BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. (AP) — Black Friday isn't just when shoppers rush to stores for holiday sales. It's also one of the busiest days of the year for gun purchases.
In the U.S., there are nine guns for every 10 people. Someone is killed with a firearm every 16 minutes. And every minute, gun shops make about 40 new requests for criminal background checks on people wanting weapons.
On Black Friday, the rush accelerates to nearly two checks a second, testing the limits of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
"We have a perfect storm coming," says Kimberly Del Greco, a manager in the FBI division that helps run the system, known as NICS.
Much of the responsibility for preventing criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns is shouldered by about 500 men and women who run the system from inside the FBI's criminal justice center, a gray office building with concrete walls and mirrored windows just outside Bridgeport, West Virginia.
Granted a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the NICS, The Associated Press was able to see first-hand why 512 gun sales a day effectively beat the system last year.
By federal law, NICS researchers must race against the clock: They have until the end of the third business day following an attempted firearm purchase to determine whether or not a buyer is eligible. After that, buyers can legally get their guns, whether or not the check was completed.
This clock ran out more than 186,000 times last year.
The problem is the data.
States voluntarily submit records, which are often missing information about mental health rulings or criminal convictions, and aren't always rapidly updated to reflect restraining orders or other urgent reasons to deny a sale. It's a particular problem on Black Friday, when so many background checks are done at once.
There are more than 48,000 gun retailers in the U.S., from Wal-Mart stores to local pawn shops. Store clerks can use the FBI's online E-Check System, which federal officials say is more efficient. But nearly half the checks are phoned in. Three call centers — in Kentucky, Texas, and Wheeling, W.Va. — take these calls from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day but Christmas.
NICS did about 58,000 checks on a typical day last year. That surged to 145,000 on Black Friday 2013. They're bringing in 100 more workers than usual for the post-Thanksgiving rush this year.
The call centers have no access to privileged information about buyers' backgrounds, and make no decisions. They just type in their name, address, birthdate, Social Security Number and other information into the system. On Black Fridays, the work can be grueling: One woman took a call that lasted four hours when a dealer phoned in the maximum 99 checks.
"Rules had to be stretched," recalled Sam Demarco, her supervisor. "We can't transfer calls. Someone had to sit in her seat for her while she went to the bathroom."
In the years since these background checks were required, about 71 percent have found no red flags and produced instant approvals.
But ten factors can disqualify gun purchasers: a felony conviction, an arrest warrant, a documented drug problem or mental illness, undocumented immigration status, a dishonorable military discharge, a renunciation of U.S. citizenship, a restraining order, a history of domestic violence, or an indictment for any crime punishable by longer than one year of prison time.
Any sign that one of these factors could be in a buyer's background produces a red-flag. FBI researchers then investigate, scouring state records in the federal database and calling state and local authorities for more information.
"It takes a lot of effort ... for an examiner to go out and look at court reports, look at judges' documents, try to find a final disposition so we can get back to a gun dealer on whether they can sell that gun or not," Del Greco says. "And we don't always get back to them."
The researchers must use their skill and judgment, striking a balance between the rights of gun owners and the need to keep would-be killers from getting firearms.
Researcher Valerie Sargo says outstanding warrants often come up when they examine a red flag, and that can help police make arrests.
"It makes you feel good that this person is not supposed to have a firearm and you kept it out of their hands," she says.
It also weighs on them when red flags aren't resolved within three days, which happens about two percent of the time, or 512 checks each day on average. Tacked to a cubicle wall, a sign reads: "Our policy is to ALWAYS blame the computer."
These workers have considerable responsibility, but little independent authority.
"They won't proceed or deny a transaction unless they are ABSOLUTELY certain the information they have is correct and sufficient to sustain that decision," FBI spokesman Stephen G. Fischer told the AP.
FBI contractors and employees oversaw more than 9 million checks in the first full year after the system was established as part of Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1998. By last year, they oversaw more than 21 million. In all, only 1.25 percent of attempted purchases are denied. Denials can be appealed.
People can get guns without background checks in many states by buying weapons at gun shows or from individuals, a loophole the National Rifle Association does not want closed. But even the NRA agrees that the NICS system needs better data.
"Any database is only going to function as well as the information contained within," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam says.
Del Greco doesn't see the states' data improving soon, which only adds to the immense challenge of getting through huge numbers of requisite checks on Black Friday.
"It's really critical that we have accurate information," Del Greco says. "Sometimes we just don't."
Associated Press Writer Matt Stroud can be reached through Twitter @mattstroud.
NEW YORK (AP) — For three weeks, Dr. John Fankhauser and his family lived in two RVs in a meadow in North Carolina, watching movies, playing cards and huddling around a fire pit — with no other campers around.
