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Chilling First Look At Alleged Shooter; Penn State Hit With $60 Million Fine; James Holmes' Finances; Iran's "Open War" with Israel; Gun Control Debate; Clashes in Syria

Aired July 23, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And you're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, a chilling first look at the face of an alleged mass murderer. Just ahead, a forensic psychiatrist helps break down James Holmes' bizarre courtroom appearance and what may have led to the shocking moments.

Plus, how could a budding neuroscientist allegedly afford thousands and thousands of dollars in weapons? We're taking a closer look at his finances.

And the NCAA deals an unprecedented blow to Penn State University in the wake of a notorious child sex abuse scandal. Now, the president of the university is responding.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: The images are chilling. The hair, dyed mixed shades of red, big eyes that sometimes didn't blink, other times seemed barely able to stay open. The bizarre scene is our very first glimpse of the alleged Colorado movie theater killer, James Holmes, in court for the first time today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a preliminary determination of probable cause to believe you're committed the offense of first-degree murder, which is a class one felony under Colorado law. Ordinarily individuals are entitled to bail. Given the nature of the charges, you are currently being held on a no bond hold.

You also have the right to a jury trial and preliminary hearing to determine whether it's probable cause to believe that you're the person that committed the offense.


BLITZER: And Jim Spellman is joining us now from the scene. Jim, you were inside that courtroom. Give us a little flavor. What was it like inside when you saw James Holmes walk in? JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There was a lot of anticipation in the courtroom, Wolf. Everybody, the first question in their mind was, will he have the red hair? That we'd heard from police sources they have, because all the witnesses we talked with saw him only with a helmet on and a gas mask.

When we first saw the red hair, that answered the first question. And I was really taken by his demeanor. He was slumped over, sort of. He was, of course, shackled at the wrist and at the ankles. So, we had that stoop. But he just looked small and lost the entire time. I never saw him make any eye contact with any of the family members that were in there.

He basically looked straight ahead look with a kind of dazed look on his face for the entire hearing, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. To me, he looked, just in the close-ups, he either looked drugged or he looked tired. I couldn't tell. But you were closer. What did it look like to you?

SPELLMAN: Yes, I agree. It was hard to tell if he just was maybe exhausted or dazed or what, but it certainly to me didn't match the expression that you would maybe associate with someone who had recently done, you know, allegedly such a huge crime. I've seen other people who have done heinous crimes.

John Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, he always had a real swagger about himself in the courtroom, you know? With this, it just looked like such a lost, you know, kind of quiet, small, meek person. It was hard to put that face with the crimes he's alleged to have done.

BLITZER: I can only imagine the security surrounding his appearance in the courtroom. How tight was it?

SPELLMAN: Yes. There were sheriff deputies on the rooftops of the building. He was -- the jail and the court are right next to each other here. And there's an underground tunnel. So, he was taken through that underground tunnel and back hallways directly into the court. He had two deputies with him the whole time and another five deputies in the courtroom.

And even us in the press had to go through two layers of metal detectors and security. They kept a really tight list. They only let in media, some court personnel and a small group of victims' families -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We know he's in jail. What do we know about the conditions he has?

SPELLMAN: Well, we know he's under solitary confinement, and he's not been cooperating with the police at all. They didn't file charges yet. The court gave them another week to do that. Partly that's because he's not cooperating, and it wasn't until Saturday night that they were able to get into his apartment, get his computer, and check out everything else in there that they're going to need to build a case. Even when they do file charges, Wolf, there's a good chance that they may add charges to it down the line. It will be years, potentially, before this trial has been conducted and today was really just the appearance in what will (inaudible) many more in the same court house, Wolf.

BLITZER: And the next appearance, as you say, will be next Monday, a week from today, right?

SPELLMAN: That's right.

BLITZER: Jim Spellman on the scene. We'll check back with you. Thanks very much.

SPELLMAN: Yes. Thank you.

All right. Let's talk a little bit more about James Holmes, his appearance in court today, what his state of mind might be. Joining us is the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Lise Van Susteren. Lisa, thanks very much for coming in. I'm going to show you a picture of James Holmes, and our viewers will see it right there.

There's the mug shot of him shortly after he was arrested. You see those eyes wide open there. What, if anything, does that tell you? The fact that he dyed his hair sort of multiple shades of reds?

