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After acting for four decades, Laurie Metcalf is on the verge of stardom

By Karen Heller
After acting for four decades, Laurie Metcalf is on the verge of stardom
At 62, actress Laurie Metcalf is having her best year ever, and it's not over yet as she heads to the Academy Awards. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Jesse Dittmar

NEW YORK - Actress Laurie Metcalf does not do fancy. Her boxy white handbag hails from Target, "my favorite place to shop." In a cozy Theater District cafe, she appears in a blunt-cut bob, jeans, sneakers, an oversize sweater, without a dab of makeup, a glint of jewelry.

Metcalf prefers to work the same way, not letting artifice - "a shell" she calls it - distract from the work. But she is in the midst of an Oscar campaign. The strategy involved would give George Patton pause. So she consented to doing a glamorous photo shoot a few days before the interview. On her one day off.

"A dream job is to walk right past hair and makeup" and sail onto the stage or set, says the critically acclaimed actress who, at the age of 62, finally finds herself on the cusp of mainstream stardom.

"I would win in the contest of who's had the best year," she admits of her movies-theater-television hat trick: an Oscar nomination, the first in four decades of acting, for her performance as the exasperated mother, Marion, in the film "Lady Bird." A 2017 Tony Award as returning Nora in "A Doll's House, Part 2." A nine-episode revival next month as beleaguered Jackie in "Roseanne," the role she last played in 1997 and that snared her a trio of Emmys.

"I'd like to think that it's karma," says Metcalf, one of the earliest members of Chicago's illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre, where she performed in dozens of plays. "I'd like to think that, having treated every single project as the most important one in that moment, and having worked your ass off, and given 150 percent to each one, that maybe there's a little payback." She raises a glass of pinot noir in a toast to her marvelous year.

"It feels like 'What the hell took everyone so long? What have you been looking at?' " says Jim Parsons of 'The Big Bang Theory," where Metcalf has a recurring role as the pious, shade-tossing mother of his character, Sheldon. "She brings it every single time at an intense, always fascinating, realistic and grounded degree."

The Oscar nomination arrived the day Metcalf began rehearsals for the upcoming Broadway revival of Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women." (She accepted the role before even reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning play - her now warped, water-stained, scribble-infested copy perched by her elbow on the cafe table - for the opportunity to work with co-star and British acting titan Glenda Jackson.)

This will be her first time attending the Academy Awards. She says, "I watch the Oscars in my pajamas like everybody else."

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It has been a strong movie season for female characters of a certain age who exhibit grit, raw emotion and little makeup. "For me, it's not new," Metcalf says. "That's my literal comfort zone."

She was raised in Carbondale, Illinois, home of Southern Illinois University, her alma mater. After graduation, she joined an extraordinary group of talented actors and directors at Steppenwolf, including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Jeff Perry, who became her first husband. "In the beginning, because we were all the same age and there weren't many plays that we could all be in and be the same age, I would be John Malkovich's mother in 'True West,' then his 13-year-old niece in 'Fifth of July,'" she recalls.

The plays and ensemble were terrific. The income was not. "I was always a secretary in the early days, before we decided we were brave enough to join Equity and see if this thing has any legs," says Metcalf, who quit temping at age 28. The next year, she appeared in Steppenwolf's New York production of Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead" to rapturous reviews. A "tour de force" declared the New York Times.

She went on to become primarily a stage and television performer. Her first movie was "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), a performance that still displeases her. "I guess you could call it a glamorous role," she says of her role as the sister-in-law of the lead, played by Rosanna Arquette. "I felt like I was playing a caricature."

She can't recall her last movie role before "Lady Bird." It was "Stop-Loss," a decade ago, one day's labor. She has no personal publicist.

After a glass of wine and appetizers, she will consult with a stylist - "a word I never thought would come out of my mouth," she says, flicking it like a piece of indeterminate foreign food - for the Oscars luncheon in Los Angeles that Sunday. "They knew that they had to get me one. They did not trust me at all to put myself together."

Designer Christian Siriano, a fan who's now a friend, offered to create the gown for the Oscars ceremony. "I don't know what it's going to be like," says Metcalf, who didn't even specify a color for a dress that will be seen by a massive global audience. "But I trust him."

She prefers to concentrate on the work. When she's in a play, she runs through the entire script before each performance. "It's boring and lonely," she says, "but I feel if I don't do it, even on a two-show day, something bad will happen."

Her preference is for new plays. She is that rare actor who admits to harboring zero interest - none! - in tackling Shakespeare.

"It sounds blasphemous," she says, in a near whisper, "but I don't get it. I just don't get it. I like contemporary, bare-boned writing. I don't like having the language that I barely understand get in the way of me interpreting it over to an audience. It's this barrier that I don't want to have to attack."

She appears to have never earned a bad review. Her "Lady Bird" performance revealed "a remarkable combination of grit, vulnerability and panicked concern," raved The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday. "One of the great stage actresses of our time," noted The Post's Peter Marks last spring.

"Three Tall Women" director Joe Mantello once said of her that "I will go anywhere anytime to work with you again." More than three decades ago, she was the second actor cast on "Roseanne," after the title character and creator, Roseanne Barr.

The producers, said Barr via email, "told me that she was the greatest actress they had ever seen, and I came to agree with them!"

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"Lady Bird," directed and written by Greta Gerwig (nominated for both directing and original screenplay Oscars), changed everything. The role of Marion, Metcalf believes, came her way at the suggestion of impresario Scott Rudin, producer of "Doll's House" and now "Three Tall Women," the architect of the Metcalf renaissance.

"I could respond to the material immediately, the butting of heads with a teenage child in the house. I was so taken with the amount of heart that Greta managed to infuse into this complex mother-daughter relationship," says Metcalf. She plays opposite Saoirse Ronan, who, at 23, received her third Oscar nomination. Marion, Metcalf says, "is not the ogre, the monster in the room. It's a balance that I found beautifully written."

The movie premiered last year at Telluride and caused Metcalf to break "my five-year rule. Anything that I did on film or TV, I would not be able to watch it for at least five years after I was done. It would give me a chance to forget what I'd done, to stop beating myself up for the many, many hours afterward spent telling myself, 'Oh, I should have done this on that line.' So I squinted watching my part," she says, shrinking a bit on the banquette, "but the rest of it I was as moved and touched by the film as everyone around me was. As we were exiting, I heard so many people say 'I have to go and call my mom.' "

When actress and director first met, "Greta pulled out a cardboard box filled with memorabilia from her high school years. It was at that moment where I thought, 'I'm the mom of a real teenage girl,' " says Metcalf, who is twice divorced - both times from actors, Perry, who plays Cyrus on "Scandal," and Matt Wolf, who portrayed Jackie's abusive boyfriend on "Roseanne" - and the mother of four, ages 33 to 12.

Having children spaced so far apart "wasn't brave," Metcalf says. "It was - what would I call it? - confused."

Her eldest, Zoe Perry, will be her Oscar date. Perry sounds uncannily like Metcalf and was cast as Mary Cooper, the mother on the "Big Bang" spinoff, "Young Sheldon."

"This can't ever have happened in the history of anything, playing the same character decades apart, and we're mother and daughter," Metcalf says. Perry's even the same age, 33, that her mother was when she started on "Roseanne."

