An Artist's Alternative Universe And His Warehouse Full Of Dolls

The new exhibition Moundverse Infants at Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia centers around artist Trenton Doyle Hancock’s toy dolls. Torpedo Man, the superhero of his artistic cosmology, is portrayed on the left.

Courtesy of Temple Contemporary

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Courtesy of Temple Contemporary

When Trenton Doyle Hancock was 10 years old, he made up a superhero: Torpedo Boy. The character has become the center of a complicated cosmos Hancock has developed obsessively for more than 30 years. There are drawings, paintings, sculptures — and now, a plush stuffed doll.

“Well, he looks like me,” Hancock says. “He’s a black guy. His face is basically my face.”

Torpedo Boy is a recurring character throughout Hancock’s work, and in a new exhibition called Moundverse Infants at Temple Contemporary, the museum at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. It’s a deep dive into the fantastical alternative world Hancock created.

“Mounds are these half-human and half-plant creatures,” he says. “They’re kind of these dopey big mound heaps that can’t really move or do anything.”

Hancock’s moundverse is proudly bizarre and dizzyingly complex. It contains dozens of characters — including a goddess who controls color.

“And this color can be manipulated to fuel, and different things,” Hancock says. “I know, it’s — I live in my own head.”

Trenton Doyle Hancock collects dolls, and toys, and other things that remind him of his Texas childhood. His collection is so big he has both a house and a studio the size of an airport hangar in Houston to store it. His stuff is fundamental to his work — work that has made him an art-world star celebrated by critics and collected by leading museums.

Robert Blackson runs Temple Contemporary. He notes that Hancock’s work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney, both Museums of Modern Art in San Francisco and New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His work is also snapped up quickly by fanatical collectors. But unlike other A-listers, Blackman says Hancock doesn’t cater to those galleries or individuals. He makes his work entirely for himself.

“He has no choice,” Blackman says. “It’s not something that he can walk away from. He carries it with him wherever he goes. He wears it almost wherever he goes. There’s a truth there that you can’t escape.”

It’s an intensely personal vision that begins with Hancock’s youth. When you walk into Moundverse Infants, you’re overwhelmed by bright reds, greens and yellows meant to evoke both a toy store and the tile in Hancock’s grandma’s bathroom.

“I’m obsessed with my own childhood,” Hancock says. “I’ve actually tried to turn that into a superpower.”

When Hancock was a child, his stepfather was a minister, and his mom — “she had an extreme flare-up of religion,” he says, laughing. She wouldn’t let her son play with toys she found “unwholesome.” That’s one way to describe the stuff Hancock liked: stuff like the Dark Knight comics and a TV show called Night Flight that showed him a completely different world.

“Weird animations, live punk shows — just very strange things that I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was healthy for me,” he says.

Hancock made his way to art school — to Tyler School Of Art, in fact — where he learned that collecting toys also made him healthy. Many of the characters in Hancock’s head appear in this show as dolls — shiny, plastic ones that are little bit unnerving.

As an African-American kid who did not own lots of black toys, Hancock became fascinated by what makes dolls objects of desire. He used to pore over the Sears catalog, analyzing toy packaging and production, as a way of understanding social aesthetics.

“Like, what was cute in the 60s isn’t what was cute in the ’70s, and definitely isn’t what was cute in the ’90s,” Hancock says.

Hancock collects dolls he finds in thrift shops, often missing clothes and hair. He says it helps him reflect on the values placed on skin and bodies. He only buys toys made from 1959-1990.

“The rule is if I come across it at a thrift shop I have to buy it — from those years,” he says. “That’s why I have to have another warehouse to accommodate the collection at this point.”

Hancock took a group of young, aspiring curators to the original warehouse last year. One was Ida Villanueva, 21.

“I’ve never seen so many things, like, toys and colors all at once,” she says. “That’s really the most mind-blowing thing for me.”

