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L.A. Mayor Moves Up Gun Buyback Program; Severe Storms Rock South, Midwest; Shoppers Jump On Post Holiday Sales; Optimism Wanes On "Fiscal Cliff" Deal; CDC: Fewer Obese Preschoolers; "We Were Absolutely Terrified"; Saying Goodbye To Fallen Firemen

Aired December 26, 2012 - 10:00   ET



Good morning. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. As Washington wrestles with the fiscal cliff, cities across America are struggling with gun violence.

Two firefighters shot as they rushed to fight a fire in upstate New York. They will be buried today. Police say this man, William Spengler, ambushed those firefighters after he set his own house on fire.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Multiple firemen down. Multiple firemen shot. I am shot. I think it was an assault rifle. We have multiple firemen down with a working fire.


COSTELLO: The motive, unknown. Spengler killed himself and left behind a suicide note. It said in part he was bent on, quote, "Doing what I like doing best, killing people." Even though Spengler was on parole for murder, he managed to get a hold of a gun and a powerful one, an assault rifle. So what to do?

Two communities have very different ideas. In Westchester County, outside of New York City, a local paper decided to publish the names of people who have gun permits. In Los Angeles, the mayor has moved up a gun buyback program in an attempt to get guns off the streets.

Our own Paul Vercammen starts our coverage this morning. Good morning, Paul.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Here in Los Angeles, in just about two hours, they are going to begin their annual gun buyback program. It usually happens the day after Mother's Day, but the mayor reacting to what happened in Newtown said that we needed to do something concrete right now.

In just a short time, you'll see people will file behind this building. They were supposed to go ahead and take unloaded weapons and put them in their trunk. And what someone said to me off-camera, this person did not want to be seen on TV, but he said he liked the fact that there is anonymity.

That no questions will be asked or paperwork to be filled out, that people will not basically have any photographs taken and that you won't have their license taken down. So that's the key to this gun buyback program.

By the way, Carol, 8,000 guns taken in over four years. Earlier this year on Mother's Day alone or the day before Mother's Day, 1,600 guns taken in and a number of assault weapons, almost 300 of them. So the city of L.A. calls this a very successful program. Back to you.

COSTELLO: Paul Vercammen reporting live from Los Angeles this morning. Let's talk more about the gun buyback program in California, in Los Angeles with the mayor there, Antonio Villaraigosa. Welcome, Mr. Mayor.

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), LOS ANGELES: Hi, Carol. How are you? Good morning. Happy holidays.

COSTELLO: Happy holidays to you. Thank you so much for being with us on the day after Christmas. We know that's tough for you, but we appreciate it. Usually the gun buyback program is held in May. Why did you decide to move it up?

VILLARAIGOSA: People want to do something particularly after the Newtown tragedy and now this latest tragedy where two firefighters were shot and killed. They want to act. They're tired of waiting on the Congress and on our legislatures to do something.

They feel like there's too much talk and not enough action. And this is an opportunity for people to act to get rid of guns that they don't use, that they don't need, that too often are stolen, often used in an accident.

In fact, more often used in an accident than defending themselves against an intruder. So this is an opportunity to get these guns, assault weapons and we've even had grenade launchers given back in these programs.

COSTELLO: Is there any evidence at all, though, these gun buyback programs reduce gun violence in cities like Los Angeles?

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, what I can tell you is this, there are 8,000 fewer weapons that can be stolen and used in a crime. Not all of them are functioning. Most of them are. I can tell you that people feel very, very good about getting rid of weapons that could be stolen, that could be used in an accident or a crime.

And we feel good about it as well. The police department is a big supporter of this. My office does this in cooperation with the police department and our gang reduction and youth development office as well. So this is something that our police department supports 100 percent.

COSTELLO: Well, still, many experts say gun buyback programs don't reduce gun violence in cities like yours. So, I mean, is it just -- VILLARAIGOSA: Well, there are experts who say we shouldn't have an assault weapons ban, that we shouldn't toughen our background checks. That we should continue with this amendment that prohibits us from doing what we should do to enforce our gun laws.

Those same experts poo-poo virtually everything we try to do. And this is a great opportunity for people to get involved themselves and not wait on Washington. I'm supporting Senator Feinstein's assault weapons ban. We have one in California, but you could buy assault weapons in Arizona and bring them here.

You'll get arrested, but they do that as well. We need to toughen our laws with our gun shows. Forty percent of all the guns that are purchased don't require a background check because they're purchased from private sellers. So there are a number of things we could do. This is just one of them.

It's not the only thing. We've got to also address the culture of violence that we have in this country. Too many people think it's just OK to walk around and shoot people in the way that you see too often in this country.

