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Gun Legislation Discussed Among Lawmakers; Possible Movement on Fiscal Cliff Negotiations; Interview with Steve Perry; Sporting Goods Store Bans Sale of Assault Rifles

Aired December 18, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Our special edition of STARTING POINT this morning, the gun control debate is now raging in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting as the White House and national polls show a changing attitude. Will this tragedy inspire Washington to act?

And here in Newton, students are returning back to school this morning, but they won't be going back to Sandy Hook Elementary -- at least, not yet, as another little girl is laid to rest today just one day after two first grade boys were buried.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And a new sign this morning that the tide could be turning over gun control. Gun company stocks under fire. A pension fund may have to strip their investments.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hear movement on the fiscal cliff. New developments that may signal we are moving much closer to a deal with the president making a surprise offer.

O'BRIEN: It is Tuesday, December 18th, and you're watching a special edition of STARTING POINT from Newtown, Connecticut. We begin right now.


Welcome, everybody. You're watching a special edition of STARTING POINT. We're coming to you live this morning from Newtown, Connecticut, the site, of course, where an unthinkable massacre at an elementary school has really shifted the landscape in the gun control debate. Here is the very latest on that. President Obama meeting with senior staff and cabinet members yesterday to see proposals that will include reinstating a ban on automatic weapons.

Overnight, we've learned Dick's Sporting Goods has banned the sale of AR-15 rifles and other guns like it. In fact, the modern sporting rifles section of Dick's website is blank this morning. The company released a statement saying this, "Out of respect for the victims and their families, we have removed all guns in our store nearest Newtown and suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chain wide."

In this community, grief counselors and extra police patrols will be on hand this morning when children all over Newtown head back to class for the first time since Friday. Sandy Hook Elementary School is a crime scene and it remains closed.

Jessica Rekos, one of 20 children killed on Friday, will be laid to rest on Friday. She was six years old, adored horses, couldn't wait for her tenth birthday. Her parents promised her, in fact, when she was 10, they would buy a horse for her. All this after Newtown buried two 6-year-old boys, Noah Pozner who loved tacos, and Jack Pinto, who loved the New York Giants. More from this community throughout the morning, including gun control laws.

First we want to get to John Berman. He's in New York with some developing information on fiscal cliff negotiations.

BERMAN: Thanks so much Soledad. Fiscal cliff talks haven't received much attention in recent days for good reason. But today is the two- week warning, with some good news to report. Overnight we learned President Obama made an eye-opening offer in talks with House Speaker John Boehner. Under this new proposal, tax rates would go up on those making above $400,000. This is a big shift. The president has long campaigned on that number starting at $250,000. The president also offering spending cuts worth $200 billion.

For his part, Speaker Boehner who has all along refused to consider any raising in the tax rates has proposed tax rates for households making $1 million. So movement from both sides. CNN's Dan Lothian in Washington with the latest on this. Good morning, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. The big question, can Speaker Boehner sell this proposal to House Republicans? This is very dramatic, President Obama had always dug in, saying there was no deal unless taxes went up on households making more than $250,000. Now the president raising that to $400,000, this new proposal or counterproposal coming during a meeting at the White House between the president and Speaker Boehner yesterday. It lasted 45 minutes.

In addition, the president proposing $1.2 trillion in new revenue. That's down from 1$1.4 trillion and $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. This meets the demand that Speaker Boehner had for an equal amount of spending cuts to revenue. But house Republican aides say while this is a step in the right direction, they don't believe the president's math really adds up. Speaker Boehner's spokesman Brendan Buck saying a proposal that includes $1.3 trillion in revenue for only $930 billion in spending cuts cannot be considered balanced. So still some distance here between -- before both sides can actually reach an agreement here. White house sources say that this is not the final offer from the president, signaling there could be some room for compromise, John.

BERMAN: And Dana, it is a big day for Speaker Boehner as well. 10:00 eastern time, scheduled to meet with house Republican members to update them on negotiations. Really needs to take their temperature on this, doesn't he?