DR. LISE VAN SUSTEREN, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: Well, as an isolated issue, not much, but if you take it in the context of his statement that he's the joker, and we know that the joker, in some iterations, at least, had red hair, it suggests that he's identifying with the joker, which suggests the larger theme.

BLITZER: Which is what?

VAN SUSTEREN: The larger theme in the whole Batman spectacle that the joker is the one who defeats the hero. He is the super intelligent person. Only he can overcome the hero so he becomes the victor.

BLITZER: What makes -- forget about this case, but what makes someone who's obviously intelligent, you know, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, graduated with high honors from the University of California Riverside in neuroscience, what makes someone potentially think of themselves as being the joker and out to do whatever he was doing?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, here's what happens is that we have to understand the brain is a very complex place. And while you may be very smart about science, you may not have a moral fiber or a judgment that is intact. And over time, if that begins to erode even further, you bring in themes where you can re-capture the glory.

After all, he was at the top of the top, now always flanking (ph) out of school. So, if you try to understand it from that thematic phases, you can see that his need to be at the top of his game, to be the smartest one, to undo the hero, Batman, this is the sort of presentation of his thinking. BLITZER: ABC News broadcast some video of him a few years back at a science camp. I'm going to show the video. And I think we have some of that right now. We don't have it, unfortunately. We don't have it. But it shows him at an earlier stage, only a few years ago in his life, seeming relatively normal to just the few clips that we've seen.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. Well, when you look to assess a person like this, there is no doubt that you will find clips to make him look crazy. And there will be clips that make him look normal. And what you have to do is, especially look at the time of the crime. How was he then?

So, you can go back and see he may have had a preoccupation with some of these things, but they never devolved into this savage place. What's critical is what was going on in his head just before this --

BLITZER: Some have described him allegedly as a psychotic person, others as a psychopath. What's the difference from your clinical psychiatric point of view?

VAN SUSTEREN: Right. Very easy way to look at it. It's the line essentially between madness and badness. Madness, of course, being psychotic, out of touch with reality. Badness is, of course, the pathological personality that's a criminal. The setup here is that the attempt is to determine whether or not he is going to be charged for criminal behavior or whether they're setting things up to present an insanity defense.

BLITZER: So looking back on the -- forget about years, but the months leading up to this. Were there potentially signs that friends, relatives, others, acquaintances should have noticed, for example? Or is this suddenly a trigger and you go out there and engage allegedly in an incident like this?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it sounds he did not give much to go on. Other people will give lots -- they'll be writing stuff and posting stuff. But for him, the fact that he was just kind of awkward socially not doing well, those are soft signs, which in retrospect you put in the context and you say, oh, boy, you know, there were signs.

But it doesn't sound like there were signs that the ordinary person would pick up on. Obviously, what we would pick up on is a guy who seems very strange, and he's got 7,000 rounds of ammunition and he's looking for an assault riffle. That's what makes him stand out, but of course, we weren't privy to that.

BLITZER: If we were privy to that, medication, psychiatric help, all of that could have potentially averted this kind of action.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, of course.

BLITZER: Lise, thanks very much for coming on. Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist, appreciate it.

Just moments ago, we heard from the attorney representing the family of James Holmes. And in the moments after the shooting, his mother gave a comment to ABC News, which seemed to suggest that the son was, in fact, the culprit. She apparently wanted to clarify those remarks. Here is her attorney.


LISA DAMIANI, HOLMES FAMILY ATTORNEY: The reason we're here is that the media has been attributing certain statements to Arlene Holmes and taking her comments out of context. I would like to take the time to read a statement from Arlene Holmes, clarifying what transpired in the early morning, Friday morning, when she got a phone call from an ABC reporter.

And this is her statement. "This statement is to clarify a statement made by ABC media. I was awakened by a call from a reporter from ABC on July 20th about 5:45 in the morning. I did not know anything about a shooting in Aurora at that time. He asked if I was Arlene Holmes, and if my son was James Holmes who lives in Aurora, Colorado. I answered yes, you have the right person. I was referring to myself. I asked him to tell me why he was calling, and he told me about a shooting in Aurora. He asked for a comment. I told him I could not comment, because I did not know if the person he was talking about was my son. And I would need to find out."


BLITZER: We've reached out to ABC News, by the way, regarding their initial reporting. We're waiting back to get their reaction to what we just heard from the lawyer representing Arlene Holmes, the mother of James Holmes. We'll update you on that.

Also, much more coming up this hour, including in our next 6:00 p.m. eastern hour on the latest developments in Aurora, Colorado.