For those of us who got to watch the NRA commercial last week, the notion that more guns in the hands of good people will prevent gun crimes just isn't borne out by the facts. This is an opportunity for people to get rid of guns they just don't need.

COSTELLO: Well, let me ask you this question. There is a newspaper in New York State. It decided to publish the names of people who had gun permits so that people in those neighborhoods could know if the person next door owned a gun. Are you in favor of something like this?

VILLARAIGOSA: You know, I'm with the representative from the Brady Center. I think there are -- the answer is no and I'll tell you why. I think there are a lot of things we could do that the vast majority of people agree on, like an assault weapons ban, like toughening background checks, like enforcing our gun laws. I think there are things we could do that you could get a broad cross section of people to support. I don't think this is one of them.

COSTELLO: And just a final question, you mentioned the NRA. It is still a powerful lobbying group. And the more time that passes, memories fade, even though it was a terrible tragedy in Newtown. Do you really think that anything will be done, really?

VILLARAIGOSA: I hope so, Carol. I can't tell you that I know for sure. I've seen this happen just as you have. People are passionate about this issue until they see the opposition raise their ugly head. We saw this -- I authored with Don Parata in the legislature in the late 1990s, the California assault weapons ban, also the Saturday Night Special Bill.

We have very tough gun laws. We still have crimes, yes, but there's no question that they've helped to address some of the violence in our country. And I hope that we do act. We need to act. There are a lot of things that we could do to toughen our gun laws that are sensible and responsible. And the vast majority of people would agree on.

COSTELLO: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you, Carol.

COSTELLO: OK, let's shift gears now. More than 200,000 customers without power in the gulf coast region after a massive storm sparked everything from snow to tornadoes across several states. Thunderstorms also in the mix. This is what it looked like on I-20 near Jackson, Mississippi

Heavy rains showering the highway as drivers struggled to see the road in front of them. The governor there has declared a state of emergency. In Arkansas, drivers are being advised to stay off the roads if they possibly can after some parts of the state got several inches of snow and sleet.

The storm forcing flight cancellations and some highway closures, and check out these pictures from Mobile, Alabama where right now, officials are starting to assess the damage after a tornado touched down in five different areas. Residents expressing their shock as the storm hit.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My God, look, that's a tornado. Wow.


COSTELLO: Skies over Mobile, Alabama, turned ominous as storms approached. Homes, businesses and churches were damaged and residents ran for cover as it touched down.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We stepped out and you could see it doing its thing then it came behind the church.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I prayed to God as loud as I could and I was just praying for my safety and I knew the truck was shaking. I just prayed that the truck stayed put and God would protect me and the ones in the town.


COSTELLO: Tornado warnings blared as the severe weather moved through the city.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's right there.


COSTELLO: Many grabbed cameras to catch what appeared to be a funnel cloud forming.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got to hurry up and get past this.


COSTELLO: Alabama power officials say the winds knocked out electricity to more than 20,000 people across the state. Damage was widespread. There were more than 30 reports of tornadoes from Texas to Alabama.

The day got off to a rough start in Oklahoma. More than 20 vehicles were involved in an early-morning accident that shut down Interstate 40 just outside of Oklahoma City. Officials say at least ten people were taken to hospitals.

Texas got a double dose of bad weather. A 25-year-old man was killed near Houston of a tree fell on his pick-up. Snow covered the ground in Longview and turned Dallas into a winter wonderland and blizzard warnings stretched from Arkansas to Pennsylvania.

All right, let's head to meteorologist Bonnie Schneider to find out what's coming our way next. Hi, Bonnie.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Carol. It has been such a busy day, yesterday and today. Looking forward now, we have a blizzard blowing across almost the entire state of Indiana, two locations to show you in that state right now.

Let's start with Hamilton County. We can show that the snow is coming down heavy and hard there, making for treacherous travel throughout much of the region. In Indianapolis, it's not much better. The temperature is 31 degrees and visibility is so poor because the winds are gusting at 37 miles per hour.

So you have blowing and drifting snow. The blizzard will continue straight into the evening hours. In fact, a lot of the blizzard warnings going until 1:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Take a look at this map. It really shows you the storm system right here.

You can see the winds coming in from the north especially in St. Louis just pulling down that colder air only 29 in Chicago and then on the eastern side of the storm, we have strong thunderstorms and temperatures that are really cold as well.

Looking at the radar picture, heavy, heavy rain across eastern sections of North Carolina, strong downpours there and just to the north as you come into Virginia, you see that pink right there. Some freezing rain mixing in with snow and sleet for our nation's capital.

Let's take a look outside of Washington, D.C. and show you that changing weather conditions are likely to emerge. There's the White House in the distance. We are looking at some nasty weather working its way through the mid-Atlantic and the northeast. It's not going to get any better looking forward over today and tonight. Carol, you can see we're looking at heavy, heavy snow, a foot or more in interior New England. That will start tonight into tomorrow. So this is a massive storm impacting millions of people.