Villanueva is part of the Young Curators Council at Temple Contemporary. It’s a project that trains young people of color from North Philadelphia to be curators — a community engagement project responding to a Mellon Foundation study that showed fewer than 10 percent of museum curators and leaders are black or Hispanic. She’s using Hancock’s character, Torpedo Boy, as an inspiration for a workshop at a nearby Puerto Rican arts center.

“Families are invited — so, parents and kids — to make their own superheroes based on their own cultural backgrounds,” Villanueva says.

This show is also a collaboration with a community institution just a few blocks away. The Philadelphia Doll Museum is run by Barbara Whiteman, and all of her dolls are black.

The dolls in the Moundverse Infants exhibit draw from both Trenton Doyle Hancock’s personal collection, and that of the neighboring Philadelphia Doll Museum.

Courtesy of Temple Contemporary

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Courtesy of Temple Contemporary

Hancock collaborated with Barbara Whiteman on an entire room inspired by the Clark doll test — where two psychologists asked children to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The results helped influence the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The black and white dolls packing this room reflect how toys have historically expressed a more limited range of possibilities for black kids.

“It’s just like you’re given a few options — it’s like, well, I can be this, this or this,” Hancock says. “But little white girls can be that whole row of them — like 50 options.”

As whimsical as his work with toys might seem, artist Trenton Doyle Hancock says it’s also rooted in reality. As he notes, “it’s a very American reality.”

It’s a reality, he adds, that needs new mythologies reflecting American histories and mistakes — the sort of mythology a person might start to invent as a child playing with dolls.

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The Guidelines For Protection Of Transgender Prisoners Just Got Rewritten

An undated photo, provided to the Associated Press by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, shows a four-man cell at the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, Colo.


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The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons released revisions to its Transgender Offender Manual on Friday. Notably, the rewritten manual gets rid of language asking that an inmate’s gender identity, not the sex they were assigned at birth, be considered when recommending a housing facility for them.

The initial manual, dated Jan. 18, 2017, states: “The TEC [Transgender Executive Council] will recommend housing by gender identity when appropriate.” In the revised version, which was approved by the Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Mark S. Inch, that sentence has been struck. The language in the revised version instead insists that facility assignments for transgender inmates be assessed on “a case-by-case basis.”

The guidelines now say that the Transgender Executive Council “will use biological sex as the initial determination” for facility assignment for transgender inmates, and a transgender inmate would be assigned to a facility based on their identified gender only “in rare cases.” To make a determination about placement, the Council can consider the inmate’s health and safety, the inmate’s history of behavior and the security of the institution and its inmates.

According to the revisions, an inmate may also be assigned to a facility based on their self-identified gender if “there has been significant progress towards transition as demonstrated by medical and mental health history.” Prison wardens are permitted to recommend transferring an inmate based on their identified gender as well.

The rewrite also adds the word “necessary” to a sentence where the word did not previously appear: “Hormone and other necessary treatment may be provided after an individualized assessment of the requested inmate by institution medical staff.” Buzzfeed News has reported that the addition of the word indicates “the agency will make determinations about what sort of hormone therapies and other gender transition services are required.”

The stated purpose of the manual itself has changed, too. Before, its mandate was, “To ensure the Bureau of Prisons properly identifies, tracks, and provides services to the transgender population.” The new guidelines add a clause to the end of that statement of purpose. It now says: “To ensure the Bureau of Prisons properly identifies, tracks, and provides services to the transgender population, consistent with maintaining security and good order in Federal prisons.”

In 2012, NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported on President Obama’s announcement that the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act applied to people in all federal facilities, not just those overseen by the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Prisons. Some new standards accompanied the expansion of that law:

“The new standards forbid pat downs of female inmates by guards of the opposite sex, require prisons to do more to advise inmates of their rights and services that could help them, and impose audits every three years by an independent overseer. The standards also direct authorities to decide on a case by case basis whether to house transgender inmates in a male or female facility.”

