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White House Gun Violence Task Force Continues Meetings; Vice President Unable to Meet with Wal-Mart Representative to Discuss Gun Control Due to Scheduling Conflicts

Aired January 11, 2013 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning: a severe flu outbreak is spreading. Dozens have been killed, hundreds hospitalized, but this morning, new numbers show there could be relief in sight.

Then clashing over gun violence. Vice President Biden meets with the NRA, and it doesn't go so well. So what does it mean for efforts to prevent gun violence?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The cost of flu outbreak from all of you calling in sick and, maybe worse, from all of you who aren't. What this outbreak is costing us.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": Tornadoes touch down in Louisiana, water levels keep rising and more rain on the way.

O'BRIEN: Got a packed show for you this morning. Going to talk to CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is our guest.

Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson joins us; Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky; and singer T-Boz from TLC will be with us. It's Friday, January 11, and STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. Our starting point is kind of gross. It's the flu. A nasty strain is running rampant across the country. Thousands hospitalized and dozens of people have died. In just a few hours, the Centers for Disease Control will release some new numbers on how widespread the flu is. CNN's medical unit got an early look and one expert says we're at epidemic levels. Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is in Atlanta. What are you expecting to hear from the CDC?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Elizabeth Cohen has been working through the night on getting these numbers. One number, which is important and what we expected, there has been some widespread outbreak of the flu. It's 47 states, up from 41 states with an outbreak of the flu. There is some good news. The number of states with high levels of activity has gone down from 29 now to 24, two additional deaths in young people, from 18 to 20. But there may be some relief as you say in sight. We are at epidemic threshold. That basically means we are seeing more cases than we expected to see at this time year. Big question, will those cases stay elevated or will they start to come down across the country?

O'BRIEN: So we keep hearing, get a flu shot, get a flu shot. Some got our flu shots early. Yes, I'm gloating. But if you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, is there enough vaccine?

GUPTA: I think so. I crunched some numbers on this overnight and there may be some spot shortages, but general numbers, take a look at how many of these vaccines were specifically manufactured, 135 million, bottom number, 112 million vaccinated, which is not bad. It fits with what we typically see this time of the year. 16 million doses out there, distributed in stores and pharmacies across the country and another 7 million ready to go. And also that flu mist that we talk about, the nasal spray, 300,000 doses ready to go. They expire at the end of next month. So there may be enough. It may not be in the usual pharmacy.

O'BRIEN: Sanjay Gupta for us, thank you, Sanjay. Appreciate it.

GUPTA: You got it.

O'BRIEN: Important meetings at the White House to tell you about today. When President Obama welcomes Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, the two leaders will discuss the nature of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014, which is when the NATO combat mission is declared over. The Obama administration floated the idea of removing American troops all together. President Karzai met with secretary of state Clinton last night over dinner.

And deadline Tuesday, Joe Biden says that's when he is planning to deliver his recommendations from the gun control task force to the president. Yesterday, the vice president met with representatives on various sides of the issue. The former head of a movie industry group argued movies aren't behind the violence. The NRA step ahead way from discussions and said they were in attack of Second Amendment. Dan Lothian has been following developments for us this morning. Some folks said they see some consensus in some areas. When you listen to what the NRA said, they sounded very disappointed with the meetings.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We sort of expected coming in. It wasn't a very big, bold expectation from the NRA, saying they were coming to simply listen to what the administration had to put out there. The vice president did talk about some things floating to the top, not recommendations that come from him, but recommendations he said coming from all the various groups he has been meeting with.

And at the top of the list is a total universal background check, including private sales of guns. Second on that list, a ban on high- capacity ammunition clips and also talked about the need for the federal government to get more research and get their hands on more information that he believes will prevent more gun violence in the future. But again, pushback from the NRA saying that they were troubled by the fact that this discussions had less to do with protecting children and more to do with an attack on the Second Amendment. Take a listen.


DAVID KEENE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: The vice president said we'd do with this on an open mind. And the meeting he said no, we've already made up our minds on that. No, they're won't be an agreement on this. In a sense, they were checking a box to say met with the NRA, with the people who were strong Second Amendment supporters.