Metcalf appeared on three seasons of HBO's woefully overlooked "Getting On" as the harried, clueless stool-sample expert Dr. Jenna James. "I like to play those characters that are just so egotistical and driven, that it's like they have blinders on. I find them really funny because they don't care what's in their way," she says. "They're just going to get what they want, and you end up weirdly rooting for them. They become endearing in their myopia."

Awards season "has been this ride for the last couple of months," she says. "I've gotten to meet a lot of actors that I've never gotten the chance to meet before. Willem Dafoe, Sam Rockwell, Octavia Spencer, Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins. It's like we're in the same class. We're having a shared experience."

"I'm trying to enjoy the moment. It's going to go away," she says. Despite the accolades and nominations, she doesn't have another movie lined up after her three-month Broadway run.

"I'm not worried about it. Fortunately, in the theater, there are many roles to age into," she says, before rushing off to meet the stylist she never imagined needing.

Rep. Matt Gaetz wants you to know who he is, and his plan is working

By Dan Zak
Rep. Matt Gaetz wants you to know who he is, and his plan is working
Freshman Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida's 1st Congressional district attends a subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 14. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

WASHINGTON - Everybody went to high school with Matt Gaetz, in some form. You know the type. Contrarian, but well-argued. Obnoxious, but not a bully. An OK baseball player, but a much better debater: loud, fast and fearsome. Not boastful of family money, but not stealth about it either. You pictured him becoming a litigator, flashing cuff links like a sidearm, or becoming a congressman by 34 and then drafting legislation to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 35, doesn't wear cuff links. At least he is not on Valentine's Day last week, while he's waiting for the tiny elevator to his office in the Cannon House Office Building.

"You've got 'Fox and Friends' at 8:15 a.m. tomorrow," his chief of staff says.

"Eight fifteen?" Gaetz says, disappointed. "I usually prefer the 5 a.m. hour."

Why on Earth would anyone - even a congressman - want to be on camera before dawn?

"Because the president is watching," Gaetz says.

The congressman who is always on television grew up in a house that was used in "The Truman Show," a film about a man who is always on television. His parents still live there, in Seaside, Florida, 500 feet from the gulf. A sign on their white picket fence says THE TRUMAN HOUSE.

The walls of Gaetz's office are painted pasta-sauce red, a color picked out by his mom. Behind Gaetz's desk is a big photo of a F-35 fighter jet, perhaps the costliest weapon in human history, which is headquartered at the giant Air Force base in his district. On the opposite wall is a TV muted on Fox News, which is covering the latest school shooting.

Another Wednesday in America. Matt Gaetz is 13 months and 11 days into his first term. He's still on step one of Operation: Disrupt Congress.

"Well, the first thing is people gotta know who you are," he says. "If you are anonymous, you are a less capable disrupter. So, step one: Get known."

What's step two?

"I'll let you know when I'm done with step one."

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He's scheduled to be on Lou Dobbs that night. He has interviews the next day with the New Yorker and GQ. Everyone wants to know what his deal is, but in a superficial way, a way that feeds a news cycle. Why did he give a ticket for the State of the Union to an alt-right internet troll? Why did a staff member crowdsource legislation from the anti-Clinton sewers on Reddit? Why did Gaetz sit for a long interview on Infowars with Alex Jones, the clownish conspiracy theorist?

"I have to say, I have never watched Infowars," says Gaetz, whose sartorial flourish is a stable of two-toned wingtip shoes (today: black and tan). "I know that they say zany things that are patently untrue. But I also think that MSNBC says zany things that are patently untrue."

Sometimes the president calls after he appears on TV, he says, and here lies the answer to any question about his motives. You're a rookie but you're hitting like Mickey Mantle, Trump says, according to Gaetz. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the president's view of Gaetz.

"In my 13 months, I've assessed that nothing in this town actually happens in the absence of presidential leadership," Gaetz says, sipping on one of many Diet Pepsis that sustain him through the day. "So a relationship with the president seems to be important if you want to impact outcomes."

Gaetz comes from a line of politicians. His grandfather was a mayor and state senator in North Dakota. His father Don Gaetz, the former president of the Florida state Senate, made his money running a for-profit hospice company. His mother, Vicky Gaetz, suffered severe complications while pregnant with her second child - she's in a wheelchair to this day - and was advised to terminate the pregnancy. She didn't. Matt's younger sister Erin is now 32 years old, and the reason he believes abortion should be illegal.

When Matt was 10, the family relocated from southern Florida to the panhandle and into the house that would become Jim Carrey's in "The Truman Show." Dinner with the Gaetzes was intellectual combat; Don was a champion debater in college, and Matt was an imposing and memorable presence on the debate team at Niceville High School, according to classmates.

From 2010 to 2016, after Matt got a law degree, both he and his father were Florida legislators and roommates in Tallahassee.

"We call them Papa Gaetz and Baby Gaetz," says Evalyn Narramore, chair of the Democratic Party of Escambia County, on the border with Alabama. "Even amongst Republican circles Matt's not super popular. He only won his primary by about 35 or 36 percent of the vote, and he had six Republican opponents. He just got in there, and of course now he's trying to out-Trump Trump."

"They are workers," says Pensacola real estate developer Collier Merrill, a friend of the family. "Even when Don didn't have an opponent, he was walking every day to knock on doors. He rose pretty fast, into Senate president. That trickled down to Matt now. All of a sudden he's rising quickly in the ranks."

---

Matt Gaetz is not rising in the ranks. At least formally. He's still a rookie congressman in the attic of Cannon, and his mug shot from a 2008 DUI arrest is still front and center on a Google search (charges were dropped). But by introducing a resolution calling for the resignation of special counsel Robert Mueller III, by going on television and demanding an investigation of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton affiliates, and by hitching a ride on Air Force One to a Trump rally in Pensacola in December, Gaetz is casting himself as a counterweight to people who outrank him in power and experience.

Who needs to wait 10 years for a committee chairmanship when you can amass your own clout and cozy up to the president through nontraditional means?

Gaetz made sure, at last month's State of the Union address, to lean into the aisle and snag a selfie with Trump, whom he thinks is innocent of any wrongdoing related to Russia.

"We are now more than a year into this presidency, and there are people in his own government who hate him," Gaetz says, seated behind his desk near a packet of paper titled "FBI & DNC messages: Obamagate." In the reception area is a screen showing three Twitter feeds, a cascade of news and bile in real time.

"And there are people in this town - in both parties, in the establishment - who want to see him gone," Gaetz continues. "If they had the nuts, we'd know it by now."

The thing about Matt Gaetz is that he's not solely a grandstander. He knows policy. He's big on animal welfare and - despite slinging a one-line bill that would eliminate the EPA - joined a climate-solutions caucus in the House. He wants the Affordable Care Act gone; he wants marijuana rescheduled. He doesn't think it's conservative to hate gay people. He says that term limits and a balanced-budget amendment would deliver us from the debt and gridlock that have caused some of his party elders to flee Congress.

"I don't even think the biggest divide is between Republicans and Democrats," Gaetz says, deriving some conclusions from his year on the Hill. "I think it's between institutionalists and reformers."

Perhaps he'll be ready for step two if he's re-elected in the fall - he already has two Republican challengers - but right now he's distracted by the televised tragedy in Broward County, his first home. At one point his eyes lock on a particular headline: MANY DEATHS IN HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING.

"S---," he mutters. "God. That's horrible."