A statement released Friday by the National Center for Transgender Equality accuses the new Bureau of Prisons revisions of violating that law:

This change stands in direct defiance of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which mandates prison officials must screen all individuals at admission and upon transfer to assess their risk of experiencing abuse. The new policy strips away these guidelines and encourages broad, blanket placement of prisoners based on their sex assigned at birth.”

But Nancy Ayers, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, told Buzzfeed News she believes the policy does consider individual needs in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act: “The manual now addresses and articulates the balance of safety needs of transgender inmates as well as other inmates, including those with histories of trauma, privacy concerns, etc., on a case-by-case basis,” she says.

A Justice Department filing from August 2017 foreshadowed these changes. The filing was part of a case in which four evangelical Christian women – Rhonda Fleming, Jeanette Driever, Charlsa Little and Brenda Rhames – challenged Obama-era guidelines for transgender inmates in U.S. District Court. In the lawsuit, the women argued the Bureau of Prisons was violating their constitutional rights by placing transgender inmates in the women’s facilities they were housed in.

The August 2017 filing said the women did not have a strong case at that time. The transgender inmates housed at the two facilities in question — Federal Medical Center, Carswell and Federal Prison Camp, Bryan — were not housed in the same units as the plaintiffs. In addition, the women alleged that the transgender inmates they named in the case had committed certain acts against them, but the Bureau of Prison’s investigation failed to find enough evidence to prove those allegations to be true.

But, the filing did anticipate that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new appointee for Federal Bureau of Prisons Director, Mark S. Inch, would likely reevaluate the underlying issues of the four women’s case. Friday’s revisions are perhaps part of that predicted reevaluation.

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Tardis Optional: Time Travelers Invited To Stephen Hawking Service

In this Feb. 25, 2012 photo, Professor Stephen Hawking poses beside a lamp titled ‘black hole light’ presented to him during his visit to the Science Museum in London. A service will be held for him in the same city this June. Hawking, whose brilliant mind ranged across time and space though his body was paralyzed by disease, died in March 2018.

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Philip Toscano/AP

Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred at Westminster Abbey this June. He’ll take his place among giants — between Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Applications to attend a Service of Thanksgiving are open to the public, and anyone — including people born in 2038, can apply. A thousand spaces are available.

Hawking was a theoretical physicist who changed the way scientists think about the universe with his early work on black holes. He died in March 2018, and was probably modern day’s most well-known scientist — partly for his work, but also for his prevalence in pop culture. Hawking used a wheelchair and voice synthesizer due to his significant disabilities from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The time warp in the memorial service application was first spotted by London blogger IanVisits. He writes on his blog that Hawking had once thrown a party for time travelers, sending out invitations after the fete, to see if anyone would show up. Spoiler: no one did, yet.

Hawking said the fact that no one showed up to the June 2009 party was “experimental evidence that time travel is not possible,” according to the BBC.

Applications close May 15 at midnight.

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In A One-Two Punch, Oklahoma Governor Angers LGBTQ and Guns Rights Activists

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin speaking at the National Governors Association in Washington. Fallin vetoed a bill late Friday that would have authorized adults to carry firearms without a permit or training. Fallin also signed off on a bill exempting faith-based agencies from placing children in adoption or foster care should that placement violate the agency’s religious beliefs.

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Jose Luis Magana/AP

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin managed to anger both gun rights and LGBTQ rights activists late Friday with two separate actions.

Gun Bill

In a rare blow to the National Rifle Association, Fallin vetoed a bill that would have loosened gun laws in the conservative state. Had it passed, SB 1212 would have allowed gun owners to carry a firearm — either open or concealed, loaded or unloaded — without a state license or permit. About a dozen states have passed similar so-called “constitutional carry” laws.

Instead, Fallin sided with law enforcement officials, who opposed the bill because of its loosening of training requirements, officer safety concerns, and a reduced level of background checks.

In a statement, the Republican governor reiterated her support for the Second Amendment, and noted the bill would have scrapped the requirement for gun owners to complete a safety and training course and demonstrating “competency” with a pistol before carrying a gun in public.

