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Reps React to President's New Gun Policies; Militants Holding Americans Hostage; Obama Signs 23 Gun Control Exec. Action

Aired January 16, 2013 - 12:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: But the Congress, by the Constitution, is given the authority to pass legislation, to create the laws, to make the laws.

Once again, if they pass this legislation -- I'm not sure they will pass the legislation, but let's say they do pass the legislation banning the military-type assault weapons, the high-ammunition clips, a universal background checks for anyone buying a gun, whether at a gun show or online or from a private individual, if that is the law of the land, that's the Constitution, right? You've got to obey the law of the land.

STATE REP. STEVE TOTH (R), TEXAS: Let me ask you a quick question. If you were -- he used the expression "weapons designed for the theater of war."

What we're talking about here is not an M16 used over in Iraq or Afghanistan. That is not what we're talking about here. What we're talking about, what he's talking about banning, are weapons that are used in less than one-tenth of one percent of all gun crimes. These are nothing more than semi-automatic hunting rifles that look like -- look like -- M16s. They are not M16s.

Wolf, have you ever held one of these things in your hand and fired one?

BLITZER: Well, I understand what you're saying, but the question I'm asking, and I'm not getting a direct answer, Congressman -- Representative, excuse me.

The specific question, if it's passed by Congress and, once again, I don't know if the Congress will pass it, but if it's passed by Congress, every U.S. ...

TOTH: It won't.

BLITZER: ... citizen has to obey the law. What you're proposing is ...

TOTH: We'll do everything we can in the state of Texas ...

BLITZER: But I just want to make sure ...

TOTH: We will do everything ...

BLITZER: ... you're law-abiding citizens in Texas ...

TOTH: We will do everything we can in the state -- we will do everything in the state of Texas to ensure that, as Texas, we follow the United States Constitution and, if this government infringes on our Second Amendment right, which gives us the right not only to bear arms, but tells the government, the federal government, not to create any laws that infringes on those rights, we will do everything we can to push back against that.

BLITZER: Does that mean -- maybe I'm jumping too far, but does that mean seceding from the union? Is that what you're suggesting?

TOTH: No, that's not what we're talking about here. And, you know, I'm pretty sure that that's not what this discussion is about.

BLITZER: I'm just -- I just wanted to be precise. That's not what you were calling for? What you're saying is you will try to skirt around a federal law, but within the law?

TOTH: Wolf, let me just share something with you real quick. I was born in New York, upstate New York, 20 miles south of Webster, New York where a few weeks ago a mentally deranged man, a killer, a man that beat his mother to death with a hammer, he beat her to death with a hammer so badly that the coroner couldn't recognize her.

The guy was found guilty of first-degree murder, sent to jail. And the state of New York, allowed this animal back out on the streets again to kill again. He illegally got a hold of a gun, set his house on fire and, when firemen arrived, he shot two of them dead.

All of the situations that the president enumerated in his speech have nothing to do with even his legislation. If we want to get serious about limiting violent crime in America, we've got to look at mental health issues and we've got to look at punishing people that commit crimes and when they commit violent crimes, they've got to go to jail and stay in jail.

Let's get serious about this. Anything ...

BLITZER: I don't think anyone disagrees with you on that last point.

TOTH: The president's not -- Wolf, the president ...

BLITZER: I think everybody agrees if you commit a violent crime, you should go to jail and stay in jail.

TOTH: We don't agree on it, because if the president was really serious about it, he wouldn't have taken 90 percent of his time talking about military, quote/unquote, "military-style assault rifles," but address the issue of the fact these weapons account for less than one-half of one percent of crimes, less than one-half of one percent.

Let's deal with the real issues, the recidivism rate, people who get out of jail and go and kill again, the ability of people to get a hold of these weapons. Republicans have been calling for years for instant background checks. This government has done nothing to help.

BLITZER: Do you want universal background checks on all gun transactions in the United States, as the president is proposing?

TOTH: No, I don't.


TOTH: No, I don't. At gun shows, online, we've got the technology online --

BLITZER: What if some crazy guy you described in upstate New York wants to go to a gun show? He can go buy a gun.

TOTH: Wolf, that would be -- first off, that hasn't happened. If you look at that guy in upstate New York, he stole his gun. These people don't go ...

BLITZER: He could, technically, if there's no background check, if you have a criminal record, he can go to a gun show, where he can buy a gun without a background check. Technically, that's obviously possible.

TOTH: Let's quit dealing with the hypothetical, though, and start dealing with reality, Wolf. That hasn't happened.

BLITZER: There are a lot of people --

TOTH: That hasn't happened.