There's other news we're following as well, including Penn State University's president responding to the NCAA's unprecedented punishment. What he's now saying right here in the SITUATION ROOM about the university's shocking $60 million fine.

And CNN's Ivan Watson makes it inside Syria. His up-close look at a bombed out ghost town where one road is nicknamed the "street of death."


BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is here with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The massacre at a Colorado movie theater has shaken this nation to its foundation, but it's highly unlikely that it will shake up the presidential race. Both President Obama And Mitt Romney have been relatively silent when it comes to the issue of gun control.

The White House says the president doesn't have plans to push for any new gun laws, but that he wants to, quote, "take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them under the existing law, unquote." Gee, that's bold. As for Romney, he signed an assault weapons ban when he was governor of Massachusetts. Now, he says he's against gun control. Romney recently told the National Rifle Association the country needs a president, quote, "who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners," unquote. The NRA has an estimated four million members. Neither candidate wants to alienate those people.

And polls show that support for gun control is plummeting in recent years. Some Democrats think support of gun control is one of the reasons Al Gore lost in 2000. There are close to 300 million guns in this country. We are far and away the most heavily armed country in the world. It's unlikely that legal gun owners are going to be willing to part with their firearms without a struggle.

Colorado police say the alleged shooter who killed 12 people, wounded 58 others bought his guns legally at stores in the Denver area. And some on both sides of the aisle agree that even the tightest gun control laws might not keep weapons out of the hands of a crazy person who wants them.

Here's the question, in light of the Colorado shootings, what kind of role should gun control play in the presidential campaign? Go to and post a comment on my blog or go to our post on the Situation Room's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: The American astronaut, Sally Ride, unfortunately, unfortunately, has passed away. Lisa Sylvester is working the story for us. Lisa, we just got word into the SITUATION ROOM moments ago the very sad news.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. This is just coming in. CNN has just confirmed the death of Sally Ride. She was the first American woman to fly in space. Her historic flight was in 1983 aboard the space shuttle "Challenger." She flew in space again the following year and later served on the board that investigated the 1986 explosion that destroyed the "Challenger."

Sally Ride died today after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She has survived by her partner of 27 years. Again, she made history as the first American woman in space. Very sad, indeed, Wolf.

BLITZER: Amazing. And just doing some of the math. What was she, like, 61, 62 years old?

SYLVESTER: She was born in 1951. So, 1951 to 2012.

BLITZER: Yes, she was 62 years old.

SYLVESTER: Right. And it's just really sad. You know, she was also known as a science writer, and she had -- she was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science. So, she was really bringing, you know, everybody is talking about her spirit. That she lived life -- she was somebody who was passionate and intelligent and fearless. And I know that she was a role model to many women. So, it is really truly a sad loss, but she died peacefully. So, I think that that will give some comfort to her loved ones, Wolf.

BLITZER: She had a doctorate and degree in physics, and she was obviously a great astronaut at the same time, an amazing, an amazing woman. Sally Ride, unfortunately, has passed away. We're told she passed away, by the way, from pancreatic cancer. She'd been suffering for, what, about a year and a half. Is that what you hear?

SYLVESTER: Yes. It was about 17 months, a 17-month battle. And something else that's really interesting about her, and people may not know this is that Dr. Ride actually wrote five science books for children. So, she was clearly leaving behind this legacy. And it's neat to see that, you know, a great career over the last few decades, truly a trail blazer as the first American woman in space. And so, she leaves behind a true legacy, Wolf.

BLITZER: She certainly does. Sally Ride will be remembered by all of us. Appreciate it, Lisa. Thank you very much.

With no end in sight to the violence in Syria, an offer is made, but will Syria's president accept it? We're taking a closer look at Bashar al-Assad's options. That and much more coming up.


BLITZER: Penn State University is now responding at its highest ranks to what the NCAA has warned as a stark wake-up call to everyone involved in college sports. The organization slammed the institution with an unprecedented $60 million fine for the notorious child sex abuse scandal and forever reversed Joe Paterno's legacy as the winningest coach in major college football.

CNNs national correspondent, Susan Candiotti, is joining us now with more on what happened today. It was stunning, Susan, but update our viewers.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly was, Wolf. And in fact, one of the other sanctions imposed by the NCAA described as unprecedented is that they will lose 40 percent of all of their scholarships over the next four years. That is a major slam they're going to take in terms of recruiting players.