He's pro-gun. So is his district. Within the hour, he tweets "thoughts and prayers," a rather institutionalist tweet for an avowed reformer.

A stranger's reply flickers across the Twitter screen in the reception area: "(Expletive) your prayers."

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Video: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) frequently appears on cable news to defend President Trump.(Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

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Decades' worth of rape kits are finally being tested, but no one can agree on what to do next

By Jessica Contrera
Decades' worth of rape kits are finally being tested, but no one can agree on what to do next
Conceptual vertical still life of floating rape kit and examination gloves on wood surface. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Will Strawser

He wanted me to see the boxes. They were piled six or seven high, and there were so many stacks on the shelves it was hard to take them in all at once. The other aisles of the Virginia Beach Police Department's evidence storage unit were filled with guns and knives, hard drives and cash piles - objects that had been used to do terrible things to people. But these boxes - rape kits - contained what was left on a person's body when something terrible had already been done.

"I wanted you to see that each one is a victim," said Lt. Patrick Harris, who had brought me here. "Each one has a name and a story behind it."

The stories, I knew, went like this: A woman said she was sexually assaulted. She was told that, to prove it, she would need to go to a room where she would be examined from the hairs on her head to the skin beneath her toenails. She was swabbed, plucked, prodded and photographed. When it was over, every bit of what had been taken off her body was slid into small bags, placed in one of these boxes and taped shut. Most likely, the woman assumed that her kit, full of potential DNA evidence, would be sent to a laboratory to be tested.

In the case of these kits, they were not. Today, the Justice Department recommends that all rape kits associated with a reported crime be submitted for DNA analysis. But up until just last year, there were no national requirements or guidelines on what to do with them. Most states had no laws dictating which kits should be tested, meaningevery police department could have its own rules about what evidence to test, keep or throw away. Some even let individual detectives make those calls. What happened to a woman's rape kit could depend not only on what state she was in, but which side of a county line she was on, or even who was on duty when she asked for help.

The results of this haphazard system have been well documented. In New York City, an estimated 17,000 kits went untested. In Houston, there were 6,000. In Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis, there were more than 11,000 each. Over the past two decades, the "rape kit backlog" has been in the news so many times that now, slowly, the problem is being fixed across the country. Under pressure from activists and legislators, states and cities big and small are counting their kits and sending them to be tested. And then, they are beginning to quietly struggle with a far more complicated challenge: What happens once the kits come back?

That was what Harris, head of violent crimes investigations in Virginia Beach, had been trying to figure out. On the shelf in front of us were 344 kits that had been returned from the lab in 2017. Some were nearly two decades old. 344 names, 344 stories. For months, Harris and his colleagues had been debating a question: Should every victim whose name was on this shelf be notified that their kit had finally been tested? Or would reminding someone of their rape - out of the blue, years later, with no promise of a solution - cause them unnecessary harm?

The experiences of other cities offered no obvious answer. "I didn't see them wrestle with any issue as deeply, with as much worry and compassion, as this one," says Rebecca Campbell, a researcher who spent three years observing the handling of Detroit's untested kits. "This one brought them to their knees." In Detroit, it was ultimately decided that, at least at first, victims would be notified only if their kits resulted in a "hit," meaning the DNA found in the box matched a person in the Combined DNA Index System, a national database of offenders better known as CODIS.

Houston tried a different model. A hotline was set up and publicized, so that any victim who wanted information about their old kit could ask for it. Then, police and prosecutors combed through the CODIS hits and decided which cases actually had a chance of moving forward in the criminal justice system. Victims were notified only if their cases seemed "actionable."

"What's at stake is the well-being and mental health of sexual assault victims," says Noël Busch-Armendariz, a researcher who was involved in Houston's process. "You never know where people are in their lives and what support systems they have or don't have ready for them."

In Louisville, however, all victims were notified that their old kits were tested - even if not a speck of another person's DNA was found in the box. Lt. David Allen of the Louisville Police sees it this way: "It's their information. It belonged to them to start with, and we owe it to them to follow up."

Even the organization of a famous television actor had tried to figure out what to do. The Joyful Heart Foundation - created by Mariska Hargitay, star of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" - had been instrumental in pressuring states to count their untested kits, and in 2016, the nonprofit released a 159-page report on victim notification. The consensus? "There was no agreement," says researcher Courtney Ahrens. It wasn't that the advocates she interviewed disagreed with police, or police disagreed with mental health professionals. There were disagreements within all of the groups she studied, even the victims themselves. Some said, "That's my body in that kit." They wanted to be notified by a knock at their front door, no matter what the results. Others were horrified at that idea. What if, they asked, the perpetrator of the assault was living in the same house?

In Virginia, this dilemma would ultimately pit police, prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers against one another, making the situation far more complicated than they ever intended. Everyone wanted to do the right thing for victims; there was just no way to know what that was.

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In 2014, the Virginia legislature called for a count of untested rape kits.There were, it turned out, 2,902 kits in the state that had never gone to a lab. The oldest was from 1985.

The state's attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, had chaired a task force focused on sexual assault on college campuses; now, he wanted to take on the state's rape kit backlog. As the legislature passed a bill ensuring all future kits would be tested within 60 days, Herring secured $3.4 million in grants to pay for the testing of the older kits at a private lab. Then his office drafted another piece of legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to notify victims that their kits had been tested. The bill's chief patron was state Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington. It passed both houses without a single dissenting vote and was signed into law by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in March 2017.

The choice of words in the law (and the ones left out) set the course for everything that happened next: "In the case of a physical evidence recovery kit that was received by a law-enforcement agency prior to July 1, 2016, and that has subsequently been submitted for analysis" - meaning, the rape kits that were previously untested - "the victim, a parent or guardian of a minor victim, or the next of kin of a deceased victim shall be notified by the law-enforcement agency of the completion of the analysis and shall, upon request, receive information from the law-enforcement agency regarding the results of any analysis." The law, it appeared, mandated that all victims be contacted.

With more than 300 untested kits in its possession, Virginia Beach had the most of any jurisdiction in the state. It was the first to send its kits to the lab, the first to get them back, and the first to have to follow the new victim notification law.

Lt. Harris heard about the law from the department's deputy chief, Bill Dean. They played out the scenario: "Do we call up a victim and say, 'Remember that rape from 20 years ago?'" Harris asked. " 'Well, we've got the DNA test back, but we still can't do anything with it.' "

It wasn't that he didn't want to do anything with it - if more than 300 kits meant detectives could go out and catch more than 300 rapists, he would be thrilled to do just that. But Harris knew this initiative likely wouldn't lead to 300 or 100 or even 10 convictions. Unlike how things work on TV, DNA evidence is rarely the magic ingredient in putting someone behind bars. For the majority of victims, he suspected, their cases still couldn't be proved before a judge or jury.

As the testing results came back from Bode Cellmark Forensics over the course of 2017, Harris and a prosecutor combed through each case file associated with the kits, searching the previous detectives' notes to try to find something they could use. So far, of the 344 kits sent to the lab (all of which belonged to women), only 49 resulted in a "hit" - a match in the national CODIS database that would tell Harris whose DNA was found on the woman's body. There was only one case of those 49 where the victim hadn't already named that person as the perpetrator.