“Again, I believe the firearms laws we currently have in place are effective, appropriate and minimal, and serve to reassure our citizens that people who are carrying handguns in this state are qualified to do so.”

Fallin added that she had previously signed both concealed-carry and open-carry legislation.

The bill had the support of state republicans and the NRA. NRA Executive Director Chris Cox said in a statement that SB 1212 “was an important piece of self-defense legislation,” and said Fallin’s veto violates her promises to NRA members when she ran for reelection. “Make no mistake, this temporary setback will be rectified when Oklahoma residents elect a new, and genuinely pro-Second Amendment governor.”

Fallin is in the final months of her second term as governor. She will not seek reelection because of term limits.

Kathy Renbarger’s service dog sits at her feet as she holds a pro-gun sign at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on Monday, as a small group of gun rights supporters rallied outside Governor Mary Fallin’s office Monday, urging her to sign SB 2240. Falliin vetoed the bill late Friday, which would allow adults to carry handguns without a permit.

Sue Ogrocki/AP

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Sue Ogrocki/AP

Republican Senator Nathan Dahm, who wrote the bill, said he was disappointed by the veto, but “not surprised.” Dahm, who is running for Congress, said in a video on Facebook that what he called RINO’s, Republican In Name Only, who are elected into office are “either drinking the Kool-Aid or the swamp water.” The current requirements, he said “are a burden to the poor and elderly who should be afforded the right to defend themselves without having to pay the government to do so.”

Oklahoma’s legislative session has ended, so any further action over the bill will have to wait until next year.

Adoption Bill

In a second move late Friday night, Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a bill angering LGBTQ rights supporters. The so-called adoption bill allows private child-placement agencies to deny the placement of a child in foster care or adoption if that placement would “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

Fallin issued a statement saying the agencies would not be required to “perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate” in a placement that would violate their written policy.

“SB 1140 allows faith-based agencies that contract with Oklahoma to continue to operate in accordance with their beliefs. In a day and time when diversity is becoming a core value to society because it will lead to more options, we should recognize its value for serving Oklahoma also because it leads to more options for loving homes to serve Oklahoma children. Other states that have declined the protection to faith-based agencies have seen these agencies close their doors, leaving less options for successful placement of children who need loving parents.”

She added that the number of children under state custody has been reduced by 21 percent during her time as governor, due to the cooperation of public-private agencies, “some of which are faith-based.”

According to the Oklahoman, several Oklahoma faith leaders supported the bill, citing concern over protection of religious freedom and advocating it as “proactive and similar to legislation that has been passed in other states like Texas, Virginia and South Dakota.”

But not all faith leaders agreed. According to the Family Equality Council, more than 100 religious leaders signed a letter urging for its veto.

Senate Democrats said said the move would have negative impacts:

.@GovMaryFallin approval of SB 1140 is dissapointing; will allow adoption agencies to engage in discriminatory practices when placing children, result in expensive litigation costs, and negatively impact business recruitment in Oklahoma

— OK Senate Democrats (@OKSenateDems) May 12, 2018

JoDee Winterhof, Senior Vice President of Policy and Political Affairs at the Human Rights Campaign calls the move “shameful,” and says the bill signs discrimination into law, targets children and turns away qualified Oklahomans seeking to care for a child in need:

“including LGBTQ couples, interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection. The bill is now the first anti-LGBTQ state bill signed into law in the country this year.

Americans United has threatened to sue Oklahoma over the bill, saying it has taken similar actions in other states.

The bill is to take effect November 1st.

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North Korea Announces Plans To Dismantle Nuclear Test Site

This satellite image portraying the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Korea was released and notated by Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North in March. North Korea says it will dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25.


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North Korea has announced that it will dismantle its nuclear test site. According to the Associated Press, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry delivered a statement delivered through state media Saturday announcing the dismantling will occur between May 23 and 25.