The situation so bad here, so egregious, that the NCAA said that this is serving as a wake-up call to sports programs in every college in the United States. Today, I spoke with the president of Penn State University, Rodney Erickson, and I asked him what he was going to do? How the school will survive? And he said that he had no choice but to accept these sanctions.


RODNEY ERICKSON, PRES., PENN STATE UNIVERSITY: Penn State is a very resilient university. And I'm always struck by the sense of resolve that people have here when confronted with a situation like this. They roll up their sleeves, and they go at it.

Whether it's a football team and coach Bill O'Brien, or whether it's our students and our friends and donors of Penn State, you will see many of them step up. We have an incredible group of faculty, staff, students, and alumni at penn state. I couldn't be more proud of them. They're simply world class. They will really help us focus and move ahead now.


CANDIOTTI: And as we said, Penn State is also losing 40 percent of its scholarships. How in the world will the school be able to recruit athletes to come here? It may take decades for them to get over this. I talked about that with the school's athletic director, David Joyner.


DAVID JOYNER, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR: This certainly is a challenge. We've been placed in an unprecedented situation. Coach Bill O'Brien is a person that's firmly committed to this university, this program, and his football players, and there have been some comments made today by a couple of football players.

One said out of the hottest fire comes the strongest steel. And that's the kind of attitude and the kind of players, I think, that are going to want to come here. They're going to want a challenge to go forward and rebuild a program from where it's starting right now.


CANDIOTTI: And Wolf, remember that the famous statue of Joe Paterno was taken down early Sunday morning. President Erickson said he had no choice but to do that, too, even though it was a difficult decision. It had to go, he said. It was standing as a monument to, as he put it, victims of child abuse.

And one other headline he made. He said that heads will roll. Employees here at Penn State University, because of the role that they played as a result of the investigation once state prosecutors began investigating the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Now, of course, he said that the school is resilient, but the fact of the matter is, Wolf, it could take decades for Penn State to try to get back to where it once was -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What an amazing, an amazing situation. Thanks so much for that. Susan Candiotti on the scene for us at Penn State University.

So, how could a budding neuroscientist allegedly afford thousands and thousands of dollars to purchase weapons? We're taking a closer look at where he may have received all that money.

And the battle may be over, but the damage is lasting. CNNs Ivan Watson is inside a devastated town in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're beginning to learn more about James Holmes' finances while he was at the University of Colorado, specifically the thousands of dollars in a government-funded grant he had earned for research. Lisa Sylvester is here. She is working this part of the story for us. What are you learning?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there seems to be almost two James Holmes. The man accused of doing this heinous crime and the diligent student. He was considered to have so much potential at a young scientist that he actually received a federal NIH grant that paid him thousands of dollars over the last several months.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) that are currently being held on a no- bond hold.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): James Holmes appeared in court with shockingly orange-reddish hair. But it's a far cry from his image as a budding neuroscientist. Until last Friday Holmes was known as an outstanding student enrolled in a PhD. program at the University of Colorado. He received a $26,000 research grant by the National Institutes of Health, funded by taxpayer money. That worked out to a monthly check of about $2,166. While receiving that grant funding, over the last several months Holmes also received a high volume of expensive deliveries to his home and work. This receipt dated July 2nd shows he purchased a tactical assault vest, a pistol magazine, M- 16 magazine pouch and knife for $306. Police say he amassed an arsenal of explosives and weapons like these.

CHIEF DAN OATES, AURORA POLICE: The weapons are as follow, an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington H70 (ph) shotgun, 12-gauge shotgun and a 40-caliber Glock handgun.

SYLVESTER: The image of James Holmes as a mass murderer stands in sharp (ph) contrast to the studious Holmes who excelled at science. Only six students at the University of Colorado, including Holmes were chosen to work on the Neuro Science Training Program. According to an NIH Web site, the project leader is listed as University of Colorado Professor Diego Restreppo (ph). We contacted him, but he declined to comment. As a high-schooler, Holmes was chosen to participate in a prestigious Salt (ph) Institute Scholars Program. One of his fellow students spoke to CNN affiliate KFMB (ph), but did not want to be identified.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was a very quiet person. He didn't talk to us. I think all of us were really excited to be there and so we were very friendly and talking about college plans, but he never really wanted to associate with us.


SYLVESTER: James Holmes withdrew from the PhD. program last month. We tried to find out why and also to find out more information about the exact type of research Holmes was conducting, but the university did not return our calls -- Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, I guess we'll get more information the days and weeks to come.