But their isolation was interrupted each morning by a visit from a public health nurse, who came to ask Fankhauser how he was feeling and to watch him take his temperature.
The doctor is one of the more than 2,600 people who have undergone the 21-day ritual ordered by the federal government to guard against cases of Ebola from entering the country from West Africa. Now, anyone who has traveled from four West African nations is monitored for three weeks for fever and other signs of the disease.
The program reaches the one-month mark on Thursday, and so far, it hasn't found any cases of Ebola.
It's up to local officials to decide how to keep track of the travelers who end up in their states, and determine what — if any — restrictions to impose. Most checking is done through daily phone calls, often with the person calling in to report their temperature and any symptoms.
And by all accounts, most travelers have been cooperative. Last week during a Congressional hearing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said health officials lost track of only a tiny proportion of travelers — "less than 1 percent."
Success varies from place to place, but overall more than 95 percent of travelers from the countries are promptly contacted and monitored daily, according to CDC officials.
"State and local health departments have really stepped up to the challenge," said Randolph Daley, a CDC epidemiologist helping to coordinate the effort.
But there have been headaches. In the beginning, local health officials frequently complained they were getting bad contact information, or that travelers were getting or using the wrong phone numbers to dial in. Officials had to send their disease detectives out to track down the travelers.
"The first week was really bad. I went out to eight homes because no one was calling," said Jeanette Oliveras, a nurse for Trenton, New Jersey's health department.
She and health officials say the quality of the contact information has improved, but the extra work has been a burden. On an average day, 90 to 100 passengers arrive in the U.S. from the West African countries struggling with the worst Ebola epidemic in world history — Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and — more recently — Mali.
Those passengers are added to the lists, as others drop off.
"As it continues, it has become a strain," said Dr. Marcus Plescia, head of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, who was sending a nurse out to see Fankhauser, a 25-minute drive outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, until this week.
The U.S. didn't start checking passengers from West Africa until a Liberian man visiting Dallas came down with Ebola in September. At first, travelers were only checked upon arrival for a fever. But as Ebola anxiety spread across America and some in Congress pushed for a travel ban, the Obama administration began to ratchet up its measures.
Today, anyone who is traveling to the U.S. from West African countries with Ebola is funneled through one of five major airports. They are given thermometers and told to check their temperature twice daily. They are also required to provide contact information for themselves as well as a friend or relative, which is relayed to state health officials.
The program also tracks workers at U.S. hospitals where Ebola patients were treated.
It was created more for political than medical reasons, said Stephen Morse, a Columbia University infectious disease expert.
"Everyone in office wants to be seen as doing something," he said.
Monitoring is not the best way to control Ebola in this country, said Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at New York City's health department. Better approaches would be sending medical help to West Africa to stop the epidemic and preparing U.S. hospitals to handle Ebola cases here, he said.
In Trenton, Oliveras said many travelers have gone beyond what health officials ask of them. None has been required to stay in quarantine, but roughly half have isolated themselves in homes or hotels. Most are Liberians aware of Americans anxiety about Ebola, and they did it to prevent people in the community "from getting upset," she said.
Fankhauser was a different story. He had worked at an Ebola hospital in Liberia, and local officials restricted where he could go and required in-person symptom checks.
When he returned from Liberia earlier this month, he agreed to stay at a campground on the campus of SIM, a North Carolina-based medical aid organization. His recent work for the group in Liberia was administrative, and he said he was in full personal protective equipment during his one encounter with an Ebola patient.
Still, he had to ask permission to visit a friend's home or visit a coffee shop. The county denied his request to go to dinner with family and friends at a restaurant.
Local media had reported on Fankhauser, and the idea of him being seen at a crowded restaurant seemed problematic, the health department's Plescia said.
Fankhauser said he had no problem being monitored, but some restrictions were about "appeasing people's irrational fears."
WASHINGTON (AP) — There's no free lunch — or breakfast or dinner — for President Barack Obama on Thanksgiving Day. Or any other day for that matter.
He has to dig into his pocket to pay for his holiday feast of turkey, ham, two kinds of stuffing, sweet and regular potatoes, and six different kinds of pie. It's a longstanding practice that a president pays for meals for himself, his family and personal guests.
Obama also pays for other basics — everything from toothpaste to dry cleaning.
WHY IS THAT?
Gary Walters, who was chief White House usher for many years, said the payment rule dates back to 1800 when the White House was first occupied by President John Adams and there was no staff. Presidents brought staff with them and paid for everything.
Congress gradually began spending money to maintain an official White House staff to oversee operations and maintenance, but presidents continued to pay for personal expenses.
What it boils down to, Walters said, is that the White House is first and foremost the president's home.