Reuters reports that Punggye-ri nuclear test site has been the location of all of North Korea’s six known nuclear tests. At the site, there’s a system of tunnels under the mountain Mount Mantap. Journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain will be invited to watch a special ceremony in which all of the tunnels at the testing ground will be destroyed and observation and research facilities and guard units will be taken down.

The North Korean government will provide journalists with a charter flight from Beijing to Wosnan, North Korea. From there, a train will take them to the test site in the northeast part of the country.

The Associated Press reports that plans to dismantle the site are not new: During his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Kim announced that he would shut it down by the end of May.

In their joint statement released after the summit, Moon and Kim declared that there would be “no more war” on the Korean Peninsula and committed to a goal of “complete denuclearization.”

After the summit, Park Hyeong Jung, a senior research fellow at the government-funded Korea Institute of National Unification, told NPR’s Anthony Kuhn he was not sure Kim would completely abandon nuclear weapons:

“Park believes Kim will keep his nukes simply to demonstrate to his own people that he is the ruler of a nuclear state and therefore commands the respect of Washington and Seoul. In other words, nuclear weapons have become an indispensable ingredient in the cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty.”

The AP also reports that at a ruling party meeting last month, North Korea announced the plan to close the nuclear testing ground, along with a commitment to suspend all tests of nuclear devices and ICBMs. At that same meeting, however, North Korea said it has been performing a kind of nuclear test classified as “subcritical.” The “subcritical” experiments give scientists an opportunity to test weapons without causing an actual nuclear chain reaction and explosion.

The dismantling ceremony is planned for just under three weeks before June 12, the date President Trump is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The meeting will be the first time a sitting U.S. president meets with the leader of North Korea.

Richard Fontaine, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Republican Senator John McCain, told NPR’s David Greene the announcement of talks between Kim and Trump is a “game changer,” but the escalation of talks to two heads of state opens up a certain degree of diplomatic uncertainty:

“It’s a game changer in terms of the diplomacy, certainly. I mean, often these kinds of processes lead up to a presidential-level meeting if they are successful. So you would have lower-level officials work a disarmament process, or something, and then have the heads of state come in and close it if it sort of materialized into something.

“This is completely flipping the script on that, and so it will start at the highest possible levels. The upside is that maybe this makes a deal more possible. The downside is if it fails then we’ve hit the diplomatic cliff and could fall off the other side.”

If the dismantling occurs at the end of the month, it will not be the first time North Korea has publicly destroyed a nuclear facility. In 2008, international journalists looked on as a water cooling tower at a facility called Yongbyon was destroyed. According to CNN, officials said it was a location where plutonium was extracted.

In her reporting at the time, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour said, “They fired a warning flare and then in three minutes the whole thing came tumbling down in a massive cloud of smoke.”

“There was a moment of stunned silence as the magnitude of what had happened sunk in,” she added.

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Sudanese Teen Bride Sentenced To Death For Killing Husband During Alleged Rape

A 19-year-old Sudanese girl named Noura Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging on Thursday. Her crime was murdering her husband after he tried to rape her.

According to Reuters, Hussein was found guilty of premeditated murder by a court in April. On Thursday, she was officially sentenced to death by hanging. Her lawyers have until May 25 to appeal that decision, and advocates tell NPR they plan to do so. According to the Washington Post, Hussein has been held in a women’s prison on Omdurman, Sudan since May 2017.

Hussein’s lawyer Ahmed Sebair told the Associated Press Hussein’s parents forced her into the marriage three years ago, and she initially fled and refused to consummate the marriage. Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director of Equality Now, an international legal advocacy organization working on Hussein’s case, tells NPR that Hussein ran away to her aunt’s house and stayed there for three years, and that in order to get Hussein to return home, her family lied to her and told her the marriage was cancelled.

Once Hussein returned to her family’s home on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital of Khartoum, a wedding ceremony was already being prepared. Reuters reports that Hussein once again refused to consummate the marriage, but that six days after the ceremony, her husband raped her as three of his male relatives restrained her. The day after the first rape, her husband tried to rape her again, but in the resulting struggle, Hussein killed him with a knife.