SYLVESTER: I think there's definitely more to this story. In fact the university for now it's very hard to find information about their program. There are reports that they've actually pulled down parts of their program off their Web site right now, so and I know that that's the focus that investigators are looking at, exactly what type of research he was doing. But it seems clear that they've instructed the professors and even some of the students not to talk to the media at this point as they move forward with the investigation.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lisa Sylvester reporting.

A very, very blunt assessment of tensions with Iran, what Israel's president has to say about the bloody attack in Bulgaria. Stand by.


BLITZER: Israel's president has sharp words for why he believes Iran is targeting his country. He spoke exclusively with our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Wolf, from a Syria on the verge of collapse to more possible attacks coming from Iran, the Israeli president told me Israel will not shy away from acting preemptively to keep Israelis safe.



LABOTT (voice-over): It's Israel's biggest fear about the crisis raging on its northern border. Syria's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah, or even worse, turned on Israel as a last stand by a weakened Bashar Al-Assad. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Shimon Peres says Israel will act to prevent that from happening.

PRES. SHIMON PERES, ISRAEL: It's self-evident. Look, the use of chemical weapons is internationally forbidden. You don't have the right to produce them. We have certainly signed this international law. You don't have the right to use them. What do you do when someone violates the law? You fight against it. You stop them.

LABOTT (on camera): How far are you prepared to go?

PERES: Until it will stop being a danger.

LABOTT (voice-over): President Peres called Assad's violence against his own people revolting and urged Arab states to remove him by force, but he said Israel wants no part in the effort.

(on camera): What will happen if Syrian refugees try to cross the Israeli border. Will you help them?

PERES: No. LABOTT: Will you shoot them?

PERES: We shall prevent them. I mean, you don't go straight to the rifle. There are other means to prevent them. We shall prevent it because it will be double tragedy for them and for us. They will become homeless and we shall become defenseless.

LABOTT: If Syrians start to come over the border, will you stop them by force?

PERES: First of all until now, none of them asked to come in. If they will come in by force, we shall stop them by force. If they will come in without force, we shall stop them with the way that any country defends -- defended her border, with civilian means.

LABOTT: We're not talking about a military invasion. We're talking about Syrians who are trying to escape bloodshed in their own country.

PERES: If they want to escape they first of all have to appeal, ask for permission. None of them did it.


LABOTT (voice-over): Israel wasted no time blaming Iran for last week's bombing of a tour bus in Bulgaria, which killed five Israelis and wounded dozens more but has yet to produce evidence.

(on camera): Is there hard intelligence that says that Iran and Hezbollah were involved?

PERES: I would say, yes --


PERES: Enough -- enough information to accuse them.

LABOTT: Do you believe that more attacks are being planned?

PERES: Yes. I think Iran is a center of terror.

(Alarms sound)

LABOTT (voice-over): Many believe the Bulgaria bombing and similar attacks against Israelis in four different cities are part of a tit- for-that over the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist, which Iran blames on Israel. The president didn't confirm Israel's involvement in the assassinations, but he said Israel would not stand by while its citizens are targeted.

(on camera): It seems as if you and Israel and Iran are in a shadow war that Israel is in a shadow war with Iran and its proxies.

PERES: We are not in a shadow war, it is an open war, Iran against Israel. Israel is not threatening Iran. Iran is threatening Israel. It's not a war. It's a one-sided attack. LABOTT: If you retaliate, Mr. President, aren't you prepared for the wave of terror that could hit Israeli citizens all over the world? You can't protect every Israeli tourist in every city around the world?

PERES: We don't have a policy of retaliation. We have a policy of prevention.

LABOTT: But this prevention could kill, in affect, many other Israelis.

PERES: Self-defense is the right and the must of every people. Everybody.


LABOTT: Now as firm as he was in the interview with me about Israel's right to defend itself and protect its citizens, he said that Iran is an international problem and called on the international community, particularly the United States to stop it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise Labott with that exclusive interview, thank you very much.

The alleged Colorado shooter makes a bizarre appearance in court. CNN speaks with the survivors of the theater massacres, say James Holmes' red hair and sad expressions are all an act. And quote "a safe exit offered to Syria's president, it comes as fierce clashes erupt in two major Syrian cities. CNN is inside Syria with a firsthand look.