In most cases, he found the same challenges that have long made sex crimes one of the hardest detective jobs. Rape is almost always a crime that happens behind closed doors. There are rarely witnesses, and the people involved are rarely strangers. "The scenario is a boyfriend, or a recent acquaintance, someone they met at some type of drinking establishment. There is a very high chance that the victim knows the offender," Harris says. Again and again, the cases come down to consent: If a suspect readily admits he and the victim had sex but claims it was consensual, then the fact that his DNA was found in the kit often doesn't help. And while the rape kit examination also involves a search for physical damage, it's rare to find evidence of it.

Still, there was reason for optimism in some cases. Some of the old kits had never been sent to the lab because victims told the detectives they no longer wanted the investigations to continue. It was clear how much detectives' tactics for dealing with victims had evolved as they were trained in the ways trauma can affect a person's behavior. In an old case file, for instance, a detective might describe a victim as "uncooperative." Maybe, now that time had passed, and with the promise of being treated better, a victim might be willing to re-engage.

One of the cases with potential involved a married woman who had attended a party with her friends nearly a dozen years ago. When she had gone upstairs to lie down, she had said, a man she knew came into the room and forced himself on her.

She reported it, underwent a rape kit examination, and named the suspect. But the kit was never sent to the lab, and the suspect was never interviewed because, according to the detective's notes, the woman backed out of the investigation. The file said she told the detective she never wanted to hear from him again.

Harris assigned the case to Sgt. Shelly Meister, the head of the department's Special Victims Unit. (Like other departments across the country, Virginia Beach had renamed its sex-crimes unit to match the name of the "Law & Order" show.) If this woman agreed, Harris told the sergeant, they would move forward with the investigation of her case. Meister spent days tracking down the victim, who had moved to another state. Then, one evening just before dinnertime, she called the woman's cellphone. When no one answered, she left a purposely vague voice mail saying she was calling because she had some information to share.

Fifteen minutes later, Meister later recalled, her phone rang. When she picked up, a man was on the line. "Why are you calling?" he asked, clearly shaken. "Why did you upset my wife? How dare you leave a voice mail?" Meister apologized, explaining that she could not share why she was calling but would like to speak with his wife, if she was interested in calling back.

Thirty minutes later, Meister's phone rang again. "Why are you calling me?" the woman asked, and Meister began to explain. The testing of her kit had resulted in a DNA hit, and the hit matched the suspect she had named all those years ago. Meister told her that the kit had never been sent, given that she had indicated she no longer wanted to hear from the detective.

"I never said that," the woman interrupted, and then the story came pouring out. When she told her friends, they didn't believe her. They said she had gotten drunk and gone upstairs because she wanted to have sex with the man. Her husband at the time didn't believe her. It eventually destroyed her marriage and, for a number of years, her life. But she had gotten better. She was remarried now. Happily married, she said. Her new husband didn't know anything about the rape. "Why are you trying to ruin that for me?" she asked.

Meister kept apologizing. She didn't know why the detective wrote that; he didn't work here anymore, she said. She explained that now things were different, that they could reinvestigate it all. Was this something she might like them to look into? "Absolutely not," the woman said.

"OK, you don't have to decide now," Meister told her. "You could call me in five years and decide to do it then." There is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia. "All the power is in your hands," Meister said. The woman said she would think about it and get back to her by the end of the week.

She never called. Meister went into Harris' office and told him what happened. If that was how someone responded when their case could actually be reopened, they wondered, what would happen when they notified all the people whose cases they knew hadn't changed?

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But it appeared they had no choice. In 2016, when they'd first begun preparing for the return of the kits, the Virginia Beach Police Department had gathered its most experienced SVU officers, victim advocates from the community and representatives from the city prosecutors' office to devise a plan. They decided to follow in the footsteps of Houston, which notified only those victims whose cases police and prosecutors agreed were "actionable," meaning the investigation could be reopened. They planned to set up a hotline that any victim could call to get information about their kit.

Then the victim notification law passed, and they weren't sure if their plan would still work. So in the spring of 2017, they regathered the team and set up a meeting with representatives from the state attorney general's office, where the law had been drafted. The word most people used to describe that meeting to me was "heated." The Virginia Beach team came away discouraged. As sure as they were that it was not the right thing to do, it appeared they would be violating the law if they did not contact all 344 victims.

Virginia Beach's chief prosecutor, Colin Stolle, conducted an independent review of the law and came to the same conclusion: All victims had to be contacted. And because the law said "shall be notified," setting up a hotline didn't count.

"'Shall' means something very different than 'may,'" Stolle told me. "It is an affirmative requirement that the police department take action."

And so the question became how to take that action. In September, the team gathered again to discuss their options. They worried about notifying victims with a phone call, given what happened when Meister left that voice mail with the woman who had remarried. They considered having detectives and advocates make the notifications in person, but that, too, seemed problematic.

"I've stated this a number of times. I don't think having a police car show up in front of a victim's house is the way to go," argued Kristin Pine, the chief programs officer at the area's YWCA, which offers every person who receives a rape kit examination an advocate to go through it beside them. In all the years that she had worked with victims of sex crimes, she had seen how devastating reminders of the assault could be. Some women she'd counseled still called her every year on the anniversary of their rape.

"A letter is the most passive," Pine told the group. The other advocates in the room agreed. A letter could be sent via certified mail, so the woman whose name was on the envelope would be the only one who could sign for it. They could make it vague - avoiding words like "rape" or "SVU," in case another person saw it - but include the date the crime was reported, so the victim would know what it was about.

"So," Harris asked the group, "is everybody in agreement that a letter, in some form, is the best option?" Around the table, everyone on the team nodded. The meeting ended, and Pine headed back to the YWCA, thinking about what it might be like for the victims she has known to receive that letter. "How does the saying go?" she asked me. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right?"

---

I wanted to talk to the people with those good intentions, who had decided the law should require that all victims be contacted. As a reporter, I'm taught to distance myself from questions of policy; it's not my job to take a side. As a woman, I wondered whether I would want the police to contact me had it been my kit on the shelf.

"The reality is that the response you are anticipating might be the exact opposite of what you expect," said Kristine Hall, who, as then-policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, helped craft the notification law and accompanied the representatives from the attorney general's office to the "heated" meeting in Virginia Beach. "The victim I might expect to slam the door in my face might say, 'I can finally close this chapter. I can move on and stop wondering.' The person who is told, 'We found your assailant,' might slam the door in my face and say, 'I put this away 30 years ago.' " As she saw it, the legislature had done the right thing by ensuring that all victims would be contacted.

When I interviewed state Sen. Favola, I assumed she would make a similar case. But when I asked during a phone interview in October about the law she had sponsored, it was as if we were talking about another piece of legislation entirely. "In my bill, only those who have a DNA hit are notified," Favola told me. The law, she said, required notification of victims only when a kit resulted in a match in CODIS, the national database. In Virginia Beach, that would mean only 49 people, instead of 344.

"Let me see what it says in the bill here," she continued. I explained that the law makes no mention of DNA hits or CODIS. "But I know that was the intent," she countered. "That is what we explained to the (Senate) committee. Even though we didn't spell it out specifically in the bill, I just felt there was no real purpose in notifying survivors if you didn't have any new information."

Perhaps she had misunderstood what the attorney general had wanted to happen, I thought. I had heard over and over from those in Virginia Beach that representatives from Herring's office insisted all victims must be contacted. The police departments in Fairfax and Chesterfield counties - two of the next jurisdictions to receive their kits back from the lab - said the same. They, too, were planning to reach out to every victim.