“Everything that’s happened to the girl from the time she was 16 at least has been a travesty of justice,” Hassan says. “Twenty years ago, maybe people would have let this go. But right now with the awareness of women’s rights … and in this era of the #MeToo movement, this is just not going to be able to stand.”

As of Saturday morning, a petition on protesting the use of the death penalty in Hussein’s case accumulated over 178,000 signatures. A group of about 40 advocates has organized an awareness campaign with the hashtag #JusticeForNoura. Moayad Baba, who is part of this group of organizers, tells NPR that in addition to a social media campaign, the group has organized a rally Saturday outside of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.. Baba says a sister rally in Sydney, Australia has also been planned.

Baba says the #JusticeForNoura campaign is in direct contact with Hussein’s legal team in Khartoum, and with a social worker in Khartoum who initially alerted them to Hussein’s case. He says the group of advocates he’s working with in Washington, D.C. is primarily Sudanese-American, and they’re in general young – mostly under 30. “There’s a generational divide, if you will, when it comes to the issue of Noura,” he tells NPR.

Randa Elzein is a 23-year-old medical school graduate who works with the Semma Center, a Khartoum-based organization focused on violence against women and children. She says the center has been working on Hussein’s case since last year, and she was present for Thursday’s public sentencing hearing. “As Sudanese women, we ought to stand in solidarity with each other against a system that has never been in our favor,” she told NPR in an email. “Moreover, because Noura’s family estranged and abandoned her, our presence there was very crucial to show her that she may have lost one family, but she has gained another.”

The court is full. People gathered to support Noura for her last trial. Thanks to our @AfrikaYM member @badreldins for keeping us updated. #JusticeForNoura @ENoMW @elizamackintosh

— Sodfa Daaji (@sodfadaaji) May 10, 2018

The goal of the hearing, Elzein says, was to ask the family of Hussein’s husband if they would be willing to take money in exchange for his death.

Hassan tells NPR this is a practice in Islamic law: “They could have actually forgiven her and pardoned her or they could have taken money – ‘blood money’ as they call it – as compensation for the killing, but the family has called for her execution.”

Elzein tells NPR that Hussein was not given a chance to speak during the sentencing, but that she appeared calm after the sentence – death by hanging – was delivered. But her supporters in the courtroom yelled their disapproval, and, according to Elzein’s email, “the murdered husband’s family rejoiced and exclaimed ‘long live justice.’ “

I was never sadder and more shaken than when i saw Noura today. She walked in with steady feet and a head held high.
She is a hero, a survivor and a voice that dared refuse oppression in a society created to oppress.#JusticeForNoura

— Randa Elzein (@randaelzein) May 10, 2018

Hassan tells NPR that initially, Hussein had no legal representation because a judge-appointed lawyer refused to take on her case. Then, two lawyers joined her case on a pro-bono basis. Now, for the appeals process, she says 12 to 15 lawyers have joined Hussein’s legal team. According to Hassan and Baba, this legal team met Saturday to finalize a legal strategy. Simultaneously, Equality Now is calling on Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, along with Sudan’s Ministry of Justice, to grant Hussein clemency and drop the case.

Hassan says there are some particularities in Sudanese law that make this case unique. “If you look at the laws in Sudan, a girl is allowed to be married as soon as she’s reached puberty, which is getting younger and younger, so it can be 8 or 9 or 10 years old,” she says. “Under the law, her father is her legal guardian – she needs a male guardian to conclude her marriage. So these all go against her case.”

But, Hassan says, Sudan’s constitution does still require full and free consent to all marriages. “The key part of this case is [Hussein] very clearly did not consent – in words, in actions. So the laws are on both sides.”

Hassan believes international pressure will make a difference. “I’m very hopeful,” she says. “I don’t think President Bashir or that government wants to look so terrible in the international eyes.”