LOTHIAN: He does because a lot of house Republicans have been unwilling to budge on incomes, tax hikes going up for even high-income Americans, and now John Boehner is proposal that $1 million, the president now with $400,000. And so this is a tough sell for House Republicans who have insisted that they wanted those extensions to continue for all Americans because they believe that it will have a negative down turn pressure on the economy. They will put pressure on those who are the job creators. So it's a big sell, interesting to see if they can convince those who are pushing forward.

BERMAN: That's right, it may not be easy. We'll check back in with you a little bit. Dan Lothian in Washington, thank you very much.

Let's got back to Newtown and Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, John.

We mentioned the gun control debate has taken on new urgency after Friday's massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, more lawmakers moving in the direction of tighter gun laws in the aftermath of the tragedy. Emily Schmidt is live in Washington, D.C. with details. Emily?

EMILY SCHMIDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, good morning to you. Yesterday in the Senate there was a moment of silence for the victims of Newtown, a time when words weren't necessary. Across the country, other responses to the shooting are beginning speak for themselves, one of them coming commercially. We take a look at what's happening at Dick's Sporting Goods, a major retailer. If you go to their website this morning and look for modern sporting rifles, the website will turn up a blank page. That is because Dick's said it's suspending sales of that weapon nationwide, also removing all guns from its store that is closest to Newtown, Connecticut out of respect it says for the victims and families affected by the Newtown shootings.

It's unclear how long that suspension will last, but certainly some lawmakers in Washington are saying they want to see more permanent changes. One of the biggest advocates of that Senator Dianne Feinstein says there is no Second Amendment right to bear every type of weapon possible. She wants to see changes.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: I'm going to do an assault weapons piece of legislation and it's going to be strong, and it's going to be definitive, and it's going to ban by name at least 100 military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and it will ban big clips, drums, or strips of more than 10 bullets. And it's this particular category of weapon which the Bushmaster is, it's a killer weapon.


SCHMIDT: White House Spokesman Jay Carney says the assault weapons ban is a complex issue requiring complex solutions. We are hearing from the White House that the president is putting cabinet members to task on that. Back to you.

O'BRIEN: You have some polls you want to share? SCHMIDT: You take a look at some news polls that are out and they show an instant spike in how people are reacting to this. CBS News asked "Do you want more strict or less strict gun control rules? Over the weekend this number went up 18 percent since the question was asked last asked in April. An ABC News/"Washington Post" poll taken over the past few days shows support for this legislation going up. Lawmakers are watching this, waiting to see if this is a quick change in sentiment or a real shift in policy debate. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: All right, Emily, thank you for the update. Coming up, we'll talk with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a member of the NRA, who says everything should be on the table when it comes to gun laws.

And as we mentioned, all schools in Newtown will reopen today, except Sandy Hook he elementary school which remains an active crime scene. Students are returning and the families, too, trying to get back to a productive routine. Of course, the pain is still, still deep. CNN's Sandra Endo has our report.


SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In the wake of tragedy, a step toward normalcy. For Newtown kids that means going back to school.

MICHAEL ZILUCK, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: We also are going to be a little bit worried because we know what we thought was a secure school had this happen to them.

ENDO: But facing fear may be the first step to overcome this tragedy.

ANN ZILUCK, MOTHER: Children have to get back to school. If we let the sort of terror in our lives anywhere in this country win, we've lost. We have to get kids back to school again.

ENDO: Classes are resuming for 5,400 students in the district, except for those at Sandy Hook Elementary. Monday all schools closed as teachers and administrators trained with experts on how to handle the aftermath. Many parents we spoke with agree kids belong back in school.

AARON COX, FATHER OF FIVE-YEAR-OLD: I think one of the big things we have to do is have some sort of normalcy. And school is part of that.

JOHN KEAYES, FATHER: Unfortunately, you know, we're living in this world where sometimes evil prevails sometimes. But we just are believing that good will overcome this.

ENDO: Sandy Hook Elementary remains a crime scene. Furniture and supplies were moved to chalk hill middle school in neighboring Monroe, where Sandy Hook students will eventually resume classes.

STEVE VAVREK, MONROE FIRST SELECTMAN: When children come in whenever school is started, they walk into the classroom it, will look as close as possible to their classroom that they left. ENDO: Grief counselors and police officers will be on hand at Newtown schools, and principals have asked parents to talk to their children about the tragedy before they head back into the classrooms. Teachers as well will talk about what happened here on Friday in an age- appropriate manner. Soledad?


