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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukraine's war is now concentrated near its eastern border, and that is where the country's president appeared over the weekend.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Video released today shows Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting with frontline troops. He's wearing his signature green army T-shirt. He urges his troops to win, but not at any cost. He asks them to stay safe since the land means nothing without its people.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv and is following this visit. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: How dramatic was this frontline visit?

MYRE: Well, quite dramatic. Obviously, this was not announced in advance. He traveled to near the town of Severodonetsk. That's very much within Russian artillery range. This city has been the scene of the heaviest fighting the past couple weeks. So he was just a few miles west of those troops. But also, Russian troops are pretty close in the north and the south. He was really in the thick of it. He met with troops. He stopped in two other towns as well. He met civilians also and said, quote, "I'm proud of everybody I met, everyone I shook hands with, everyone whom I connected with." Now, this is hundreds of miles from the capital, Kyiv, and he presumably traveled by road - really reflects the critical phase of fighting in the east right now.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. What makes this a critical phase?

MYRE: Well, the Russians have really concentrated their firepower in - not only in the east, but in a pretty particular part of the east, around this city of Severodonetsk. The Russians have been advancing. And just a few days ago, even the Ukrainian leaders were saying Russia had about 80% of this city. It appeared likely to fall. Over the weekend, Ukraine said they pushed back, recaptured part of the city. And even just before we spoke this morning here, the political leader came out and said Ukraine is suffering some setbacks. So this is a very tough fight for this city, the absolute focal point of the war right now.

INSKEEP: So Zelenskyy was near there. It is, of course, pretty significant that the president goes so near the front lines. But we should mention, Greg, that because of Russian missiles, Zelenskyy is always within Russian range. And wasn't there some evidence of that in Kyiv?

MYRE: Yeah, absolutely, Steve. Kyiv hadn't come under attack for more than a month, and that lull ended at dawn on Sunday morning when four Russian cruise missiles slammed into four separate buildings at a large railway compound that repairs broken train cars. Now, the Russians said they destroyed tanks and armored vehicles. The Ukrainians said this wasn't true, and they invited journalists to come see for themselves, including me. We found caved-in roofs, collapsed brick walls. Everywhere you walk, there was glass crunching underfoot. One building was still smoldering. But we saw absolutely no sign of weapons.

INSKEEP: So something was destroyed but maybe not what the Russians claimed. Of course, Kyiv remains under Ukrainian control. What is happening in parts of the country that are under Russian control?

MYRE: Right. We don't hear much about that because once the Russians take over, it becomes a bit of a black hole. Let's talk for a moment about Mariupol. I think many of our listeners remember the heavy fighting there that took place before the Ukrainians surrendered. We spoke with the mayor, Vadym Boychenko. He's here in Kyiv but still in touch with citizens, and he said life there is just miserable beyond words.

VADYM BOYCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: So he's saying that the water system is broken. It's almost impossible to find drinking water. Food is scarce. There's no electrical power or cellphone service. And Russia is blocking residents from leaving. So all in all, a terrible situation there.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv. Greg, thanks for the update.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., faces a no-confidence vote tonight.

FADEL: It's a move by Johnson's critics that could cost him his job. In the U.K. system, the prime minister's party controls the House of Commons. So if a majority of his Conservative Party turns away from him, he'd be forced to step aside.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this story in London. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes some in his party so upset with Boris Johnson?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it goes back to a lot of anger about the way Johnson and his staff behaved during the COVID lockdown. You know, as we've reported, he attended some lockdown parties, his staff - many parties, when people here weren't allowed to even go out and see dying loved ones in the hospital. Now, a report came out late last month, Steve - found a drunken culture at No. 10 Downing Street. They describe parties in which one person was vomiting. There was red wine splashed on the walls, abuse of cleaning staff. Johnson himself ended up being fined $62 for breaking one of his own laws, effectively, the first time a prime minister has been found to have broken the law in office. And on Friday - I'll tell you, I've been covering the Queen's Jubilee celebration over the last few days, and Johnson came to St. Paul's Cathedral for this big service where the royal family also came, and he was roundly booed by the crowd.

The biggest concern, I think, inside his Conservative Party, Steve, is very political, as you'd imagine. Some see Johnson now as damaged goods and think he may not be able to lead them into the next election, which should come around 2024.

INSKEEP: OK, so this is entirely up to his party. He's effectively a creature of his party here, has to keep a majority of them on his side. What are the mechanics of the process?

LANGFITT: Well, the way we got here is there have to be 54 letters from lawmakers saying they don't have confidence and they want to vote. And they just reached that, I guess, over the weekend. But that's only 15% of his party in the House of Commons. It's not at all a mandate. And what they'll need is 180 conservative lawmakers, at least, out of 359 to vote him out, effectively, this evening. Now, if the rebels fail, the Tory rebels fail, under the current rules they cannot challenge him again for another 12 months. So there - it is a bit of a high-risk proposition.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense of whether the rebels have the votes?