BLITZER: Lots of dramatic developments happening in the aftermath of that mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. We have new information coming in. Stand by. We'll go back there live.

In the meantime, a deadly storm in China takes a heavy toll. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa what's going on?

SYLVESTER: Wolf, at least 37 people are dead from heavy flooding in Beijing. The torrential downpour lasted 10 hours flooding some streets with water levels as deep as 13 feet. Officials said almost two million people were affected by the rainstorm and the economic losses have exceeded $1.5 billion. State media calls it the quote "the heaviest rain in six decades".

And Elton John visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt today in Washington. He was also a speaker at the 19th International AIDS Conference, saying the battle against HIV AIDS needs more than money and medicine. He said it needs love. Elton John called for more tolerance and an end to the shame and stigma some patients encounter.

And Maria Carey will be a judge on "American Idol". In announcing her new job FOX calls Carey "the real deal". Her role as an "Idol" judge has been the subject of speculation for weeks now. Earlier this month judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler announced they were leaving the show.

And it's not your ordinary skating rink, but France's "Roller Man" met the challenge as he zoomed down a long section of twisting road in central China. Take a look there. The 42-year-old designer, he used a 34-wheel suit to reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. You see him there. And he navigated 99 sharp turns to successfully reach the bottom. I think that clearly falls under the category of don't try this at home, kids.

BLITZER: Gees. Amazing. All right, thank you.

Jack Cafferty is here once again. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: The question this hour in light of the Colorado shootings, what kind of role should gun control play in the presidential campaign.

Ed in Maryland says "none. It would be ridiculous to make policy for a nation based on the actions of one person. The government made drugs illegal, but if somebody wants drugs, they can get them, so keep gun owner's law-abiding citizens and hope somebody has one the next time a lunatic pops up."

Matt in Michigan writes "was it playing a role before, no? To have it play a role now is to politicize a tragedy. A tragedy that would have happened regardless of the gun control laws. All he had on his record was a speeding ticket."

Cliff in New York writes "it needs to be first question asked at each and every campaign appearance, press briefing, news conference and presidential debate."

Thomas writes "gun control is not the problem. My opinion is the Hollywood movie industry plays the biggest role when it glamorizes violence, mayhem, sex and drugs."

Nancy in Louisiana writes "Jack, I'm wondering how many fewer victims there would have been if just one citizen in that theater would have legally been carrying a licensed concealed weapon. Just a thought."

Susan in Denver writes "the insanity has got to end. Your right to own a gun is no greater than my right to go into a theater without fear of getting shot by a heavily armed psycho. Both candidates should come down hard on the side of greater gun control."

And Tommy says "Chicago stands out as the perfect example of just how well gun laws really work."

If you want to read more on the subject, got a lot of e-mail, go at the blog or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much. Let's get some more now on this huge gun control debate that's emerging in the aftermath of that mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley has this.



CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There is an awful familiarity to the nation's reaction to the Colorado killings, shock, anger, sadness and the gun control debate.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER (D), COLORADO: I think this is really a congressional issue that has to be dealt with. You know should we reinstate the assault weapons ban? I think we should.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), COLORADO: This person, if we had -- if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy is going to find something. He is going to know how to create a bomb.

CROWLEY: Few expect much more than words.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We talk about this constantly, and absolutely nothing happens because many of our legislators, unfortunately, at the federal level, lack the courage to do anything.

CROWLEY: As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama had a record of supporting gun control. He favors an assault weapons ban. He won election despite the opposition of the National Rifle Association, that pro gun lobby that has sway and money to spend on the campaigns of like-minded candidates. President Obama has talked very little about gun control. In 2010 the Brady Campaign, the most prominent group advocating further gun restrictions, gave the president an "F" for leadership on the issue. Mitt Romney signed an assault weapons ban as governor. He opposes it now. And as of last April, almost anything else in the way of gun control.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners.

CROWLEY: Now about the courage thing, Congress passed a 10-year ban on more than a dozen kinds of assault weapons in 1994. Months later Democrats lost the House majority. In 1999 --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Senate being equally divided the vice president votes in the affirmative and the amendment is agreed to.

CROWLEY: -- then Vice President Al Gore broke a tie in the Senate to pass a bill restricting gun show sales. Gore lost his presidential bid for many reasons but by 2000, Democrats had concluded that gun control was bad politics. In the past decade, three things have happened. Democrats have recruited pro-gun candidates in rural areas the south, and the interior west. The assault weapons ban expired and gun control has faded from the agenda. Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored the original assault weapons ban in 1994.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: There has been no action because there's been no outrage out there. People haven't rallied forward.