BLITZER: People can buy guns at gun shows.

TOTH: Those are law-abiding citizens, Wolf. Show me one ...

BLITZER: Unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of ...

TOTH: Wolf -- Wolf ...

BLITZER: there's plenty who aren't representative. Right now, you can be on the no-fly list, you're not allowed to board a plane, but you can go to a gun show and buy a gun. Is there a contradiction there?

TOTH: Wolf, show me one -- one time one of these criminals has gone to a gun show and gone and committed a crime. I'm listening. I'm all ears. Let's deal with reality.

BLITZER: Representative Steve Toth, state representative from Texas. Thanks very much for coming in. You obviously have very, very strong views and I know you reflect a lot of people out there who have strong views on this as well.

TOTH: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to discuss it with you. BLITZER: I wanted to hear your views and now we heard them. Appreciate it very much.

TOTH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Steve Toth from Texas. By the way, I'm from upstate New York, myself.

A new CNN/"Time"/ORC poll shows more Americans favor gun control. Fifty-five percent say they're in favor of stricter laws. Forty-four percent are opposed.

Here's a further breakdown of the numbers. Thirty-seven percent say they strongly favor stricter gun laws. Eighteen percent moderately favor it. Seventeen percent moderately oppose them. Twenty-seven percent strongly oppose stricter gun laws.

We also polled Americans on the president's performance. Fifty-five percent say they now approve of how President Obama is handling his job. Forty-three percent disapprove.

We also asked how Vice President Biden is handling his job. He has an even higher approval rate than the president. Fifty-nine percent say they approve of how the vice president is handling his job. Thirty- eight percent disapprove.

We'll take another quick break. Much more of our special coverage right after this.


BLITZER: New York representative Carolyn McCarthy is one of the foremost gun control advocates in the Congress. Her husband, Dennis, was killed in the 1993 shooting rampage on the Long Island Railroad. Her son was seriously injured in the incident.

Representative McCarthy is joining us now. Representative, thanks very much for coming in. You, yourself, have said a ban on this military-type assault weapons will be a heavy lift, but it's certainly worth trying, you say.

What is the president specifically need to do to get this kind of legislation passed, given the widespread opposition among many, not just Republicans, but a whole bunch of Democrats as well, especially in the house?

REP. CAROLYN MCCARTHY (D), NEW YORK: Well, thank you, Wolf, for having me here. As the president said, though, and I give him an awful lot of credit, we all realize it's going to be a heavy lift. That does not mean we can't do it.

I was around for the battle during the Clinton years. I was not a member of Congress. I was a victim sitting in the audience as many of the others were there.

But with the vice president and certainly President Obama with their strength of the office and going around the country and talking to Americans which basically agree with the president, it's going to be up to the people across the country to talk to their members of Congress to make sure that we and get this done.

This can save lives. We've seen that. When the large-magazine clips, which I've been reintroducing ever since 2004, when that ban was in place, we did not see these magazines out on the streets and they were very expensive because they were rare. We can do that again to cut that down.

We're not going to be taking away anyone's right to own a gun. The Supreme Court already did that.

But with the president laying out what he did, in a very holistic way, by the way, by working with our schools, making sure we have community policing, have psychologists.

It's going to be up to the schools to make the decision on what they want, but we should be there to help them. If we can't protect our children from school or someone going to the movies, I think that has hit the heart of everybody in this country. Gun owners --

BLITZER: Congresswoman, what has a better chance of passing, a comprehensive piece of legislation that includes everything the president just outlined or breaking it up into separate pieces of legislation?

One bill, for example, dealing with ammunition clip, a separate bill dealing with universal background checks, a third bill dealing with military-type assault weapons. You put them all together or try to pass separate legislation?

MCCARTHY: Well, unfortunately, you know, that we'll see -- we'll look at that down the road.

Right now we know that Republican -- a lot of Republicans in the House will probably vote for the background checks. A lot of them will vote for anything that has to do with the mental illness. So those are things that they will vote for.

If we start taking them one by one, the chances in the House would be a lot more difficult. I would like to see, certainly, the Senate go first on a number of these issues. That might give some strength. That might even give some members of Congress the spine to do the right thing, as the president said.

You know, the NRA is not in line with an awful lot of their members and that is something we're counting on to go forward. I've gone through this before. I know what the battles are going to be. I know the NRA is probably already out there. You probably saw that new ad that they just put out attacking the president and his two daughters. That's crazy.

Everybody knows that the president and his family have to be protected, but to try to push that over on to the -- their probably most radical members of the NRA, that's now how the general public feels. I believe we can do it. This time it is different. This time it's gone to the heart of every mother, father, grandparent thinking about their children, grandchildren. We have to do something.