When I interviewed Herring, he did stress the importance of victims being allowed to know what happens to their kits. "I have talked to survivors about this issue, and I've heard directly from them about how being allowed to participate in their case, being informed about the results of their test, helps give them closure," he said.

But when it came to what the law required, his interpretation differed from both the one put forward by Favola and the one understood by the police. According to Herring, the key criterion was whether any DNA from someone other than the victim was found in the kit, even if that DNA could not be matched to a person in a national database. "If there is DNA present, whether there is a match or not, it would require notification," he said.

I explained that Virginia Beach was soon going to notify all victims - not because they felt it was the right thing to do, but because representatives from Herring's office had told them it was what the law required. "My understanding is that if there were no results, meaning there was no DNA, that they are not required to be notified," Herring repeated. "But I will go back and double check."

He did, and the next day, his press representative Lara Sisselman emailed me. Now, Herring was in line with Favola. "I know there was a little bit of confusion when you sat down with AG Herring yesterday, so I just wanted to reach out to clarify any miscommunication," Sisselman wrote. "The Victim Notification Law requires law enforcement to notify a survivor when a tested kit yields a result that is a hit in CODIS."

But this still put Herring's interpretation of the law at odds with the police departments' understanding. I felt certain that, now that the attorney general's office was aware of the discrepancy, it would reach out to Virginia Beach and other police departments to inform them that they were not required to notify all victims. Maybe someone would apologize for the confusion or the imprecise wording of the law.

When I drove to Virginia Beach in November to watch the letters be sent, however, I arrived to find more than 300 of them on Harris's desk, not 49. They hadn't heard anything from Herring's office. As I looked at the envelopes, a part of me wanted to blurt out, "You don't have to send all of those!" But at the time, I didn't know if that was true. The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance had told me notifying all victims was the intention of the law. The Virginia Beach prosecutor's review of the law had reached the same conclusion. If I were to obstruct what was already in motion, I'd be stopping more than 200 victims from receiving their letters. I'd be taking a side in the difficult debate over whether they should be notified. I knew that wasn't my job.

Compiling all the letters had taken Harris' detectives weeks. So many of the victims had moved away, or had been in Virginia Beach only as tourists. Some had died, and so they had to search for a close family member to notify instead. Some had gone on to see their assailant arrested and found guilty, without the kit ever being tested. But because their kits were included in the 344, even they would be getting a letter now.

"On July 1 2017, the state of Virginia passed new legislation requiring municipalities to reach out to people who reported a crime in the past when an analysis of the evidence related to that report has been completed," the letter said. "The Virginia Beach Police Department is contacting you because your previously reported crime with Offense Number (number here) falls into this category and we would like to provide you with your options to obtain more specific information regarding these developments."

Harris had been trying to imagine how the women would react when they read these words. He didn't know how many of them would call. But he did know that, because his department had to protect their privacy, I would never get the chance to talk with them, or ask them how they felt about being contacted.

So that morning, before he mailed the envelopes, he suggested that we go see the rape kits. We walked down the aisle slowly, reflecting at the sight of the boxes. The only women who wouldn't receive one of the letters on Harris' desk were the ones he and his detectives had called, asking for permission to reopen their cases. Every woman they tried had said no. They had already moved on.

---

In all of this, there was a missing link. In interpreting what the law required, Virginia Beach and other police departments had received guidance from representatives of the attorney general's office. Much of that guidance, according to local police, had come from a woman named Lisa Furr, who had been coordinating the kit-testing project since its inception.

I had been asking to talk with her since September. In November, two weeks after Virginia Beach sent out the letters, the interview was finally arranged. I planned to drive down to Richmond but was told I could ask my questions only by phone, with a press representative on the line.

Furr had a reputation among the state's victim advocacy community for being a straight shooter, with a good heart and the right intentions. She was cordial on the phone, explaining her job and the importance of making sure all past and future kits were tested. And she maintained that all along, she had told police they were required to send notifications only to those whose kits resulted in a CODIS hit. "We have said that repeatedly to you and others," she said.

Why, then, would multiple police departments be notifying all victims, when they were deeply concerned about the harm that could cause? "I don't know," she said repeatedly.

The attorney general's office insists that Furr's recollection is correct and that, at the Virginia Beach meeting, there was a misinterpretation about the attorney general's official position on notification. "I don't believe that anyone from our office would have told any law enforcement agency they were required to notify all survivors whose kits are tested. We were consistent on that point throughout the legislative process and after," spokesman Michael Kelly would later email me.

The police officers, prosecutors and local victim advocates who were in the "heated" meeting with Furr disagree; they are confident she insisted all victims be notified. The police departments in Chesterfield and Fairfax were still planning to do just that. And in Virginia Beach, throughout November, the consequences of that strategy were finally being revealed.

The first call came on Nov. 9, three days after the letters had been sent. It rang in the office of Jennifer Messick, the police department's victim advocate, who had been sitting at her computer, sipping iced tea. She picked up her phone without pausing to brace herself, the way she would come to do in the weeks ahead. "Virginia Beach Police Department, this is Jennifer. May I help you?" she answered. The woman on the phone, Messick later recalled, was crying. She had received a letter. She wanted to know what was going on. Her case was more than a dozen years old.

Messick explained slowly and calmly: the kit, the requirement that they notify her, the fact that this didn't mean the status of her case had changed. "Why would you do this?" the woman asked, still crying. Messick wanted to explain that she hadn't been the one to do this, but it hardly mattered. She asked if the woman would like to speak to a detective. She offered to connect her to counseling services. The woman declined and hung up the phone.

One call came from a woman who received a letter about an in-law of hers. Messick looked up the case number and realized this was one of the cases in which the victim had died. The detectives had found an address for someone they thought was the victim's next of kin. It was not. Now this woman was asking what she was supposed to do with the information that, more than a decade before, a relative she hadn't been very close to had reported a rape.

Another call went directly to Lt. Harris. When he picked up, the woman on the line was hyperventilating. "What does this mean?" she asked. "Is he getting out of jail?" Harris, confused, quickly pulled up her case file. The man who assaulted her had been arrested and was serving time. Harris tried to calm her, explaining that her kit was tested only because of a change in policy. This didn't mean anyone was getting out of jail, he said. The man had years left on his sentence.

That evening, the woman called back, begging for confirmation that when the man was released, they would call and warn her. "Promise me," she said.

---

By the end of December, the Virginia Beach police had received 28 calls. Harris and Messick kept hearing the same phrases: I thought this was done. I put this behind me. They kept answering the same questions: What does this change? Is there anything I have to do? Why now?

In other cities, notifications had led to breakthroughs, where a victim, reminded of her assault after all these years, came forward with information that changed a case. In Louisville, there had been a case the lieutenant was certain would never be accepted by a prosecutor. Any detective, he said, would have agreed. Then they notified the victim, and because of new statements she made, a serial offender has been charged with her assault.

In Virginia Beach, however, there was no such moment. Meanwhile, an important debate about what a law should do was now overshadowed by confusion about what the law did do. Something had clearly gone wrong inside the creaky machinery of government. In December, I called and emailed Lisa Furr again. She never responded. But two days later, police departments across the state received an email from her, announcing she was leaving the attorney general's office for a job in the nonprofit sector. She also wanted to clarify, she wrote, the requirements regarding the notification law. "Notification of victims should occur in all cases where there have been 'hits' in CODIS," the email said.