In 2009, Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, who charged him with war crimes and genocide in Darfur. And in 2015, Bashir escaped an arrest order from South Africa’s high court: He flew to South Africa for an African Union leaders’ summit and successfully returned home.

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Researchers Tackle Gun Violence Despite Lack of Federal Funding

Pistols for sale at Target Masters in Garland, Texas in 2017

Cooper Neill for The Washington Post/Getty Images

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Cooper Neill for The Washington Post/Getty Images

February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 dead and 17 more wounded, horrified people across the country, spurring student walkouts and marches in support of stricter gun control laws, including universal, comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But gun debates in the United States have proven to be contentious and intractable. Even as thousands rally for new legislation, opponents contend that such measures won’t prevent determined criminals from obtaining a firearm and that responsible gun ownership makes communities safer.

In charting a course forward, it is necessary to move beyond “people’s anecdotal opinions,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He and other researchers are analyzing data and conducting studies with the ultimate goal of informing public policy. It’s a tough task, in part because of a by now well-known piece of legislation called the Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress in 1996 with the support of the National Rifle Association. This amendment prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” It didn’t ban federally-funded gun research, but the legislation had a chilling effect: from 1996 to 2013, CDC funding in this area dropped by 96 percent.

Against this backdrop, it can be easy to overlook an important fact: Research into gun violence has actually increased in recent years, rising from fewer than 90 annual publications in 2010 to 150 in 2014. Universities, think tanks, private philanthropy —even the state of California — have offered support. And in late April, governors from six northeastern states and Puerto Rico announced plans to launch a research consortium to study the issue. A December 2017 policy article published in the journal Science describes a “surge” of recent scientific publications.

“The scope and quality of gun-related research is growing, with clear implications for the policy debate,” write the authors, a pair of researchers from Duke and Stanford. This research has generated significant findings about suicide, intimate partner violence, community health, and the effect of various state-level gun laws.

A leading cause of death

More than 36,000 people are killed by gunshot in the U.S. every year, making it a leading cause of death in the country, comparable to motor vehicle incidents. Among those deaths, nearly two-thirds are suicides. “A gun in the home increases the risk of someone in that home dying from suicide maybe threefold, and the evidence is overwhelming,” Hemenway says.

A conventional view holds that if people really want to kill themselves, they will find a way to do it — with or without a gun. Yet the data suggest that households with guns do not differ from those without guns when it comes to mental health risk for suicide. Instead, the difference seems to stem from the fact that suicide attempts with a gun are usually fatal, unlike attempts with pills, for example. Putting time and distance between a suicidal person and a gun can save that person’s life.

This line of thinking is supported by a study published in the Journal of Surgical Research, which found that states with weaker gun laws have more gun-related suicide attempts, which tend to be associated with higher mortality. Dr. Rodrigo Alban, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and his colleagues analyzed data on nearly 35,000 subjects spanning 14 years. Almost two-thirds of the firearm suicide attempts occurred in states with the lowest scores for policies regulating guns from the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — mostly states in the South and West. These states had little to no gun legislation, such as background checks, concealed weapons laws, and safe storage laws.

Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation, and Alban and his co-authors identify a need for research that pinpoints which particular laws have the greatest effect on reducing suicide attempts. But in the meantime, in light of these findings, they conclude that, “Efforts aimed at nationwide standardization of firearm state laws are warranted.”

The riskiest gun owners

Another route to reducing gun violence, academics suggest, is to identify risk factors that increase a person’s chances of harming themselves or others. Such individuals could then be considered for gun violence restraining orders. This was the logic behind the 1968 Gun Control Act, which specified narrow categories of people disqualified from buying or owning guns, including convicted felons and people committed to mental institutions. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the subsequent Lautenberg Amendment were written to bolster protections for victims of domestic violence.

But these laws only apply to people who are currently or formerly married, live or have lived together, or have shared children. Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy and public health at the University of Pennsylvania, finds in recent research that they fail to protect a growing portion of the population who are in dating relationships , who can be just as violent as married ones.