COSTELLO: So be careful out there. Bonnie Schneider, thanks so much.

Guess what? It's Boxing Day in the U.K., Canada and several other countries and shoppers are mobbing the stores. These pictures show crowds in London this morning. The 26th of December is a lot like Black Friday here in the United States. Analysts expect four million British shoppers will spend nearly $5 billion today.

Back here at home, should be a similar scene today as people return unwanted gifts and jump on those big post holiday sales and we do mean big. Check out this deal from Best Buy. A 32-inch TV for under 200 bucks. Those are the kinds of deals we're seeing at major retailers today.

Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange, she has more.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Get ready, get set, return and wait in those lines and bring your patience. That's all I have to say because the National Retail Federation says almost 11 percent of holiday gifts are returned. That adds up to more than $60 billion for retailers.

And a lot of it happens all at once today for retailers. But the good news is most stores are keeping their return policies the same as last year so the theme should be pretty familiar for those who are returning.

Even better, though, 10 percent of retailers say they're loosening their return policies that compares to only about 5 percent that loosened their return policies last year that's going to work in your favor if you're returning gifts today.

But remember, retailers, they're still trying to get you to spend money. They're offering those big dials, lots of things on sale. And they know once they get you in with a return, you're likely to look around a little bit, do some extra shopping there, too -- Carol.

COSTELLO: So let's say you have a lot of returns. What should I bring with me?

KOSIK: First of all, why don't you wait? Why do you have to return it today, Carol?

COSTELLO: Because I want new stuff.

KOSIK: All right, so if you -- there you go. If you're looking for new stuff, yes, you go in and return it and find something else because you may find a new deal. But you want to first check the return policy before you go.

You want to make sure you're going to be getting what you're supposed to and that you're realistic about what you're supposed to get in return. And also you may be able to ask for leniency if you know the rules ahead of time.

Also bring all of your original packaging, the tags, the receipts, especially the gift receipt. You won't get cash back, what you will get is the value that the person paid instead of the sale price.

And then you can go shop to your heart's content and what retailers hope, Carol, is that you spend more than that gift receipt says. That's what they're banking on -- Carol.

COSTELLO: I bet they are. Alison Kosik, thanks so much.

Up close and personal with severe weather? I'll talk to a man whose Christmas holiday was interrupted by this tornado and he loved every minute of it.


COSTELLO: It's 16 minutes past the hour. Time to check our top stories, a new Gallup poll shows only half of Americans think Washington will be able to make a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, 48 percent of those polled say a deal is not likely. That optimism is waning, though when the poll was done earlier this month, 59 percent said a deal was likely.

Former Braves great, Andruw Jones, is free on a $2,500 bond this morning after being arrested outside of Atlanta. He was arrested on a battery charge. The Gwinnett County Detention Center said there was a domestic dispute between he and his wife. The center fielder played with the New York Yankees last year. He recently signed with a team in Japan.

The number of extremely obese preschoolers has dropped slightly over the last decade. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers called the decline modest, but say it's encouraging. The CDC adds that part of the decrease could be attributed to awareness campaigns that encourage physical activity and healthy eating.

Before heading back to D.C. to try to avoid heading off the fiscal cliff, President Obama and the First Lady kept up a Christmas tradition. They visited Marines at a base in Hawaii thanking them for their service. Mrs. Obama and their daughters, by the way, won't cut short their vacation. They're staying in Hawaii while dad flies home.

A trip to a Christmas party with the family took an unexpected turn for my next guest and his wife when they ran into this --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My God, we need to go. It's right there.


COSTELLO: His name is David Saraceno and he joins me now by phone. Welcome, David.

DAVID SARACENO, SAW A TORNADO (via telephone): Hello, how are you?

COSTELLO: I'm pretty good. So tell me about this. You're driving to a Christmas party and you see a huge, frightening tornado in front of you. What went through your mind?

SARACENO: Well, the first thing was, I had asked my wife to pick up the camera and start getting some footage of it because I know that local news stations and everything were wanting to see what was going on. At that point, we just kind of drove as fast as we possibly could to get out of the way.

COSTELLO: I was going to ask you, so did you stop for a second to shoot these pictures and then drive off as quickly as you could?

SARACENO: No. We were actually on I-165 northbound when I looked over to my left and noticed that it was forming. And instead of stopping, we just went as fast as we could to get past it, to get on 65 north and get off on the Saraland, Alabama, exit to turn around and actually go back home.

COSTELLO: What city were you in? Tell people what city you were in when you took these pictures?

SARACENO: This is in downtown Mobile, Alabama, I-165 northbound.