LOTHIAN: One thing we didn't hear the vice president talk about is this push recently of lawmakers up on the hill to reinstate the assault weapons ban. White House aides saying the president, the vice president, still support this, perhaps a recommendation, though, that it will be difficult to make it through congress, so they are focused on other elements that can get bipartisan support, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: A couple of things, Wal-Mart finally changes its schedule to meet with the vice president after much discussion about that, and the vice president can't change his schedule to meet with Wal-Mart. What that was about?

LOTHIAN: I know. I think what happened was, you know, Wal-Mart at the last minute decided to come to Washington after a big dustup because initially they had said they were busy, they had a scheduling conflict and could not come and also pointed that out. They had some discussions with the White House by phone. At the last minute, they sent a representative to meet with officials, not the vice president. He was not able to get them in on the schedule.

Nonetheless, they are part of the discussions on this issue, according to Wal-Mart. They said they want to be part of the solution on this the problem, though, with all of these groups trying to figure out what the best options are. Everyone recognizes what the big problem is here, but what the option and solution is much more difficult.

O'BRIEN: Maybe step one is when they get on your calendar, make sure that you can get on the calendar as well. Dan Lothian, thank you. Appreciate it.

If Jack Lew, President Obama's nominee of secretary of the treasury, actually gets that gig, this is the signature that could we on our money. Yesterday, President Obama assured the world that the American dollar is safe, even with that.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I never noticed Jack's signature, and when this was highlighted yesterday in the press I considered rescinding my offer to appoint him.


OBAMA: Jack assures me he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency should he be confirmed as secretary of the treasury. (LAUGHTER)


O'BRIEN: This is what his signature would look like on a dollar bill if it all goes through. Looks like what my boys do.

BERMAN: People have studied this. He has the same number of loops each time he does it.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Tim Geithner says one of the first things he had to do when he became treasury secretary, was make it a little more legible.

O'BRIEN: It suddenly matters. Other stories making news this morning, and John has that for us.

BERMAN: Thanks, Soledad. The 16-year-old who opened fire and critically wounded a high school classmate claims he was bullied. Investigators say he was targeting two boys at Taft high school in Bakersfield, California. The suspect may have had a hit list. Teacher Ryan Heber and campus supervisor Kim Lee Fields getting high praise for convincing the shooter to put the shotgun down.


DONNY YOUNGBLOOD, KERN COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: This teacher and counselor stood face to face not knowing whether he would turn the gun on them. They have seen the news throughout our country over the last several months, and they probably expected the worst and hoped for the best. But they gave students a chance to escape and conversed and it worked.


BERMAN: For now, the suspect will be charged as a juvenile with attempted murder. It will be up to prosecutors to decide if he will be eventually charged as an adult.

Some Americans are believed to be among the dead in a hotel fire in the northern Philippines. It happened at the Dryden hotel in Oulangopo City. The fire destroyed seven rooms, some offices, a communications center and a computer room. Investigators are trying to nail down the cause, but initial signs suggest it may have been an electrical fire.

It is now official. James Holmes will be tried for murder in Colorado for the movie theater rampage, that ruling from the judge who presided over his three-day evidence hearing this week. Holmes will be arraigned today on 166 counts connected to the massacre, including first degree murder. He's accused of opening fire in an Aurora, Colorado, theater last July, killing 12 people, wounding dozens of others. The charges could carry the death penalty.

Severe storms including three tornado touchdowns leave parts of Louisiana underwater. This is surveillance video of one of the twisters. One town, Eunice in southwestern Louisiana, has been drenched with more than a foot of rain in three days. Seven parishes have widespread flooding, causing Governor Bobby Jindal to declare a state of emergency. Bad news is more rain forecast for this weekend.

A really big change in major league baseball's drug testing program. They will drug test human growth hormone in season starting next season. This announcement comes one day after baseball whiffed on this year's hall of fame class. None of the eligible players were elected. I have covered steroids in sports for over 10 years are. It would have been unimaginable to have in-season blood testing. Players said they would never allow it. They didn't know how taking blood might affect their performance on the field.

O'BRIEN: What?

BERMAN: They said if you take blood just before a game in the clubhouse or locker room, they were concerned it might affect the way they play the game.

O'BRIEN: How much blood?

BERMAN: You may think that's ridiculous.

