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Fiscal Cliff Deal May Be Near; Captured NBC Reporter Now Free; Interview with Congressman Ron Barber of Arizona; Newtown Schools Reopen

Aired December 18, 2012 - 08:00   ET


SOLEAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning in our special edition of STARTING POINT, gun control debate is now in full force as the White House considers changes and national polls show a new attitude after the Newtown shooting. Will this tragedy inspire lawmakers to act?

Here in Newtown while Sandy Hook Elementary remains closed. It is still a crime scene. All of the other students in town go back to class in a couple of hours. We'll talk about how schools are preparing to handle their grief. Another child is laid to rest today.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yet another sign this morning the tide may be turning over gun control. Gun companies' stocks under fire as a big pension fund moves to strip its investments.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New developments on the fiscal cliff this morning, maybe big ones. Could the president's surprising new offer finally seal the deal to avoid tax hikes for most Americans?

O'BRIEN: It's Tuesday, December 18th, and a special edition of STARTING POINT live from Newtown, Connecticut, begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. You're watching a special edition of STARTING POINT. We're live once again from Newtown, Connecticut, where the third of 20 murdered children will be laid to rest today. The tragedy is reigniting the debate over gun control in this country.

And lawmakers might be ready to take action. President Obama met with senior staff and cabinet members yesterday. He says he wants ideas that include reinstating a ban on automatic weapons.

Overnight, we learned that Dick's Sporting Goods, which had 400 stores across the country, has suspended the sale of AR-15 rifles and other guns like it. In fact, the modern sporting rifles section of its Web site is blank this morning. The company says, "Out of respect for the victims and their families, we've removed all guns in our store nearest to Newtown and suspend the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide."

Today in Newtown, grief counselors and police as well will be on hand when the children in town head back to class for the first time since Friday. Sandy Hook Elementary School is still a crime scene and it remains closed.

Jessica Rekos is one of 20 children who were killed on Friday, will be laid to rest today. She was 6 years old. Her parents called her the CEO of the family. She had a passion for horses, and her parents have promised her she would get a horse when she was 10 years old. She was just 6 years old.

Ahead this morning, we're going to talk about the controversy over gun laws with the Arizona Congressman Ron Barber. He'll be joining us in just a few moments. He took over Gabby Giffords seat after the shooting in Tucson.

And then, at the bottom of the hour, we'll talk with former Republican governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating.

That's all ahead. First, though, we want to get right to John Berman with an update on some of the other stories making news today.

Hey, John. Good morning.

BERMAN: Good morning, Soledad. New dramatic developments this morning. A reporter and his crew held for five days in Syria now free unharmed. NBC saying its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is safe, unharmed and now out of the country. Moments ago, he detailed his harrowing escape on NBC's "Today" show.


RICHARD ENGEL, REPORTER WHO ESCAPED SYRIA: At the end of this, we were being moved to yet another location around 11:00 last night local time and as we were moving along the road the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected and so, we were in the backup, like a minivan. And as we were driving along the road the kidnappers saw the checkpoint, started a gunfight with it, two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us, we spent the night with them, we didn't get much sleep.


BERMAN: We are so glad they're all safe.

Engel says his kidnappers were government militia called the Shabiha, trained by Iran's revolutionary guard, allied with Hezbollah.

And an English language newspaper in Turkey reports Syrian opposition fighters rescued a different reporter working for NBC, a Turkish reporter who was kidnapped last Wednesday.

Today, Congress will receive a report by an independent panel that examined the deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, just in time for congressional hearings on Tuesday. The report was ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton although she will not testify. She, of course, is recovering from a concussion.

The attack in September killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Big developments in Washington on the fiscal cliff this morning. Negotiations may be showing signs of hope with two weeks to go. President Obama has presented a new proposal to House Speaker John Boehner. Under this revised plan, tax rates will be going up on incomes of people higher than $400,000. This is a change. Previously, he wanted taxes higher on households starting at $250,000. He's also offering new spending cuts said to be worth about $200 billion.