O'BRIEN: Just a brutal day for them today. Sandra Endo for us, thank you, Sandra.

A different kind of fallout to tell you about in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting. New developments overnight in the gun industry. Christine Romans is in New York for us with details on that.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. We're talking about the company that owns Bushmaster. Bushmaster Firearms is the company that made the 223 caliber assault weapon that was used in the shooting. Here is how the money goes. Cerberus is a big private equity company, big investors. It actually put together a group of these firearms companies into something called Freedom Group, and one of the investors into this is the California state teachers retirement system.

So you have technically as indirect investors California teachers who own about six percent of Bushmaster, the company that made that firearm. Today, Cerberus, the private equity firm, says it's looking to sell Freedom Group and the maker of Bushmaster and get out of that business. In terms of private equity, that is an unusual turn of events, a company wanting to get out of business. Cerberus says "It's apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy is a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level. It is not our role to take position or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate. There are, however, actions that we as a firm can take." Again, they are trying to sell the company that makes the Bushmaster.

The California Teachers retirement system, their spokesman out this morning with a statement, "There are a lot of products that can be used responsibly or irresponsibly, and in this case it was used irresponsibly. Now that a tragic event like this has occurred, it's something we will discuss going forward." What they will discuss, whether it's appropriate for a teachers' pension to be invested in a company that makes semiautomatic weapons and a product that was used to kill teachers and students. Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I would think anybody who is investing money anywhere one would think would want to go back and examine not just weapons and not just this particular incident. What is your money in? What are you literally supporting? That's a very good question. Christine Romans, thanks, Christine.

Kids in Newtown go back to school. How can parents and teachers help teachers feel safe after such a violent episode? Steve Perry, capital prep magnate school, will join us up next. We leave you with a tribute to some of the victims of Sandy Hook form the judges and contestants of "The Voice."


O'BRIEN: Children in every school here in Newtown, Connecticut, except for Sandy Hook Elementary School, of course, which is still an active crime scene, all head back to school today. They are on a two- hour delay, which will give the teachers a little extra time to prepare for classes. And on hand at every school will be grief counselors, because, of course, it is a very different world for these children heading back to than the one they left last week.

Steve Perry, principal and founder of Capital Prep Magnate School in Hartford, Connecticut, really about an hour's drive from here. If you were among the principals and teachers inside the location, the students from Sandy Hook elementary would be attending what would you be telling them?

STEVE PERRY, FOUNDER, CAPITAL PREP MAGNATE SCHOOL: First thing is what I would tell my own colleagues, when children ask questions, recognize you need to keep your terms broad, because we don't understand what happened, and the best thing we can do is focus on the broad, almost fantastical terms like bad things sometimes happen to good people. And in addition to that, there are now 20 more angels in the sky here to support you.

O'BRIEN: What should the tone be?

PERRY: All positive, all positive. You are going to be safe. You are safe in schools.

O'BRIEN: it has to be so hard if you are a person that survived that massacre. How do you not as a teacher look at the faces of students when you are suffering on your own? How do they do it?

PERRY: One of the first things I said to my colleagues yesterday is I want to know if you're OK, because before we leave this room, before we break this huddle and go out to take care of the children, I need to know everybody here is OK, if you are not, tap out, let somebody help you first, because the teachers have to feel good before they can go in and make the children feel good. It's a hard sell today. It will be a hard sell for a long time.

O'BRIEN: Should there be moments -- in my kids' school, we don't live very close to here, they had meetings, and talked about things. Should they plow on and do math and spelling?

PERRY: I don't think it's either-or. You do a couple minutes to pull together some kids and have some conversations, and listen, listen to the flow of the kids to be honestly with you, Soledad, a lot of kids have fatigue over this. It's freaking them out. They can't sleep. They would like to pump the brakes and talk about something different. They want to talk about ballet rehearsal that they had last night or the play they have coming up or the basketball game. They want to talk about something different. This is a bit much for them.

O'BRIEN: A lot of conversation has moved to gun control debate and there are people who suggest that what could be helpful would be weapons inside of schools.

PERRY: Absolutely absurd. It's absolutely absurd.

O'BRIEN: There are schools with armed guards in them.