O'BRIEN: I do think it's ridiculous. Having given a lot of blood over the years, how is that possible?

BERMAN: To allow the tests, a major concession, major progress in testing in sports.

O'BRIEN: Because it makes sense. How much blood to you have to give?

BERMAN: They are relatively news, and there's been a lot of progress.

O'BRIEN: You are not giving a liter of blood.

BERMAN: Look, I agree. But these players have held a firm line for years and years and years. And it's a big step.

O'BRIEN: What are you going to do, have another class where no one is elected into the hall of fame? John, thank you.

Up next on STARTING POINT, how did the meetings go between vice president Joe Biden and the NRA. Richard Feldman, president of the independent firearm owners association, he was there. What he thought of the meetings.

Business news as well, Christine.

ROMANS: And the business of the flu, it's taking a toll on your health. But what the sick days are doing to our economy. And worse, those of you who aren't taking sick days, the cost of that. You're watching STARTING POINT.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Showdown in Washington, D.C. to some degree. Vice President Joe Biden said he will deliver recommendations on gun control to the president on Tuesday after meeting with gun advocacy groups like the NRA and National Shooting Sports Foundation. Here is a portion of what to expect in those recommendations.


JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's an emerging set of recommendations, not coming from me. But coming from the groups we've met with. One is that there was a surprising so far -- a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks. Not just close the gun show loophole, but total universal background check, including private sales.


O'BRIEN: The NRA says they won't support that and the whole meeting was an attack on the Second Amendment. Richard Feldman is the president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and was at that meeting yesterday with Vice President Joe Biden. We appreciate your time.


O'BRIEN: Give me the sense of how it went as someone inside the room. As you know, the NRA was disappointed. They felt they had been invited so people could see they were there, but there wasn't an intention to hear them out. Did you agree with that?

FELDMAN: I thought we had a real conversation, and it wasn't just a lecture. We had some different positions on some issues, but really a lot more agreement on many of the multifaceted aspects of the problem than really sometimes come out in the media.

And when I speak as I do in colleges and conferences around this country. I talk about how important it is on this issue to focus correctly on the language. If you ask the question and focus on guns, if we ask the question, in whose hands were the guns, we find we're in a lot of agreement.

We talked about civil commitment laws. We talked about the need for greater penalties for gun running. We talked about the problems that the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms with giving law enforcement agencies the tools to do their job, such as the NIBAN program. I believe the vice president was very supportive of adding moneys to allow a law enforcement to do the job that the tasked with doing and doing it correctly.

O'BRIEN: It sounds much more positive than some who came out after these meetings, you think it will come out of this meeting real change that will ultimately protect people from the kinds of violence that we've seen?

FELDMAN: You know, if we focus correctly on the problems, we stand a real chance of doing something and having solutions that are going to work. But if we go back to the bumper stickers of the past and the two sides just yelling past each other, and really not even talking about the same issue at the same time, then, no, we won't solve anything.

O'BRIEN: Here is what the NRA said specifically after the meeting. "We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment." Do you think they had a point on that?

FELDMAN: Anyone who came to that meeting and thought minds would be turned around 180 degrees isn't a player. But we got to air our positions. The National Rifle Association was very effective in stating their beliefs as was the NSSF. Most of the discussion was a very adult-like discussion. We found lots of areas of agreement. I didn't think it was a bad discussion at all. I hope we continue that dialogue.

But, of course, so much of this activity is going to focus after next week on Capitol Hill. And that's where we in a democracy really play that out. This is going to be a legislative issue, not so much executive one.

O'BRIEN: Universal background checks, would you support that? Is that a good idea?

FELDMAN: Our organization -- our organization believes strongly that at gun shows there ought to be background checks on the transfer of a firearm at a gun show. Right now, dealers have to make that transfer, but private citizens don't. That doesn't make much sense to us, because essentially you are putting yourself in the same position as a dealer. You are open to the public.

But when we talk about universal checks, people may not understand what that means. That means when you give a gun to your child, or to your spouse, or you sell a gun to a friend or a neighbor, there is an important distinction there. You know who you sold the gun to. And I've never heard anyone say there is some big problem with criminals getting guns from people that own them lawfully and sold it to them. The problem, Soledad, is that there are 500,000 guns stolen every year in this country.