After receiving that message, the police in Fairfax and Chesterfield changed their plans. A dismayed Lt. Harris replied to her, asking how it was possible that her instructions had suddenly changed. She thanked him for his feedback but did not answer his questions. He emailed the person managing the kit-testing project in her absence and says he received no response.

Maybe he would call the attorney general, Harris said. Or maybe what was done was done. He had so little time to dwell on it all. There were 55 new sex-crimes cases in November, and 42 in December. A woman said she was abused by her youth pastor. A woman reported going to a bar, going home and waking up with a man on top of her she didn't remember inviting in. There were more victims who, to prove what happened, would need to go to a room where they would be swabbed, plucked and prodded. More names, more stories. More evidence to be tested.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Stop politicizing the Russia investigation

By marc a. thiessen
Stop politicizing the Russia investigation

WASHINGTON -- The indictment issued on Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller shows a conspiracy of stunning sophistication by Kremlin-connected Russians, posing as American citizens or using stolen U.S. identities, to influence the 2016 presidential election.

What it does not show is any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Quite the opposite, the indictment shows evidence of a (BEG ITAL)lack(END ITAL) of collusion. “Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign ... to coordinate political activities,” the indictment reads. If these Russians were colluding with the Trump campaign, there would be no reason to hide their true identities from multiple campaign officials.

Moreover, the indictment states that the Russian effort began in 2014, a year before Donald Trump declared his intention to run for president. No one, left or right or center, took Trump seriously as a candidate when he declared in 2015. The idea that the Russians saw what all of us didn’t -- that Trump had a serious shot at winning the White House -- and figured this out way back in 2014, before Trump even declared his candidacy, is absurd.

The Russians did develop a preference for Trump, but their effort was much bigger than Trump, according to the indictment. The Russian influence campaign was part of something called “Project Lakhta,” which “had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” The Russians’ stated goal was to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.” In other words, Russia was engaged in a complex, well-funded, multinational effort to undermine trust in the democratic process in the United States and other countries.

This is a grave threat. Republicans and Democrats should be working together in bipartisan way to confront it. So why is this not happening? Because Democrats have politicized the issue, weaponizing the Russia inquiry in an effort to delegitimize Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton with these unfounded collusion charges. They have put their partisan goal of bringing down President Trump ahead of what should be a national goal that unites both parties -- uncovering and stopping Russia’s attack on our democracy.

The president’s critics complain that his response to the Mueller indictment is defensive. America is under attack, they say, and all he can talk about is himself. Well, whose fault is that? For more than a year, Democrats have repeatedly accused Trump of colluding with Moscow. Now the special counsel has issued an indictment that shows -- at least with regard to this element of the Russian effort -- that no collusion took place. Of course Trump is going to claim vindication! Perhaps evidence of collusion between Trump officials and Russia will still emerge. If it does, those officials should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But Trump’s response is not the behavior of someone who is worried that Mueller will find evidence he knowingly engaged in collusion.

In fact, the only evidence so far of any cooperation between a hired operative of a 2016 campaign and Russian officials is when the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid Christopher Steele to collect dirt on Trump from Russian officials. If Trump had paid a former spy to collect dirt on Clinton from Russian officials, Democrats would be shouting that they had the “smoking gun.”

It is true that Russia wanted Trump to win. But the intelligence community report on Russia’s interference also stated the Russians had concluded “that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election.” Once they concluded Clinton would be elected, the Russian influence effort “focused on undermining her expected presidency.” One way to do that would be for Russian officials to provide her campaign with unverified dirt on Trump -- fodder for Trump to claim that Democrats colluded with Moscow.

Russia’s effort was sophisticated and complex, and presents an ongoing threat not just to America but to our allies as well. Trump was not in office when the Russian effort began in 2014 ... or in 2015 ... or in 2016. For three years, President Barack Obama did virtually nothing in response to this attack on America. It’s way past time to address this threat, and we need to do it in a bipartisan manner. But for that to happen, Democrats need to stop politicizing the Russia investigation.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Seeking gun sanity after Parkland

By kathleen parker
Seeking gun sanity after Parkland

WASHINGTON -- As pressures mount for Congress to “just do something” about mass shootings, Americans would do well to seek solutions closer to home.

City by city, state by state, people have every right and reason to enact their own strict gun laws rather than wait for federal lawmakers to abandon their preferred pretzel poses.

Some states and cities have already taken the lead with varying degrees of success. Exhibit A is Connecticut, where legislators passed stricter laws following the horrific 2012 shooting in Newtown. The state expanded its existing assault weapons ban, restricted magazines to 10 rounds and required extensive background checks for firearms sales. People who already owned assault weapons were required to register them with the state police.

Coincidentally -- or not -- gun deaths in the state have decreased since the new restrictions took effect. Although this decrease may correspond to a national decline in violent crime, Connecticut’s rate has dropped more than any other state’s over the last four years.

And then there’s Chicago. I can’t count the number of emails from readers who, every time the gun debate comes up, write to remind me that though Chicago has among the strictest gun laws, the city also has the highest number of gun deaths -- and these are by handguns, not assault rifles. This is explained partly by a thriving black market, which flourishes among gangs, as well as other factors that may be unique to Chicago.

While true that existing Florida gun laws would not have prevented the Parkland shooting, Connecticut laws probably would have. For one thing, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz wouldn’t have been able to buy the AR-15 he allegedly used to kill 17 and wound 14 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Might he have bought one in another state, such as neighboring Georgia, or found one on the black market? Maybe, but such logic means that any potentially preventive measure is negated by all hypothetical possibilities. In other words, we do nothing.

Also, had Florida required mental health checks and a waiting period, then Cruz might have been identified as someone who shouldn’t be buying weapons, period. Although Cruz passed a cursory background check, he obviously deserved a deeper review. Medical privacy is deservedly sacrosanct in this country -- but it shouldn’t be when it comes to guns. In New York, where strict laws also were enacted after Sandy Hook, mental health professionals have to notify the state when a patient presents as someone who shouldn’t buy a gun.

Wouldn’t everyone sleep better knowing that a person with serious mental problems could be identified before he shoots up a school, office party or night club?

Obviously, such additional scrutiny would require extra time, which, in addition to allowing for “cooling off,” is why waiting periods are necessary. This wouldn’t be to inconvenience deer hunters but to save human lives. The exhausted argument that “guns don’t kill, people do” is unassailable. But cars don’t kill people, either, and we seem to recognize the need for restrictions and permitting regulations for drivers.

Lastly, as we search for ways to end these massacres, we must acknowledge that our culture is sick. Violence is everywhere on television, in movies and, most perniciously, in the video games our children play. War seems to like us -- and each generation creates a fresh market for the latest war’s favorite weapon. The AR-15, though created in the 1950s, was Vietnam’s weapon of choice.

Cruz, an archetypal lone shooter, seems to have stepped right out of the book of warning signs for future mass murderers. Not only did teachers flag his disruptive behavior as far back as middle school, but Cruz had posted messages on social media, including an announcement that he intended to become a “professional school shooter.”