LANGFITT: You know, I'm not sure. They only have 54 right now in terms of these letters. The other thing, Steve, is they don't have an alternative candidate, which means that even if they were to reach this threshold, you're looking at a one- to two-month leadership fight when the party's already pretty weak. What Johnson's team this morning is saying to everybody in the party is, you know, slow down. We don't need a civil war. That's only going to help our opposition, you know, the Labour Party, and says the country needs to focus on the war in Ukraine. Of course, the U.K. has been a leader in arming the Ukrainian army - you know, just listening to our colleague Greg there in Ukraine. And of course, he's also focusing - party says, you know, we need to focus on the rising cost of living at home.

INSKEEP: Does this damage Boris Johnson even if he survives?

LANGFITT: Yeah. It does. It absolutely does. And a big question here, I think, among people, even in his own party, is - it's not a question of maybe if Johnson goes but when he would go. And the big picture, I think, Steve - and we've reported on this for a long time - Johnson is a very entertaining cheerleader for the country at his best. He's also sort of had a reputation as a bit of a naughty schoolboy over the years who kind of breaks the rules in what's effectively a rule-following country. That does have some appeal. But COVID was different, I think, Steve. You know, the stakes there were life and death. Many people here really did sacrifice, including the queen, who sat alone at her husband's funeral with a mask on. And so, you know, Johnson all along has been kind of this Teflon politician, but his handling of COVID may finally stick.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks for your insights.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. How, if at all, might continued mass shootings affect the gun control debate?

FADEL: Now, polls show that most Americans, including many gun owners, support some restrictions on firearms, like stricter background checks, red flag laws. But even after mass shootings like the one we saw in Texas, where so many children were killed, some gun owners hesitate to speak out about their views.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey spoke with a couple of gun owners in Texas. Hi there, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just emphasize here, we're talking here about a variety of opinions among gun owners. What did you hear from the individuals you spoke with?

AUBREY: Absolutely. Well, let me talk about two gun owners in particular. They're neighbors, actually - Richard Small and Gerardo Marquez. Both live on small ranches south of San Antonio, not far from Uvalde. They have a lot in common. They're both in their 60s, both retired schoolteachers and administrators. And both grew up with guns. Here's Small, then Marquez.

RICHARD SMALL: I have a rifle that I use with my grandson for plinking. They call it plinking - you know, shooting at a steel target.

GERARDO MARQUEZ: We dove hunt and turkey hunt. So that's what it is for me. We're both in a country where people regularly shoot.

AUBREY: You know, they hunt, and they shoot for fun. They go to gun shows, read hunting magazines. But they're both very upset about the spate of mass shootings. They're troubled by the easy access to lethal assault-style rifles. And now they say they want change.

INSKEEP: What change do they want?

AUBREY: Well, they'd like to see tougher gun control laws. Richard Small says after the 19 children were gunned down, he was so shaken, he handed over the assault-style rifle he owned to local police. This was reported by The Washington Post. He told me he just wanted that gun gone.

SMALL: I had an epiphany of - I'm done. I don't need it. It's a bad, deadly combination in the wrong hands.

AUBREY: Gerardo Marquez has strong feelings, too.

MARQUEZ: It's so obvious that we need to do something. The last two shootings - the one in Buffalo, the one here in Uvalde - 18-year-olds. I mean, golly - when are we going to wake up?

AUBREY: Mr. Marquez is a Democrat. Mr. Small is a Republican. They both still own multiple guns, but both support stricter background checks, more licensing requirements and red flag laws - basically, taking guns away from people who are deemed dangerous by courts.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just note, if you talk to a lot of gun owners, you run into a lot of people who take gun safety seriously, who think seriously about the safety, safe use of their own weapons. So it's not surprising that you'd find a couple people who would have these views about gun regulation. But is it clear how many gun owners share their views?

AUBREY: Well, as you point out, there's a range of views, but there is some evidence that the views of these two men might be the silent majority. I spoke to Dr. Michael Siegel. He's a public health researcher at Tufts University. He's published research based on surveys of thousands of gun owners.

MICHAEL SIEGEL: Our study found that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are just like him, that they support these types of basic laws that aim simply to keep guns out of the hands of people who are high risk for violence, but they're afraid to speak out publicly.

AUBREY: And part of the reason is they kind of feel stuck in the middle. On one side, they're completely out of step with the NRA, the gun lobby that resists new laws; on the other side, some are alienated by advocates who say, you know, get rid of all guns and view all gun owners as part of the problem. So Dr. Siegel says the voices of these gun owners who favor more gun control need to be respected and elevated in order to move forward.

INSKEEP: Allison, it's always great to hear your insights. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.