And for his part, instead of no new taxes where the speaker had been for a long time, Speaker John Boehner is calling for tax hikes on people making more than $1 million. He has a big day today. Today, he'll be meeting with House Republican members to update them on negotiations that could be a little bit of a difficult meeting for him.

Let's go to Washington now to get an update on the talks. CNN's Dan Lothian is there. Hey, Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello. And, you're right. This could be a difficult meeting for Speaker John Boehner as he tries to sell this proposal to House Republicans. This is a dramatic turn of events because President Obama as you pointed out had been digging in his heels, saying really there could not be a deal unless taxes went up for those households making more than $250,000, and now, the president raising that to $400,000.

So, certainly some indication, at least according to House Republican, that this is moving in the right direction.

In addition, the president calling for $1.2 trillion in new revenue, also $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and this meets the demand that Speaker Boehner had, that there had to be an equal amount of spending, and also revenue. But they still don't believe that the math really adds up here. A spokesman for Speaker Boehner's office, Brendan Buck, saying in part, quote, "A proposal that includes $1.3 trillion in revenue for only $930 billion in spending cuts cannot be considered balanced."

So while this is a major development here, still some disagreements. The White House, at least sources pointing out, the White House saying that this is not the final offer, so suggesting there could be additional compromise ahead, John.

BERMAN: You saw some criticism there really from the right from Brendan Buck there, just what you were saying. But President Obama could face some heat from the left because he's offering concessions that could relate to some entitlement cuts when you get into the cost of living indexes, correct?

LOTHIAN: That is correct. And, you know, when the argument from Democrats in the president's party on the left has been that the president has been too aggressive when it comes to spending cuts. And so, something like this could add additional pressure to the president's side in this debate. But again, the president has moved. He's trying to reach some kind of agreement here so they can prevent that fiscal cliff from happening, as that clock winds down. It appears that both sides much closer together now but still a little ways to go.

BERMAN: And as you said, Dan, today a big day when Speaker John Boehner faces the Republican caucus of the House. Dan Lothian in Washington -- thanks very much this morning.

Also in Washington, he was a witness to Pearl Harbor. He earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Tributes this morning pouring in for Senator Daniel Inouye.

The longtime Hawaii Democrat died yesterday at the age of 88. Inouye was the second longest serving member of the Senate ever, behind the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He was his old friend, of course.

Former Senator and fellow vet Bob Dole, another friend of Dan Inouye, said in a statement, quote, "Senator Inouye was one of the Senate's giants. He believed in civility and compromise when necessary and he was a good, good friend."

Senator Dole and Inouye long before they were both senators were in a military hospital for almost two years together in Michigan while they were both recovering from their injuries from World War II, two great friends. One of them now laying in the Senate. Dan Inouye lost.

All right. Soledad, let's back to you in Newtown.

O'BRIEN: Oh. Oh my goodness, and the story of what he did, what happened when he lost his arm and how he was able to save himself in World War II. That is an incredible -- incredible story. Thanks, John. Appreciate it.

Well, the horror of Newtown, unfortunately, brings to mind so many other shootings, like the infamous assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. It happened on January 8th of 2011 and left six people dead.

Among those wounded that day was Ron Barber, he was Giffords district director. He took over her seat when she stepped down to focus on her recovery. He won a full term last month.

Congressman Ron Barber is with us this morning. It's nice to talk to you, sir. Thanks for being with us.

REP. RON BARBER (D), ARIZONA: Good morning. Thank you for having me on.

O'BRIEN: It's my pleasure.

What was it like to hear about this tragedy? It's not even been two years since the shooting that injured you and injured Gabby Giffords. I mean, does it just take you back to that day to almost two years ago? BARBER: Yes, it did, and it did for my whole family, particularly my grandchildren, who were affected then, and I think even more profoundly affected this time, knowing that children their age were killed in Newtown.

And I just want to say that the community of Tucson is just heartsick over what happened in Newtown. We gathered together on Sunday night in a candlelight vigil to pray for and to send our best wishes to the people of Newtown, our hearts are broken, as they were back in January 8th, 2011. And we want them to know we are with them and we understand probably better than most communities what they're going through.