Even the FBI had been warned about this young man, although it failed to act upon the information. How many dots were hanging out there like bright, blinking stars waiting for someone to connect them? The brightest of all was Cruz himself, a long-ago lost soul who all but wore a sign begging for help. Until we figure out how to repair our troubled world and recognize the outcasts among us, we can at least minimize the likelihood that someone like him gets his hands on a weapon of war. We can’t prevent every horror, but we damn sure ought to try.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The Zelig of Russian covert action

By david ignatius
The Zelig of Russian covert action

WASHINGTON -- Every good spy story needs a shadowy operative who does the dirty work for the boss, and thanks to the indictment issued Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller, we now have a nominee for that role in the Russia investigation. He’s a billionaire oligarch named Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and based on Russian and other accounts, he sounds like a real-life version of a James Bond villain.

Prigozhin’s fingerprints appear to be on three of the most sensitive operations launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin: meddling in the 2016 U.S. election; supporting separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine; and providing military muscle for the Syrian regime. Russia’s hidden combatants are often described as “Little Green Men,” and Prigozhin may be the Jolly Green Giant who helps this machine function.

Prigozhin has been painted in press accounts as “Putin’s chef,” because he got his start as the future president’s favorite restaurateur in Russia’s wild frontier capitalism of the 1990s. He started with food stalls in his native St. Petersburg and eventually built an elegant floating restaurant there where Putin hosted foreign leaders. Billion-dollar contracts to cater for the Russian military followed. But he started as a tough guy: Back in 1981, prior to gaining Putin’s favor, Prigozhin was reportedly jailed for nine years for robbery, fraud and child prostitution, according to the Russian news website Meduza.

Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians alleged that Prigozhin was a key funder of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg “troll farm” that sought to plant pro-Kremlin information on social media. The indictment charged that, through several subsidiaries branded as “Concord,” Prigozhin “spent significant funds” to support the organization’s “information warfare” against the U.S.

Prigozhin has denied involvement in the troll factory. His defiant reaction to being named in Friday’s indictment: “I am not at all disappointed that I appear in this list. If they want to see the devil -- let them.” Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury since 2016 because of his activities in Ukraine.

Mueller’s indictment describes a complex effort to manipulate American public opinion through fake accounts, false fronts and stolen identities. The troll factory’s election bias was evident in the ads it purchased, including: “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is,” and “Among all the candidates Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists.”

The cheeky Russian operatives even arranged to photograph an American in front of the White House several days before Prigozhin’s 2016 birthday, holding a sign that said: “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss,” according to the indictment.

Meddling in American politics was a brazen act, but it was an elaboration of tactics that the Internet Research Agency allegedly embraced in 2014 in Ukraine after mass protests toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president. The Wall Street Journal recently spoke with a Russian journalist who had worked for the agency. The Journal characterized his job there as “rewriting news from the point of view of pro-Russian separatists.” Last year, Mueller indicted Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, for concealing a scheme to lobby for Yanukovych.

Prigozhin is also allegedly connected to a group of mercenaries, known as the Wagner Group, that aided Ukrainian separatists. The Moscow Times reported last November that he invested in Wagner, and that its leader, a former Russian military officer named Dmitry Utkin, was general director of one of Prigozhin’s Concord companies.

Prigozhin, the Zelig of Russian covert action, also appears to have had a special role in the Wagner Group’s mercenary operations in Syria. The Associated Press reported in December that he was an investor in Evro Polis, which has a contract to help liberate Syrian oil and gas fields and, in return, receive 25 percent of the production revenues. “The link between Evro Polis and Prigozhin is significant and is not in doubt,” according to Denis Korotkov, a reporter for the Russian website Fontanka, quoted by the AP. No public response from Prigozhin could be found.

The Syria mercenary operation took a disastrous turn two weeks ago, when commandos tried to seize oil and gas fields east of Deir al-Zour and were demolished by U.S. and Syrian Kurdish forces holding that terrain. According to Fontanka, about 3,000 Wagner mercenaries have worked in Syria since Russia intervened in 2015.

President Trump, in his torrent of combative Twitter messages following Friday’s indictment, said that Putin and his operatives must be “laughing their asses off” because their divisive efforts have worked so well. Maybe so, but given the exposure of covert action in Ukraine, Syria and America, the Russians may not have the last laugh.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

America needs to talk about a lot more than just guns

By ruben navarrette jr.
America needs to talk about a lot more than just guns

SAN DIEGO -- After the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Americans are eager to talk about guns.

Half the country seems to be saying that firearms deserve all the blame for tragedies like these, while the other half is trying to exonerate guns completely. Both arguments are wrong.

Not that Americans shouldn’t talk about guns -- and gun control. We should. Now that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged with killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, this is a good time to do it.

We need to keep high-powered rifles out of the hands of the troubled, alienated and mentally ill by requiring those who buy them to take a psychological test. We also must limit the number of guns bought by one person in a given year; ban the AR-15, which isn’t really intended for hunting unless you’re hunting humans; raise the legal age to buy a gun to 21; and strengthen background checks, as President Trump reportedly wants to do.

We also need to be more aggressive in monitoring gun sales to individuals who fit the profile. When the FBI pursues mass murderers and serial killers, agents often use a profile that suggests the suspects are white males. So, just like they have done with Muslim Americans in terrorism cases, the FBI should keep a registry of white males who stockpile high-powered weapons and subject them to extra scrutiny.

Americans do need to talk about guns. Yet, while we’re distracted by that conversation, here’s a list of other really important things we’re still not talking about:

-- Whether America’s youth have gradually become desensitized to violence by blockbuster movies;

-- Why our country is so bad at detecting individuals with mental health issues and getting them the help they need;

-- Why some parents do a bad job of keeping tabs on their child’s behavior or keeping them away from dangerous things;

-- Whether violent video games (especially first-person simulated shooter games) trivialize and encourage violence;

-- Whether we should regulate content on the so-called dark web, especially if it advocates or teaches violence;

-- How to make our schools safer without making them more like prisons, which could teach children to act like criminals;

-- Whether we need metal detectors and/or armed guards on all school grounds, or whether that would make things worse;

-- Whether these shooters are targeting schools because their own experience as students was often so negative;

-- How to police social media to keep the public safe without giving government and law enforcement too much power;

-- Why tech companies don’t seem at all interested in reporting those consumers of social media who might be dangerous;

-- Whether being surrounded by technology makes young people feel lonely, depressed, alienated and maybe even violent;

-- How gun enthusiasts are so hung up on their “rights” that they often neglect the responsibilities that come with them;

-- Why there are so many more school shootings in the United States compared with other countries;

-- Whether some of these massacres were “copycat” reactions to earlier attacks by people seeking their share of infamy;

-- Whether powerful prescription drugs might fuel these attacks because doctors, in cahoots with Big Pharma, overprescribe them;

-- Whether a fascination with guns is its own kind of psychosis, which distorts reality and trivializes lethalness;

-- Why so many of these mass shootings are committed by white males with troubled backgrounds;

-- How the red flags might have been brighter if, instead of a white male, the culprit were a Mexican, Muslim or MS-13’er;

-- How it is that the FBI bungled its investigation of Cruz, who was practically begging to be arrested;

-- How it is that, more than a year ago, a social worker from the Florida Department of Children and Families declared Cruz to be no threat;

-- How a teenager with lots of behavioral problems could so easily buy an AR-15 military-style rifle and ammunition;

-- Whether any number of these tragedies can break the vice grip that the National Rifle Association has on Congress;

-- And how we need to stop reflexively saying “something has to be done” and actually do something.