"All those things that are personal in nature that we all pay for, the first family pays for," he said.
WHAT IS EXLUDED?
White House chefs who prepare the president's meals are paid by the government.
For the budget year that ended Sept. 30, Congress gave the White House $19,000 to pay for official receptions and $12.7 million to cover operating expenses for the residence, which may include entertainment. The cost of meals for some White House events, including state dinners and receptions, is picked up by the State Department or political parties.
WHAT ELSE MUST THE FIRST FAMILY PAY FOR?
Since presidents and first ladies can't easily pop into the neighborhood drug store, a White House residence staff member will pick up things like toothpaste and deodorant during shopping runs and keep the bill for Obama.
Another cost is private parties, such as the 50th birthday bash Obama threw earlier this year for first lady Michelle Obama. For private events, presidents pay for food and beverages, use of waiters and servers, and setup and cleanup crews. Taxpayers are only supposed to pay for official government functions.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The White House usher's office prepares a detailed bill and sends a copy to the president and another to the first lady by mid-month. It is itemized to account for all the food and beverages consumed by the first family and personal guests, and includes invoices and receipts for those costs and other services.
Obama then reimburses the government.
"It's just the tradition that it's continued on through time that the president will pay for their own food and, I guess, if they needed something for the house that was personal. Toothpaste, cologne or whatever," said William Bushong, chief historian at the White House Historical Association.
HAS ANYONE EVER COMPLAINED ABOUT THIS?
The practice appeared to catch Nancy Reagan by surprise.
"Nobody had told us that the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries," she said shortly after she and President Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in January 1981.
Laura Bush knew about it — she's the daughter-in-law of a president — but was still unprepared for some of the costs after becoming first lady in 2001.
"I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the fashion expectations for a first lady," Mrs. Bush wrote in her memoir. "After our first year in the White House, our accountant said to George (W. Bush), 'It costs a lot to be president,' and he was referring mainly to my clothes."
She also paid "with our own money" for someone to blow-dry her hair most mornings "just so I could try to avoid a bad hair day."
WHAT IS OBAMA'S SALARY?
He gets $400,000 annually, plus a $50,000 allowance to help defray costs associated with carrying out his official duties.
WHAT ARE SOME OF OBAMA'S OTHER PERSONAL EXPENSES?
Mortgage on a home in Chicago, private-school tuition for his daughters.
WHAT ELSE DOES HE GET FOR FREE AT THE WHITE HOUSE?
Rent, utilities, transportation, security, medical care.
TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Jamal Hayak is finally fixing up his restaurant, damaged a month ago in clashes between the army and militants in this northern Lebanese city. But he has little doubt violence will erupt again, and he says he fears next time it will be Islamic State group fighters battling in Tripoli's streets.
"In the beginning we used to say. 'This is the last time.' Now we've had Round 21 and 22 (of fighting), so we say God knows," said Hayak, 56, grimy with dust as he fixed his shop, shelled during the four days of fighting in late October that killed over 20 people.
Sunni Muslim-majority Tripoli is seen as particularly vulnerable to becoming a foothold for militants from Syria, including the Islamic State group, to expand into Lebanon. Years of neglect have deepened poverty in the city, Lebanon's second largest. Many among its conservative Sunni residents are bitter over what they see as domination of the central government by Shiites, the Hezbollah guerrilla group in particular — giving fertile ground for the sectarian hatred that militants often feed on.
The city also has a geographical sectarian fault line, worsened by Syria's civil war. Clashes have erupted some two dozen times in the city the past three years, mostly between the neighboring districts of Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Bab Tabbaneh is majority Sunni, like Syria's rebels, and Jabal Mohsen's residents are mostly Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.
October's fighting was considered the most serious because heavily-armed Sunni militants led the clashes, launching attacks on army positions in Tripoli. They were believed to be local residents inspired by the Islamic State group and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, security officials have said. The violence raised warnings from politicians that militants are seeking to carve out an enclave in north Lebanon along the lines of the Islamic State group's self-declared "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.
A security official said both groups are actively trying to recruit among disaffected youth in impoverished areas of northern Lebanon. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, declined to go into details.
So far, it is not clear whether Islamic State militants have actually moved in — only that there is opportunity.
"There are no IS cells in the real sense of the word, but there are many who dream of joining them and establishing an emirate in Tripoli," said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said a "sentiment of Sunni victimization creates a terrain where (the Islamic State group) could — and I say could, I don't think they have done it yet — but could try and prey, and gain more and more support."
Many Sunnis are convinced that the army and the government are dominated by Hezbollah, the country's powerful Shiite Muslim power.