A separate study led by Carolina Díez of Boston University assessed state laws and confirms Sorenson’s conclusions. Domestic violence homicide rates drop by 10 percent in states prohibiting intimate partners with restraining orders from owning guns and requiring them to relinquish them.

Some states have gone a step further and passed so-called “risk-warrant” laws. In 1999, Connecticut became the first to pass such legislation allowing police to obtain a warrant to temporarily remove guns from someone who poses an imminent hazard to themselves or others. Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis Medical Center and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, advocates for gun violence restraining orders based, in part, on a 2016 evaluation of Connecticut’s law.

Wintemute points to individual cases where such laws would have made a difference: “The Parkland shooter was making all kinds of public pronouncements,” he says. “A gun violence restraining order would’ve allowed his family or law enforcement to go to a judge and get an order that would’ve gotten that gun taken away from him and prevented the shooting.”

The remaining research gap

Following the barrage of nearly daily shootings, some researchers have begun to call for a community-wide approach, rather than only focusing on high-risk individuals. Charles Branas, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, says that poverty can contribute to gun violence within communities.

In their latest research, Branas and his colleagues examined hundreds of vacant land plots and abandoned buildings in U.S. cities, with a focus on Philadelphia. These abandoned spaces, like old parking lots and homes, often become places to store illegal firearms. Millions of people live near and walk by these spaces, which can cause community members to feel unsafe or stressed. Using a randomized control design, Branas found that interventions such as planting trees and plants and boarding up windows and doors can make a difference.

“Gun violence can be sustainably reduced in poor neighborhoods of those cities by as much as 29 percent,” he says. “These cost peanuts. The return on investment is very high, because shootings are very expensive events.”

For all the progress made in gun violence research, gaps still remain. In March, the RAND Corporation released a meta-analysis of thousands of studies published since 2003. The report states that, “Federal funding for research on gun-related mortality is far below levels for other sources of mortality in the United States.” As a result, more research is warranted in virtually all aspects of gun control policy, including on officer-involved shootings, defensive gun use, gun-free zones, the gun industry, and lost or stolen firearms, to name a few.

The latest federal budget, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in March, may offer some assistance, as it technically allows the CDC to fund research on gun violence. It doesn’t reverse the Dickey Amendment, however, and CDC officials may still face resistance when trying to support such research. In any case, it’s ultimately up to lawmakers — and the public they answer to — to determine how to balance Second Amendment rights with scientific data.

“Hopefully these policy debates have some science behind them,” Hemenway says. “Everything we learn should matter and should have an effect.”

Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer based in San Diego. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Science, among other publications. He can be reached on Twitter at @raminskibba.

This article was originally published on Undark.

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Fresh Air Weekend: Singer-Songwriter Tracey Thorn; Chef Lidia Bastianich

In addition to making music, Tracey Thorn also writes a column for the British publication New Statesman.

Edward Bishop/Courtesy of Merge Records

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Edward Bishop/Courtesy of Merge Records

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

‘A Distinctive Voice’: Tracey Thorn Goes On ‘Record’: The Everything but the Girl singer stepped away from performing two decades ago in order to start a family. Now, she sings about the different stages of women’s lives on her latest solo album, Record.

‘Barracoon’ Offers A Vivid, First-Hand Account Of Slavery In America: In 1927, author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last known living person who could recount the experience of being taken captive in Africa and transported on a slave ship to America.

How ‘Peasant Food’ Helped Chef Lidia Bastianich Achieve Her ‘American Dream’: Bastianich grew up eating farm-to-table meals with her Italian family. After they fled Europe as refugees and emigrated to America, she drew on those childhood meals in opening her first restaurant.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

‘A Distinctive Voice’: Tracey Thorn Goes On ‘Record’

‘Barracoon’ Offers A Vivid, First-Hand Account Of Slavery In America

How ‘Peasant Food’ Helped Chef Lidia Bastianich Achieve Her ‘American Dream’

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