All these mass killings and the killings that happen every single day, as the president said, 900 people have died since the day that Sandy Hook happened. That's too many of our people.

I'm speaking as a nurse. It's cost us over $200 billion a year for those that survive and for everything that we need to do to protect our cities and our communities.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you for covering this story.

BLITZER: Thank you. Carolyn McCarthy is the Democratic Congresswoman from New York.

Our special coverage continues here in the NEWSROOM right after this.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

Americans being held hostage in Algeria, in northern Africa. This is a story we are following. Militants who are linked to al Qaeda today took several people hostage. This happened at a BP facility in what is being called a terrorist attack. Now, we are told that the State Department is now in touch with the Algerians and -- who have the lead on this story. I want to bring in Elise Labott, joining us from the State Department.

Elise, this is a breaking news story we are following here. Another big story. Tell us what we know so far.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Suzanne, all we know this morning that in about southeast Algeria that the BP Amenas oil facility was attacked. At first the assailants, we understand this is an al Qaeda-linked affiliate, tried to attack a bus that was carrying employees from the facility to the nearby airport. That was not successful. And then they went to the living quarters of this group. This is all from state Algerian reports. Information still coming in fast and furious.

We understand that there are some 40 hostages, including about seven Americans. It's really unclear right now how many Americans are involved. It could be a few more, could be a few less according to State Department officials. But we understand that nine other nationalities are also involved. The British, the Japanese, the Norwegians, the Irish, all saying their citizens are involved right now.


MALVEAUX: And these seven Americans that are being held hostage, are they all from the BP facility? Do we know anything about these people who have been taken?

LABOTT: We don't understand just yet, but we -- it's a very remote area. This oil and gas field is really all that's in this area. So we understand that they do work for BP or one of its contracted companies. We understand that the Algerians from Algerian state media have surrounded the area and they're trying to negotiate with these kidnappers.

MALVEAUX: Do we have any idea how these kidnappers, how they actually gained access to the oil facility and how they managed to get in and to take the hostages?

LABOTT: We don't know how they got to this facility. As I said, it's a very remote facility. But this group is believed to be based in Mali. Also has a big presence in Libya. And so what the spokesman has told media in the area is that they launched the attack from Mali. It is about 600 miles from Mali, this airfield. But we know militants are based in Mali. French troops have been battling them, along with the Mali government, on this recent offensive.

And we understand, according to this group, that this attack is in retaliation for Algeria giving the French airspace for the offensive. So we see that these Islamic groups based in Mali, based in the region are using Mali's poorest (ph) borders to spread their attacks. And this is the big concern, Suzanne, of the international community, that there will be spillover in the region.

MALVEAUX: Elise, real quickly here. It might be too soon to know this. But do we have any sense of how the U.S. government, either the military, the State Department is responding?

LABOTT: Right now they're leaving it up to the Algerians. There's been a lot of cooperation between the U.S. and Algeria on a host of issues over the last several months, including this whole issue of Islamists in Mali and in the region. So right now they're leaving it up to the Algerians, certainly with some 40-something foreign hostages being taken, the Algerians are taking this very seriously and they're hoping they'll be able to resolve it.

Suzanne, this group is not just about Islamic activity. They have a history of smuggling, of kidnapping for ransom. So possibly they might be able to work out some monetary arrangement. We just don't know just yet.

MALVEAUX: All right, Elise, we're going to get back to you as soon as possible, as soon as you have some more information about the state of those hostages. At least 40 hostages, seven of them Americans. We're going to take a quick break.


MALVEAUX: It's the fight over guns in Washington. The president ratcheting up the national debate over guns in the country. He just unveiled a new package of gun control proposals. Now here's what he is calling for -- universal background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. That's ammunition. And the proposals are based on the recommendations from a panel which was led by the vice president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Congress should restore a ban on military-style assault weapons and a ten-round limit for magazines. The type of assault rifle used in Aurora, for example, when paired with high-capacity magazines, has one purpose, to pump out as many bullets as possible, as quickly as possible. To do as much damage using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage. And that's what allowed the gunman in Aurora to shoot 70 people. Seventy people. Killing 12. In a matter of minutes.


MALVEAUX: So here's the breakdown on guns in America. According to the most recent study of guns in the world, American civilians own 270 million small arms. That's about nine firearms for every 10 people. The U.S. has higher gun ownership than the next 17 countries combined. And the most gun-related homicides in the developed world. Thirty-one thousand people die annually from gun violence in this country. Almost 3,000 are children. In fact, according to the "Journal of Trauma Injury," death by firearm is the third leading cause of death for children in America ages five to 14. A child in the U.S. is 12 times more likely to die from a firearm than a child in the rest of the developed world.