O'BRIEN: Unfortunately and sadly, that is probably true.

The president has now asked his cabinet to come up with some ideas about how they can change gun laws. I know that you're a Second Amendment supporter. Are you also a gun owner? What kind of laws would you draft, if given the opportunity?

BARBER: Well, I am a supporter of the Second Amendment. I believe it's one of those rights that we have to protect. But I believe it's time for us to move in a different direction with regard to assault weapons, extended clips, magazines that have incredible firepower.

The young man that shot those of us in Tucson last year was carrying clips that had 30 rounds in them and in a matter of almost 45 seconds, he was able to unload all of those bullets and shot 19 people, six of them died.

I don't believe we can continue to have those kinds of weapons available and especially in the hands of someone who is mentally ill as he was and seems like all the other shooters in the last couple years have had a diagnosis of serious mental illness.

I just want to say, though, that I know from my experience in working in the field of mental health for 32 years that very few people with mental illness are violent people. But some are, especially if they're not treated.

So, we have to do both. We have to go after the weapon power, the firepower, and we also have to make sure that we have better services for people with mental illness and supporting their families.

O'BRIEN: Well, is going to the assault weapons, is it far enough? I mean, if you -- or, you know, should you be focusing when it comes to gun legislation and gun control, should it be on the 30-round clips? Should it be the assault weapons?

If you look at the overall gun violence, something like 80 percent is actually caused by handguns or attributed to handgun violence. So, you know, is that leaving out a major portion in the debate? And what is the legislation that could actually make change and would affect a lot of people?

BARBER: I think first of all, we have to be realistic about what possibly can be done. I've heard over the last few days some people who are heavily supported by the NRA will come out saying, finally, we have to do something and we're going to look at legislation regarding assault weapons, military-style weapons and extended clips, as I say, have lots of bullets in them that can do serious harm in a very short period of time. You know, a handgun is something else.

I think I'm after a legislation -- I want to see legislation enacted that takes away the availability of these kinds of weapons that can do so much harm and such a short period of time. You know, in 10 minutes, the shooting in Connecticut was completed, and 26 people died, including 20 little ones.

For me as a member of Congress, as a person who has been through a shooting tragedy where this extended clip issue was present and as a grandfather, I have to stand up and be counted on this. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that we limit the firepower and then we get services to people with mental illness. We have to do both.

O'BRIEN: Those two things are both giant and I think everyone would say the mental health part of it is completely underfunded. Is it possible to make change and discuss those things together, right? Because often I think gun advocates will say, well, you know, it's people who have mental problems we should be focusing on and there are others who say listen it's the weapons on the street we should be focusing on.

Is there a way to talk about both at the same time and make tangible change?

BARBER: I think we have no choice. When we look at the shootings, mass shootings over the last two years, since January 8th, there is two aspects of those shootings that they all have in common. One is the fire power -- assault weapon, military-style weapons and extended clips of magazines that carry a lot of bullets. That's one.

The other is untreated and in some cases undiagnosed serious mental health issues. We need to go after both of these issues and we need to do them in tandem. Ultimately, I imagine they'll get separated but for me they go hand in hand and we have to do both.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Ron Barber joining us this morning. It's nice to talk to you, sir. It's nice to see you. Appreciate your time this morning.

BARBER: Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT: students in Newtown are going back to school this morning. We'll tell you how the community is preparing for that coming up next in a live report.

And we leave you with what was a really nice tribute that we saw from the judges and the contestants of "The Voice", remembering the victims of this massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. (VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)


O'BRIEN: Here in Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook Elementary School remains closed. It is an active crime scene. Students at that school will go back to class, eventually, about even miles away at Chalk Hill School. But today, in this town, all other schools will re-open for those returning students and their families.

It is back to a productive routine, one that's now filled, unfortunately, with anxiety and pain as well. CNN's Sandra Endo has our report this morning.


SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the wake of tragedy, a step towards 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 this sort of terror in our lives anywhere in this country, then, you know, we've lost. We've got to get our 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 were 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 that one of the big things that 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're just believing that good will overcome this.

ENDO: Sandy Hook Elementary remains a crime scene. Furniture and supplies were moved to Chuck Hill Middle School in neighboring Monroe where Sandy Hook students will eventually resume classes.

STEVE VAVREK, MONROE FIRST SELECTMAN: When the children come in, whenever the school is started, they'll walk into a classroom that looks as close as possible as their classroom that they left.


ENDO (on-camera): Now, grief counselors and police officers will be present at Newtown schools, and principals have asked parents to make sure they talk to their children about what happened here before their kid goes back to school. And teachers will also be talking about what happened in an age-appropriate manner -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Sandra Endo for us this morning. Thank you, Sandra.

New fallout of the tragedy this morning to talk about, and it's certain to add fuel to the gun control debate. Tell you what's happening to stock in gun companies, that's up next with Christine Romans. Stay with us.



Some really interesting new fallout this morning in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. It has to do with the money, the financing behind the gun industry. And Christine Romans is here and would be following these developments.

ROMANS: So, the big private equity firm that owns the company that makes Bushmaster firearms, the rifle that was used in this attack, that private equity firm saying it's going to sell that company. Look at the money here behind Bushmaster.

The California State teachers retirement system put in multimillion dollars into a fund created by Cerberus Capital Management. A fund that created something called the Freedom Group, which is a compilation of now, I think, 10 ammunition and gunmakers. So, they're sort of the flow there. And this morning, what you're hearing from Cerberus group, they're going to sell Freedom Group, which owns Bushmaster.

Quote, "It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level. It is not our role to take positions or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate. There are, however, actions that we, as a firm, can take."

There may be teachers this morning were surprised to hear that California teachers, in particular, indirectly through their retirement fund, own more than six percent of Bushmasters. Teachers own more than six percent of Bushmaster, the company that made the rifle used in that attack on the school.

This is from CALSTRS, a statement from the spokesman there of a teacher's retirement system in California, quote, "There are a lot of products that can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. In this case, it was used irresponsibly. Now that a tragic event like this has occurred, I'm sure that it is something that we'll be discussing going forward."

Certainly some of the teachers are discussing this morning and investors, in particular. On Friday, when this was unfolding, I Googled Bushmaster 223. The first sponsor linked was Wal-Mart saying that I could go to the Carney, New Jersey, store to get this gun. You couldn't buy it on line. It said it was a Bushmaster rifle that always aims true -- straight and true.

Today, you cannot see the advertisement on, but Wal-Mart spokesman telling us that it is still available. The gun is still available in select stores through Wal-Mart. It's not advertising it online. We do know that Dick's Sporting Goods has suspended selling weapons like this for now and has closed. No more guns at Dick's Sporting Goods, the closest to Newtown, Connecticut.

BERMAN: I think it's particularly interesting what's happening with Cerberus here, really surprising, in fact. They're a private equity firm. Their business is to make money.


BERMAN: And they have decided it is bad business right now to be in the gun business.

ROMANS: They are washing their hands at the gun business. They've hired somebody to help them sell this company. And it's a reversal, because this is a very big, important private equity firm, right? And private equity means private. They buy stuff for a profit not meant to -- not meant to -- they try to take this company public actually a couple years ago, and then, decided not to.

Put together with this company ten others to make a whole Freedom Group, a whole guns and ammunition business now trying to get out of that business.

BERMAN: All right. Christine Romans, very interesting development. Thank you very much.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, we're going to discuss how gun policy will move forward in this country. We're going to talk about that with former Oklahoma governor, Frank Keating, a member of the NRA. He guided his state through the Oklahoma City bombing where 19 children were killed.

And this -- is President Obama's new proposal on the fiscal cliff the deal Republicans were looking for? Just how close are we now to avoiding those massive across the board tax hikes and mammoth spending cuts? We'll talk about that coming up next.