PERRY: There are schools that have police substations in them. But that wouldn't have saved these children. The problem here is that that individual who was clearly deranged, had guns. It's not that somebody else on the inside would have had guns. You could have had Navy SEALs sitting at the front door with arms drawn they would have had to stop him. That would be the only way. He came in with four weapons, shot his way into the school. There is not much you can do about that. It was a secure school. And that was the truth. He could have gotten into any building in the United States with that level of weapons.

O'BRIEN: Here is what Governor Rick Perry of Texas said.


GOV. RICK PERRY, (R) TEXAS: In the state of Texas with our concealed weapons laws. If you go through the process and dually backgrounded and trained, you should be able to carry your handgun anywhere in this state.


O'BRIEN: Why are you shaking your head, no, no, no?

PERRY: With all due respect to Governor Perry, he has to think beyond the small mindedness, I want to carry a gun for gun's sake. Too many people have died. Our children are frightened to go back to school because we have lawlessness, a feel in our country because so many people are afraid that somebody is carrying a gun. Step back for a second. Take a look at the rest of the country and realize that not everybody thinks carrying a gun is cool. Some people are afraid of it. There are people in the country that are fearful in their own neighborhood because of guns. They don't make everyone feel safer. In many cases they make children feel unsafe. And that's a problem.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Steve Perry, always nice to have you with us. Appreciate it.

Ahead this morning, we'll talk with Senator Joe Manchin. He famously has talked about protecting the Second Amendment and uses a lot of guns in his advertisement for his campaigns, but he's now talking about changing the country's gun laws.

And a dramatic rescue, a reporter freed from captors in Syria today. We'll update you on what happened there. Live reports, up next.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. New this morning, a harrowing tale, a reporter and his crew held for five days in Syria, now free unharmed. NBC says its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his crew, they are safe and out of the country. Nick Paton Walsh following this story, and just a series of dramatic events, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly. It appears Engel's crew crossed into Syria at some point on Thursday. And then nothing was heard of them, n ransom request, no contact, until they appeared to be free on Monday. It subsequently emerges, they were picked up, Mr. Engel says, by men in ski masks, 15 of them, who leapt out of the Bushes and took his team as hostages.

They were moved around the country in the back of an open pickup, blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not harmed we understand. And then they were transferred to another location, this all happening in the north of Syria.

Now, during that journey, they seem to have come across a group of rebels called the Atar al Sham brigade, who entered into a gun fight with their captors. It caused the NBC team to be free.

BERMAN: No physical harm to them, but psychological harm, fake executions, asking them which one of them they would like to be executed first. Any idea who these captors were?

WALSH: It's interesting. NBC says they believe that there was a group with loyalty to the regime. Mr. Engel has gone on to say that they may have been thugs. In context to the civil war it refers to militia loyal toward the government. He thinks they may have been held in a bid to try and exchange them for captives held by the rebels, potentially Iranian agents working for the Syrian regime. So a very complex situation which seems to have been remarkably resolved in positive fashion, but, of course, shows you how anarchic things are getting in Syria.

BERMAN: Thank you so much. You and I have known Richard and his cameraman for a long time. We are all relieved this morning. Thank you so much.

Let's go back to Newtown, Connecticut, where Soledad is for us.

O'BRIEN: All right, John, thank you. And, yes, we're all concerned about the news of Richard Engel. Such good news this morning for everyone.

Let's talk more about what's happening among gun sellers, some taking action after the Newtown shooting. We'll tell you what Dick's Sporting Good is doing. It will surprise a lot of people. Not done before. And he's a famously pro-gun Democrat. But is Senator Joe Manchin having a change of heart? His latest comments on gun legislation when we come back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back. You're watching STARTING POINT, a special edition from Newtown, Connecticut. The tragedy here on Friday has truly changed the conversation on gun control in this country. President Obama met with members of his cabinet yesterday ordering ideas that would include a ban on assault weapons. And there is word of a major move overnight by Dick's Sporting Goods, which has 451 stores across 42 states. It has out of respect to the victims it has pulled its guns from the store closest to Newtown and suspended the sale of AR-15 and guns like it across the entire chain.

And this morning, children all over Newtown will head back to school for the very first time since Friday's shooting.