Well, we've just heard from the president laying out his plan to curb gun violence. The recommendations coming from a task force that was led by the vice president, Joe Biden. His son, who is also Delaware's attorney general and Iraq War veteran, Beau Biden, he's joining us from the White House.

Beau, good to see you, as always. You were in the room with the president and your father as well. Tell us, what does this mean for your father to be a part of this task force?

BEAU BIDEN (D), DELAWARE ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it's an issue my father's been working on for 20-plus years. It's an issue he worked on intimately with members of Congress in 1994, 1995, 1996. This has been part of his life's work. He knows this issue well. And that's why he was able to put together this task force, get all the stakeholders together, work with his staff who have done an incredible job on this from his chief of staff on down and able to present a package to the president that is comprehensive, makes sense, deals with gun violence, deals with mass shootings, deals with violence in our city streets, deals with the mental health component and deals with school safety. So I was thrilled not just as a son but as an attorney general, as a chief law officer of a state.

MALVEAUX: And, Beau, what do you make of the fact that there is a lot of criticism and perhaps not even enough support for the president to pass and for Congress to pass some of the most important things that he's talks about? When you talk about the assault, the ban on assault- style weapons. Those weapons. Or you talk about universal background checks. These are things that Senate Democrats aren't necessarily going to be in line with the president. That it's going to be a really tough political sell. How do they address that?

BIDEN: Well, you know, they're going to take it day-to-day, day-by-day and work hard to convince people of, I think, what the American people are already convinced of. These are common sense approaches to -- that make sense to make our streets safer, our schools safer and our community safer. The universal background check is something that the American people overwhelmingly support.

You heard the president reference that. And regarding American support, the reinstatement of an assault weapons ban is something the governor of my state, Jack Markell, working with lieutenant governor in my office, proposed earlier this week. You see governors up and down the Eastern Coast, as well as across the nation, proposing various measures -- similar -- measures very similar to the ones you heard the president speak about today.

So this is going to be an effort. But I think the American people are behind this. And as you heard the president say, the American people are going to have to demand this of their legislators, both locally and at the federal level.

MALVEAUX: So, Beau, that might be a tough sell for the president because when you think about the second term, he doesn't have a lot of time to get these things that he wants to get accomplished. So you have the gun policy. That is one part of the agenda here. But you also have the president is up against Republicans. He is trying to work on the debt ceiling. You've got the whole issue of whether or not the debt ceiling is going to be raised, whether or not that is going to be held hostage to actually paying the bills that the government has to pay. You also talk about immigration reform. Where does this fit in, in terms of the president's priorities, do you think?

BIDEN: Well, from where I sat today, obviously it seems to be a very high priority for the president of the United States. I'll let the White House and the administration answer how they're going to deal with Congress. That's their task, not mine. But I'm confident that the president, the vice president and the entire administration is going to do everything they can to get the package that they proposed today through Congress.

And, you know, what you heard the president say, I think it's essential. American citizens, the American people have to demand this. We have to act. When you have 1,000 people nearly killed in last 30 days at the hands of gun, when you have mass tragedies like happened in Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, Oregon, enough is enough. And we have to act. We have to do whatever we can. It is our obligation as elected official, as a law enforcement officer, a chief law enforcement officer of my state, it's our responsibility. And I think the American people are behind this. The American people are demanding it. And that's why Congress has to act.

MALVEAUX: Beau, this is nothing new. President Bush used this tactic as well. It's always the bully pulpit. The president has the right to invite people to the White House, to talk to people about the issues that he's presenting. There's been some pushback, some criticism even about the president bringing forward and using these kids, these children. Some of them, the letters, obviously, he read in his speech about how they were touched, they were moved by the gun violence. Even the massacre in Newtown. He had a -- it was even a tribute, really, to a little girl who had died, Grace, and he had addressed the parents who were in the room at the time. A very emotional moment for the president. I imagine for some of those kids, too, who are getting those high fives after his speech. Do you think it is appropriate, do you think that was a good use of the president and his platform in using those children as well to make a point?

BIDEN: Look, the president of the United States was responding to these parents and to these kids. You know, any time the president of the United States personally answers a letter from a young woman or the three, four young children there, to criticize a president of the United States for being responsive to young people's voices is outrageous. I think that actually demonstrates, whoever's saying that, simply doesn't get what the job of the president of the United States is. The President of the United States' job is to respond to the voices and the pain of the American