O'BRIEN: So why not have -- a universal check. People would report that their gun was stolen. People would have to say I gave it to my spouse, I gave it to my child, I gave it to my friend, so you could track if that person gave it to somebody else. Why would that be a bad thing? And how would it interfere with the Second Amendment?

FELDMAN: It creates problems where there is no problem today. No one has alleged that there is a problem there. Obviously, in the horrible situation in Newtown, the son stole the guns. And the problem was that the guns were not kept secured from unauthorized users.

O'BRIEN: But straw-man purchases are a huge problem. But the idea of knowing who you -- who ultimately gets the gun seems to me not only to be practical but also wouldn't infringe on everybody's Second Amendment right. FELDMAN: Soledad, everybody in the room yesterday, NRA included, was all in favor of enhanced penalties for straw-man purchases. There was a lot of agreement in the room yesterday. There will be disagreement on a couple of key issues, and that's why we have a Congress and this issue isn't coming to an end next Tuesday. There will be hearings on the hill and this is going to be a big fight.

O'BRIEN: Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association.

FELDMAN: Thank you for your time, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You bet. You bet.

What are these gun task force meetings doing to gun stocks? Christine Romans breaks it down next. And our STARTING POINT team heads in to talk about that and much more. We're back in just a moment. Good morning.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans minding your business this Friday morning.

The S&P 500 hit a five-year high yesterday closing at the highest level since December, 2007. This morning U.S. stock futures are flat. Wells Fargo reports fourth quarter earnings before the bell.

This massive flu outbreak costing the U.S. economy about $83 billion according to CDC statistics based on 2011. That's the direct costs. Indirect costs from lost productivity, people missing work, about $6.2 billion annually. And 17 million work days are lost due to flu- related illness. NYC's New York's comptroller have called for businesses to give hourly and part time workers paid sick leave so that contagious people don't come to work anyway because they can't afford to take the day off. I don't like sick people.

O'BRIEN: That's why we have an epidemic. Go ahead.

ROMANS: Gun stocks fell again after more gun force task meet negotiation Washington. Stearns Rulinger down nearly three percent over two days, Smith and Wesson down about six percent. Those stocks were up big over the past year.

Wal-Mart attended the White House meeting after initially citing a scheduling conference. Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar told me this morning, quote, "Out of respect for the process we're not commenting on the meeting." After Wal-Mart decided to attend the White House meeting, it was the attorney general, not the vice president that met with retailer, dueling scheduling conflicts I guess.

O'BRIEN: Ridiculous, by the way.

ROMANS: Biden will meet with representatives of the video game industry. Biden said he will give a recommendation to the president by Tuesday. O'BRIEN: They won't comment out of respect for the process, so I'll comment. I think it's ridiculous. The vice president should have met with Wal-Mart. They are a major retailer. He should have found 25 minutes in his schedule to have a conversation.

Let's bring in our team. Chris Frates is a reporter for "The National Journal," Abby Huntsman is back, Bill Burton, senior strategist for Priorities USA, nice to have you all with us. Don't you think --

BILL BURTON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: My question, if you are the government relates guy for Wal-Mart, what is your scheduling conflict that you can't make a White House meeting?

O'BRIEN: They changed it AND cleared a scheduling conference and they went. So who was the person at the White House who couldn't clear the vice president's schedule?

HUNTSMAN: What is the saying? You always make time for you what want to make time for. It relates to dating too.

O'BRIEN: Scheduling conflicts we know is a euphemism for this is not important. The vice president should have made time. Wal-Mart is the leader in terms of retailers.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It seems like a power play too. The vice president, if you are shunning me, I will shun you. But to be fair, the vice president is slightly busier than some guy at Wal-Mart. We're prosecuting a war and other things going on in the government.

O'BRIEN: And, yet this is the top of the agenda and they are the largest retailer in the country, so I'm not going to buy that argument. We are to take a break. We just got back form one of the most oppressive countries in the world, so we'll talk to former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson about his trip to North Korea. The state department said it's not a go ahead idea to go. They went anyway. He will join us live next.

And what would you say if you saw a moving car with an invisible driver? A hilarious prank. We'll tell you what happened at several drive through windows. We're back in a moment.