But what can we do? Looking over that list, there is a lot that needs to be done -- by many people and on multiple fronts. You can also see why Americans focus on guns. Some of the other issues are too difficult, too sensitive or too close to home.

And that is all the more reason to take them on.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

How much should you be saving?

By michelle singletary
How much should you be saving?

WASHINGTON -- I love hearing from my readers about their financial conundrums, and this month their questions included everything from how much they should save each year to how they can best donate to the victims of the Florida high school shootings. Here are my suggestions for the best way to handle their money.

Q: In light of this latest tragedy in Florida, what’s the difference between GoFundMe contributions vs. regular charitable contributions? It’s not just a question of the tax deduction, but also my confidence that a contribution will be used for the purposes I gave it, and that there will be some accountability.

A: For tax purposes, you can’t take a deduction for a direct contribution to an individual or a campaign that benefits that person or a family. Only contributions made to a qualified charity or nonprofit are deductible.

GoFundMe promises givers that it has protections to ensure money raised is used for the intended purpose.

But in a tweet, the Broward Sheriff’s office in Florida gave out a link to an official GoFundMe campaign to help victims and their families after concerns about “several fraudulent @gofundme accounts.”

Here’s the link for the official page for the Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Fund, which has already raised more than $1.7 million: https://www.gofundme.com/stonemandouglasvictimsfund.

Q: My husband and I don’t fight too much about money, but when we do, it’s about our savings rate. Right now we save about 15 percent to 20 percent of our gross income, which is about 25 percent of our net income. It’s in a bunch of places -- retirement, kids’ college funds, health accounts, and short-term stuff like for a new car or a vacation. Every month I look at our accounts and feel like we aren’t saving enough, that we are spending frivolously (eating out, treats at Target, etc.) and that I’ll be out of money in retirement. Part of this is that my job is really unstable and so I try to save as much as I can, but my husband’s job is really stable and he earns the bulk of our income. I feel paralyzed about our finances, he thinks I am paranoid and overly cautious. Are we saving enough? Other than a mortgage and a student loan we don’t have any debt. How do I calm myself down?

A: According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, at the end of 2017 Americans were saving just 2.4 percent of their disposable income. That’s too low.

In my experience, aim to have a savings rate of at least 10 percent. You’re a super saver if you can carve out 20 percent between retirement and other financial goals. But you can overdo a good thing. You can have fun and still be financially responsible.

I would get rid of the student loan as soon as you can, and then add that to your savings.

But relax, you’re doing just fine.

Q: I’m going to be 30 next year, and I’m thinking about different financial things that I want to do. These include saving 15 percent for retirement (and continuing to tithe); buying a house; buying rental properties; traveling and doing fun things; buying a car; and maybe even buying a new purse. I don’t see how I can afford everything, and it makes me feel anxious and overwhelmed. Do you have any advice for tackling all of these things and making a plan?

A: You are right you can’t do it all. So prioritize what you need to do with the money you have. Make sure the major stuff is funded first -- retirement, emergency account, etc. If you’ve got money left over, put it toward your wants.

Q: What is the impact on my credit score of canceling a longstanding credit card? I’ve had it for more than 30 years and it probably accounts for 40 percent of the credit available to me, but I haven’t really used it for years. I have three other credit cards, and I really only use two, and I pay off the balance on each every month. Of these three, I’ve had two for around 25 years. Will my score decrease when I cancel the card? I’m not planning on taking out any loans any time soon; we just refinanced our mortgage last year.

A: If you close the 30-year-old account, it won’t immediately disappear if at all. Positive information can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years. Since you pay off the cards you do use every month, you shouldn’t see a dip in your score. And if you do, it will be minor and bounce right back.

Kick the old card to the curb.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Ending the Chicago massacre will require miracles of mercy

By michael gerson
Ending the Chicago massacre will require miracles of mercy

CHICAGO -- On the same day as the Parkland school shooting, I found myself on the south side of Chicago, talking with the victims and perpetrators of a different, continuing massacre.

At the optimistically named Youth Peace Center of Roseland, M. told me of being shot six times in the back and head. “Until you lay in your own blood,” he said, “you can’t understand.” His friend D. has three bullet scars. “We was in a war,” he explained, “just like Iraq.” Not far away, the staff and participants at IMAN (Inner-City Muslim Action Network) were mourning the recent death of Steven Ward, who took part in the violence-prevention program. On his way home from taking his kids to a trampoline park, while stopped at the traffic light, Ward was executed in front of his family.

In the local newspapers, killings such as these rate a few paragraphs as “another gang-related homicide.” This does little to portray the horrifying reality: There are war zones within the borders of America. Though the numbers are recently down a bit, Chicago had more than 650 murders in 2017. Some young men take precautions appropriate to Beirut, circling their home block three or four times in search of any person or car that is out of place, before they will park. Others must be smuggled out of the city to avoid revenge killings.

Activists working with gang members describe a perfect storm of unintended consequences. The tearing down of Chicago’s high-rise, public housing monstrosities caused the diffusion of gang problems into other neighborhoods. Aggressive policing that put many gang leaders in prison also removed a source of structure in neighborhoods -- leaving smaller groups (sometimes of three or four) engaged in chaotic, block-by-block warfare.

In this environment, relatively minor provocations -- trash talk by a rap music star, social media disrespect, a stolen watch -- can result in years of murder and revenge.

What can be done? Programs such as BAM (Becoming a Man) employ a form of group therapy to keep young men from going off track. During the session I attended at Phillips High School, students took turns sharing their personal struggles, building a kind of brotherhood. Role-playing is used to encourage values such as integrity, accountability and respect for women. And there is good preliminary evidence that participation in BAM significantly reduces violent crime and arrest.

But reducing gang violence also requires someone to enter the most damaged lives. At the Youth Peace center, young men leaving gang life are not only matched with jobs but with life coaches who take a daily interest in their success. At IMAN, older mentors are matched with young men, providing a father figure in largely fatherless lives. There is a waiting list to enter the program.

Both efforts are now getting serious help from an effort called Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), led by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. With deep roots in Chicago, Duncan has tried to bring greater resources and a sense of urgency to the prevention of violence, in which progress is measured life by life. “This is not a second chance,” Duncan told me. “They didn’t have a first chance.”

The young men I met were disarmingly transparent and reflective. D. talked of having trouble getting up at 8 a.m. for work and learning it was not a good idea to “walk into jobs tweaking” (while high on drugs). All of the participants I met reported some rock-bottom moment when the downward trajectory of their lives became unacceptable. “My son is 4 months old,” M. told me. “If I had died, my kids wouldn’t know me. All they would have is a picture.”

Programs like these succeed by gathering a community in which young men from different gangs don’t view each other as “Ops” but as brothers. The only force sufficient to defeat retaliation is reconciliation. Which can be remarkable to witness.

When Duncan was young, his friend -- basketball star Ben Wilson -- was murdered by a 16-year-old named Billy Moore. “I hated him all my life,” Duncan told me. After serving almost 20 years in prison, Moore is now one of the life coaches at IMAN, working with Duncan to reclaim young lives. A few months ago, Moore’s only son was murdered -- shot 16 times. “If the young men who shot my son come through those doors,” Moore told me, “I would help them. In order to ask for forgiveness, I must extend forgiveness.”

Good public policy can promote order and justice. But ending the Chicago massacre will require miracles of mercy.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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