CROWLEY: She's right. Even in the face of mass shootings, Virginia Tech in 2007, Ft. Hood 2009, Tucson 2011, public support for gun control has dropped. Sunday as the president flew to visit the grieving families of Colorado his spokesman told reporters the president believes steps can be taken under existing law to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Washington.


BLITZER: We'll have much more on the Colorado shooting right at the top of the hour. Other news we're following including Syria. The U.S. now condemning a brand-new announcement and a new warning coming from Syria. Plus, CNN's Arwa Damon is out of the war zone. She is here in Washington, D.C. She'll join me in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up.


BLITZER: A senior Arab League official says President Bashar Al-Assad will be offered a safe exit if, if he resigns quickly and leaves the country. This comes as fierce clashes are reported in two government strongholds, Aleppo and Damascus. CNN's Ivan Watson is inside Syria.


IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Syrian regime has lost this town. But the retreating army left a trail of destruction in its wake. (INAUDIBLE) was home to one of the busiest markets in northwest Syria, now it is a bombed out ghost town.

(on camera): This bullet riddled town is mostly deserted except for rebels and a few shell shocked residents. This street was nicknamed the street of death because anybody who set foot on here was likely to be shot.

(voice-over): Atarab (ph) sits on a strategic crossroad just 20 miles from the commercial capital of Aleppo. Rebels captured it a few weeks ago after months of fighting. They bled for this town.


WATSON: "My brother's a prisoner. They captured him during a battle here", this fighter says. "My cousin was killed by a sniper who shot him in the head."

The retreating government troops left behind a mini graveyard of burned out armored vehicles and pro-regime graffiti with a terrifying warning. The words say either Assad or we'll burn this city. The rebels lead me into a ransacked municipal building regime troops used as a base.

Some of the government soldiers marked the walls proudly identifying themselves as men of the special operations unit. These are some of the snipers' nests they used to rain bullets on the town. Residents tell horror stories of atrocities committed by government troops.

"They said they were punishing us because we fed and sheltered the anti-government demonstrators" says (INAUDIBLE). "They captured my 24-year-old son Kasim (ph) and ran a plow over his legs even though he was handicapped" she tells me. "Then they threw his body down the street. They shot him in the chest, in his head and his arm", the woman says. "I hope Bashar's mother loses her son one day."

Locals say government troops still shell Atarab (ph) daily from a base a few miles away. In this ruined town, there is anger and grief and fear.




WATSON: During our brief visit, we see a prisoner break free from some rebels.


WATSON: "Please don't kill me", he screams. "For God's sake, please pardon me." Rebels later tell us the man is a suspected looter who will be judged by a legal council. We never saw what happened to him.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Atarab (ph), Syria.


BLITZER: CNN's Arwa Damon who has covered this war in Syria now throughout the entire process is here in Washington. She is joining us. You know, a lot of analysts think it's only a matter of time, probably not much time before Bashar Al-Assad is gone. Now that the Arab League, Arwa, has said he can get safe passage to escape someplace presumably with his family, as someone who has been there and has seen it on a day-to-day basis, what does that say to you?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well at this state, Wolf, there is absolutely no indication whatsoever that Assad is going to actually take up that offer and if we look at things from the government's perspective, based on what they've been publicly saying, they most certainly continue to believe that they are in power. They're still making incredibly brazen statements like what we heard from the foreign ministry about the potential use of their chemical and biological weapons against any sort of foreign aggressor.

And the government when we look at what's happening on the ground seems to have absolutely no intention whatsoever to really move or shift from this course that it has been on. So we're still at this stage, Wolf, where we're just seeing or rather hearing a lot of rhetoric, but there is actually no action taking place that is going to somehow save what's left of Syria right now.

BLITZER: And Arwa is going to be here tomorrow, as well. We're going to continue this conversation in THE SITUATION ROOM. Arwa Damon is in Washington just for a few -- for 48 hours, if you will. We're going to take advantage and pick her brain while she's here. Arwa thanks very, very much.

Happening now, dazed in court. A startling appearance and odd demure, the Colorado theater massacre suspect in court. Massive arsenal, a closer look at the deadly firepower. Plus a huge fine and four-year bowl ban. The NCAA punishes Penn State.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.