COSTELLO: Were there other people on the road?

SARACENO: There were. There were several other cars that were getting on the interstate at the same time we were. There were actually two cars that stopped. I don't know if they videoed -- got any of the footage. But we proceed on up to the Saraland exit and got off there on Highway 43.

We came back southbound towards Fairhope to go home. And it was about two to three minutes and that's when we came into Pritchard, Alabama, where the tornado actually went through and seeing all the devastation in that area.

COSTELLO: How unusual, David, is it for you to see a tornado in December?

SARACENO: I've actually never seen a tornado up close and personal like this. I've never in my life. So it was unusual altogether to even see a tornado in this area for me.

COSTELLO: I don't know about you -- I don't think I would have kept my head on to take pictures of it and I do this for a living. I admire your internal fortitude.

SARACENO: Yes. If it weren't for my wife sitting in the passenger seat, I don't think it would have happened either. But when the storm seemed as though it was getting fairly close, she cut the camera of and she began to get emotional and worried and everything. And that's why the footage is so short because we kind of noticed that it was getting to close for comfort, I guess you could say.

COSTELLO: Well, we're glad it's short and we're glad you're safe. David Saraceno, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your experience this morning. Wow.

Today's talk back question: Do you have the right to know who owns a gun in your neighborhood? or tweet me @carolcnn. I'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Now's your chance to talk back on one of the big stories of the day. The question for you this morning: Do you have the right to know who owns a gun in your neighborhood?

It's a case of, if you don't out me, then I'll out you. There's a backlash this morning against the newspaper at "The Journal News" in New York's Hudson Valley. The paper published this map showing those with gun permits in two area counties.

With a click, you can see the name and address of each person licensed to own a handgun. As the editor of the paper puts it, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, people are concerned about who owns guns and how many of them are in their neighborhoods.

Hundreds of residents were shocked to see their information posted without notification. Gun owners are outraged. Bloggers are firing back, outing "The Journal News" itself, publishing the names and address of its staff.

An ex-Marine and gun owner who called into the paper said, quote, "It's as if gun owners are sex offenders and to own a handgun risks exposure as if one is a sex offender. It's in my mind crazy."

Still, you can easily find out lots of information about your neighbor like how much your neighbor paid for their house or how much in taxes he paid. Often you can find out how much money he makes and how old he is.

And if they filed for bankruptcy, been sued or divorced. So what's different if finding out if your neighbor owns a gun? Talk back question today: Do you have the right to know who owns a gun in your neighborhood, or you can tweet me @carolcnn. I'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Just about 30 minutes past the hour, checking our top stories now. A winter storm that dumped up to 9 inches of snow in Little Rock, Arkansas, is now moving east. The Arkansas National Guard has been called out to provide ambulance support to residents. Storm expected to bring more than a foot of snow to Western Pennsylvania and interior sections of New England.

Japan's revolving door of prime ministers has stopped on Shinzo Abe. The parliament selected him today as the nation's seventh prime minister in six years. Abe assigned the same post in 2007, one year into the job. This time around, he faces challenges on reviving the economy and the future of nuclear power.

Hundreds of American families wishing to adopt Russian children may have their dreamed bashed. Russian lawmakers have given final approval to a ban on such adoption and sent the bill to President Vladimir Putin seen as a payback for a recently signed U.S. law imposing travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia.

Another top story we're following this morning, the tragic shooting of two New York firefighters who were responding to a fire on Christmas Eve. We're learning more about the man who set that fire to his home, lured the firefighters there and then killed them.

But first, we want to focus on the men who were killed, Tomasz Kaczowka and Lieutenant Michael Chiapperini. Both men will be laid to rest today. The lieutenant was just awarded "Firefighter of the Year" by his Long Island town. The other firefighter had only been on the force for about one year.

Fellow firefighters in Webster, New York are sharing memories of their fallen comrades. Angela Hong of CNN affiliate WHAM, filed this report.


ANGELA HONG, WHAM REPORTER (voice-over): It's the first of many goodbyes to come on Christmas Day. Monroe County firefighters gathered to salute 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka as his body was escorted to a funeral home.

AL SIENKIEWICZ, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER, WEST WEBSTER POLICE: His last actions were leaving this fire station. This was his home. He was here all the time. It was only natural for, after the body was released, that he'd be brought back to where it started.

HONG: Kaczowka and 43-year-old Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini were both West Webster firefighters. They were shot Christmas Eve while responding to a fire. The two men were good friends.

SIENKIEWICZ: Tomasz was quiet. He did his job pretty much unnoticed. Didn't look for any thanks or anything like that. He just did what needed to be done. Chip was -- his personality was such as he could make you laugh in the worst situations or he'd find something to laugh them out. And he did it naturally.