Over the years, the ranks of Islamists grew in Tripoli, boosted by the profusion of groups belonging to the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the dozens of Gulf-funded free religious schools preaching rigid Islamic doctrines. Fighters from Tripoli were among Arab militants who went to fight American troops early in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
While the capital and many of Lebanon's mountain resorts have largely rebuilt from the ruins of the 1975-1990 civil war, Tripoli and neighboring towns still struggle with squalor and poverty.
"We count the paving stones we cross on the street, we've got nothing better to do," said Ali, 24, an unemployed chef, speaking in Tripoli's bazaar. He requested his family name be withheld so he could speak freely.
The Islamic State group has succeeded in sweeping through parts of Iraq and Syria in part by appealing to disenfranchised Sunnis, alongside terrorizing its enemies with violence. When Islamic State group fighters seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, some Sunni residents welcomed them out of resentment of the Shiite-dominated government in Bagdad, which they accuse of discrimination.
Lebanon's Tripoli is not as extreme as Mosul, but its mostly Sunni Muslim residents share similar grievances.
The neglect is palpable in Tripoli, a city once prized for its Islamic scholarship, its delicate sweets and the fragrance of the groves of bitter oranges surrounding the city. But it never recovered from the civil war. Its old, elegant buildings are still battered from that conflict. Ugly high rises have smothered Tripoli's groves, and cement-block checkpoints line roads.
"Tripoli is neglected. It has been neglected a lot. Tripoli should be different," said clothing merchant Rashid Noushi, showing where he'd artfully concealed bullet holes with new stock.
Despite the tensions, restaurant owner Hayak said most Tripoli residents didn't want the Islamic State — but the Lebanese government
"We want the state to impose its sovereignty here," he said. "We want the state."
WEST MILFORD, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey hiker killed by a bear in September took a series of photos of the animal with his cellphone before it mauled him to death.
Police in West Milford have released five photos taken by 22-year-old Darsh Patel before he was killed by the 300-pound black bear while hiking with four friends in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York.
The photos show the bear behind a fallen tree in the woods. Investigators say the phone was found with puncture marks from the bear.
The photos were released after NJ.com filed an open records request.
West Milford police and the state Environmental Protection Department said last month that the bear did not seem interested in food and exhibited "stalking type behavior."
DENVER (AP) — A trove of ancient bones from gigantic animals discovered in the Colorado mountains is providing scientists with a fascinating look at what happened about 120,000 years ago when the Earth got as warm as it is today.
Evidence left behind by mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths and huge bison — along with insects, plants, pollen and other animals — offers a glimpse at how ancient animal adapted to climate change.
Among their findings: The warmer weather allowed forests to reach about 2,500 feet farther up the mountainside than today's tree line, which is about 11,500 feet above sea level at the Snowmass site. Forests also may have been denser, and smaller trees and grasslands might have been more widespread amid drier conditions.
A team of 47 scientists has been studying material unearthed four years ago near Snowmass, a town just outside Aspen, when a bulldozer was enlarging a reservoir. The researchers published their first big batch of data in the journal Quaternary Research in November.
"The site is spectacular because it has a single continuous pile of sediment from the most recent interglacial period," about 120,000 years ago, when conditions were similar to the present, said Ian Miller, chairman of the Earth Sciences Department at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He is co-director of the museum's Snowmastodon Project, which is sifting through the material.
"It's a beautiful record of the last time it was as warm or warmer than it is today," he said.
The information gives scientists solid data to check their climate models against.
It also means that figuring out the impacts of human-produced greenhouse gases combined with natural changes might be more complicated than previously thought. "The point is ... if we haven't seen all the natural variability in the system and we are causing warming, where are we going?" Miller said.
The Colorado site can point to clues about how life adapts to climate change — but it doesn't answer the question, according to a climate scientist not working on the Snowmass site.
"It shows an example of a world that's that warm and shows us some manifest examples of how animals react to that," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. "What we're headed for is kind of a different situation where we're turning the knob way up on climate in a very short period of time."
The reservoir where the bones were found was originally a natural lake and sits on a ridge about 9,000 feet above sea level. The sediment and bones provided a record of about 85,000 years, from 140,000 years ago to 55,000 years ago.
The site yielded 35 mastodons, male and female, young and old. Researchers also found about 50 other species, including mammoths, giant sloths about the size of today's grizzly bears, and bison that were half again as large as the modern-day versions.
The site didn't produce any information about why animals became extinct, but it did provide hints about what their lives were like, Miller said. For example, mastodon tusks grow a little each year, producing rings like trees do, he said. The size of each ring indicates whether times were good or bad.
"When it's stressful, they grow very little, and when it's nice, they grow a lot," Miller said.
The bones are at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and sediment samples are at a USGS site in the Denver suburb of Lakewood. Studies will likely continue for years, Miller said.