent two years ago. That compared with 56 percent of Democrats giving a good rating now, down from 64 percent two years ago. The slide was highest among independents, going from 52 percent giving a good rating in 2011 down to 25 percent in the latest poll.

The survey was conducted Aug. 12-29, prior to the mass shooting this week at the Washington Navy Yard that left 13 people dead, including the gunman.

Immigration effort faces new setback

WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan House group that’s been working in secret to write a comprehensive immigration bill splintered Friday with the departure of two Republicans, the latest sign of difficulty in solving the contentious issue.

Texas Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson said they can no longer be part of the effort because they don’t trust President Barack Obama to enforce any legislation they write.

Their move may amount to the end of the group, which even before Friday’s development had failed to produce a final product after months of delay. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida is now the sole Republican with four Democrats involved in the effort. Another Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, departed the group several months ago.

A joint statement from Johnson and Carter underscored how the thorny immigration issue is made even tougher by partisan politics on Capitol Hill and the distrust many House Republicans have for Obama.

“The administration’s practice of hand-picking what parts of laws they wish to enforce has irrevocably damaged our efforts of fixing our broken immigration system,” their statement said.

“If past actions are the best indicators of future behavior, we know that any measure depending on the president’s enforcement will not be faithfully executed. It would be gravely irresponsible to further empower this administration by granting them additional authority or discretion with a new immigration system,” they said. “The bottom line is — the American people do not trust the president to enforce laws, and we don’t either.

However, it’s not clear the development will have much of an impact on what the House does with respect to immigration, since House Republican leaders already had made clear they planned to proceed with a step-by-step approach, not with a single big bill like Johnson and Carter’s group had working on or like the Senate passed in June.

The group’s failure to deliver had already made it largely an afterthought in the House, where the Judiciary Committee has moved forward with individual, single-issue immigration bills that could come to the House floor sometime later this year or next.

U.S. home sales hit 6½-year high

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. home sales rose last month to the highest level since February 2007 as buyers rushed to close deals before mortgage rates increased further.

Yet the gain could represent a temporary peak if higher rates slow sales in coming months.

Sales of previously occupied homes rose 1.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.48 million in August, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. That level is consistent with a healthy market.

August sales reflect contracts signed in June and July, when mortgage rates were rising steadily. The Realtors’ group cautioned that buyer traffic dropped off significantly in August. That points to fewer sales in the fall.

Higher rates could also depress home buying next year, the Realtors’ said. The group forecasts that sales will average 5.2 million in 2014. That’s still better than the 4.19 million sales in 2010, when the housing market bottomed.

“We should expect some giveback in sales over the next several months,” said Thomas Feltmate, an economist at TD Economics.

Steady job gains and low mortgage rates have fueled a recovery in housing since early last year. But rates have risen since May and have begun to restrain housing’s rebound.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.57 percent last week, near a two-year high and more than a full percentage point higher than in May. That’s when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke suggested that the Fed could soon scale back its $85-billion-a-month bond purchase program, which is intended to keep interest rates low.

On Wednesday, in a surprise, the Fed decided against reducing its bond purchases. It said one key reason for its decision was the sharp increase in mortgage and other interest rates. Pulling back on its bond purchases could have sent such rates even higher.

Many economists say the housing recovery should withstand the recent rate increase. Mortgage rates are still quite low by historical standards.

“While higher mortgage rates are likely to temper existing home sales over the coming months, it by no means will derail the housing recovery,” Feltmate said.

Other figures in the report were mixed. “Distressed” sales, which include foreclosures and homes with mortgages that exceed the home values, made up just 12 percent of sales. That was down from 23 percent a year earlier.

That means that traditional sales have risen 31 percent in the past year, said Paul Diggle, an economist at Capital Economics.

At the same time, potential homebuyers, particularly first-time purchasers, still appear to have difficulty qualifying for loans.

All-cash sales accounted for 32 percent of purchases, up from 27 percent a year ago. First-time buyers made up only 28 percent of sales, down from 31 percent a year earlier.

First-time buyers usually propel housing recoveries. But in recent years, they’ve struggled to meet higher credit standards. Many lenders also now require higher down payments.

The supply of available homes remains tight, the Realtors’ group said. There were 2.25 million homes for sale last month, down 6 percent from a year earlier.

Rising prices could encourage developers to build more homes. Last month, builders broke ground on the most single-family homes since February and sought the most permits to build those homes in more than five years.

Homebuilder confidence remained at its highest level in nearly eight years in September, according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders. But builders are starting to worry that sales may slow in coming months if rates keep rising, the survey found.

 

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