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Americans Held Hostage in Algeria; Latest Front in the Terror War; Battle Over Gun Control; Guns Obama Wants To Ban

Aired January 16, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But we begin this hour with the breaking news. Americans are among a number of Westerners taken hostage in Algeria during an attack on a gas production field. At least two people are reported dead in the attack by Islamic militants, which the United States is now calling a terrorist act.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is standing by.

She's got details -- I know, Barbara, they're sketchy right now, but what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this facility, which was operated by British Petroleum in a -- it's in a very remote southern area of Algeria. That is going to make it very tough.

The challenge tonight, U.S. officials tell us, is just getting basic information, basic intelligence about what has happened, who is there, how many hostages, how many militants, the laid down of the facility. They need some basic information. They are working urgently with the Algerian government to learn everything they can -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know the Pentagon always gets involved in planning, contingency planning. They don't necessarily wait for things to get resolved.

What do we know?

What are we learning about what's going on behind-the-scenes, Barbara, right now?

STARR: Exactly right, Wolf. Look, if there was to be some kind of U.S. military action, it would require the permission of the Algerian government. It is their country. It, also, of course, would come at the orders of President Obama.

What we do know is the U.S. military already has one unit on very short notice. This is the Commanders In-extremis Force. It's at an undisclosed location, Special Forces that can move within four hours of getting that presidential order, specializing in hostage rescue and terrorism operations.

There are a number of other units in the region.

Let's walk through some of them, Wolf.

There are about 150 Marines in Sigonella, Italy, not very far away. They are trained for crisis intervention. There are also two teams of Marines in Rota, Spain, also trained for anti-terrorism operations. And back in the United States, the legendary and often called upon SEAL Team Six, the Army's Delta Force, based on the East Coast of the United States, they are always on the short stream. That four hour typical notice, they could be wheels up if the order comes.

But, Wolf, you are right, what the military will be doing is putting some pieces into place so they are ready. So if the president says we're going to do this, they will be ready to go -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, I want you to stand by for a moment. I just want to let our viewers know that this gas field in Eastern Algeria is a joint venture with BP. Two other companies are also involved, including Statoil. It released a statement today which reads, in part -- and I'll put it up on the screen: "We are continuously monitoring and working to resolve the situation. We are unfortunately unable to give further details about this situation, the ongoing response or the remaining 12 Statoil employees. This is with regards to the safety of those involved."

And, Barbara, we also have a statement now from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers. And I'll put it up on the screen. It's a statement on the kidnapping of Americans in Algeria. I'll read it to our viewers. We don't have it ready for the screen. "The kidnapping of Americans and other Westerners in Algeria brazenly raises the stakes in an already very volatile region. Militant groups and terrorists with ties to AQIM, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, are becoming increasingly brash in their activities. The Obama administration needs to have a clear and focused policy on eliminating the threats that diverse al Qaeda affiliated groups pose to the United States and to Americans working abroad off of the usual battlefields."

The statement goes on. This is from Mike Rogers, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "Additionally, this administration needs to better understand the specific threats posed by AQIM and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups. If we don't deal with these militant groups and terrorists swiftly and effectively, they will only pose an increasing threat in the future, as they already have in Benghazi, and now Algeria and Mali."

That statement from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Suddenly, Northwest Africa is the latest front in the terror war. Jihadists say the gas field attack is a response to Algeria's support for a French anti-terror offensive in neighboring Mali, where an al Qaeda group has made some major, major gains.

Brian Todd is taking a closer look at what's going on there -- Brian, you've got some good perspective.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We do, Wolf. From our experts and our sources, we are getting information that there likely is a connection between the group which took these hostages and that group that's fighting for control of Mali, right next door to Algeria. That group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Now, observers are surprised that a relatively small group of militants could have seized a fairly well guarded gas facility in Algeria and taken that many hostages. But experts say this group which claimed responsibility for this action today is well practiced at that.

Translated into English, this group's name means, quote, "those who sign in blood." It's also sometimes called "those who sign with blood."

According to our executive producer, Tim Lister, our terrorism expert, Paul Cruickshank, and, also, Western intelligence sources, this group is led by a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar. They say that he was removed from the group, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, last fall, but that some of his followers are still affiliated with that al Qaeda affiliate in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Now experts say Belmokhtar had also shown up in Libya during the civil war there and that his group and others like it are expert at taking Western hostages and getting large ransoms. Now, having said that, according to a spokesman for the group that took this action today, this operation was not a ransom play, but revenge against Algeria for helping France fight those militants in Mali. And these militants with links to al Qaeda are all over this region in Northern Africa, many of their groups interwoven. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is actually a successor group to the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, which fought the Algerian government in the early 1990s, when elections were canceled there -- Wolf, these groups go way back, at least two decades, to that -- to that time when Algeria was going through such a horrible civil war. Hundreds of thousands were killed in that civil war over many years. And these groups are all tied to it.

BLITZER: Yes. And I'm sure this is a huge, huge embarrassment for the government of Algeria, because this took place on their watch, shall we say?

TODD: It certainly did. And the problem there is that the Algerian government had poured, you know, hundreds of forces, thousands of forces, into Southern Algeria just in recent days to prevent any spillover from that conflict in Mali across the Algerian border.

Now, lo and behold, it looks like it has happened.

BLITZER: Brian, thanks very much. We're going to stay on top of this story, obviously, for our viewers.

Once again, Americans among those being held hostage in Algeria right now.

More information will come in. We'll share it with you once we get it.

Other important news, President Obama today formally unveiled a series of proposals to try to control gun violence in the United States. With relatives of some Connecticut school shooting victims looking on, he signed 23 executive actions, including steps to expand background checks and safety in schools.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: While there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil. If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president called on Congress to reinstate a ban on assault-type weapons, restrict the size of ammunition magazines and require universal background checks on all gun purchases in the United States.

While the president took his own executive action on a number of measures, it's now up to Congress to pass the much more sweeping proposals.

Let's bring in our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash -- Dana, this certainly will not be easy, giving -- given the political clout of the other side.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And, you know, the House speaker, his spokesman issued a statement saying that they aren't even going to consider doing anything, House Republicans. That is, until the Democratic-led Senate acts. And even that, Wolf, I'm told by Democratic sources, is an open question.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): President Obama knows the fate of his new gun control agenda depends on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

OBAMA: To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act. And Congress must act soon.

BASH: The president also knows his first hurdle is his own party, persuading many fellow Democrats from conservative, pro-gun states, to take a big political risk. One of those historically skeptical gun owning Democrats is Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. But he released a carefully worded statement signaling an open mind.

I'm committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider legislation that addresses gun violence and other aspects of violence in our society early this year.

Another gun owning Democrat is the Senate Judiciary chairman, who announced he will hold this year's first Congressional hearing on guns.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Spare me symbolic arguments. Let's have a constructive discussion about how to better protect our communities from mass shootings while respecting the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Supreme Court.

BASH: Democratic leadership sources tell CNN the president's proposals to renew the assault weapons ban and magazines with more than 10 rounds are unlikely to go anywhere. Sources say the only measure with much of a chance is universal background checks. It was no accident the president mentioned it first.

OBAMA: As many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check. That's not safe. That's not smart.

BASH: Although Democratic aides caution discussions are just beginning, background check legislation would likely give states financial incentives to report mental health records to a federal database. Currently, only 19 states comply and make it a prosecutable crime to sell a gun privately without a background check.

The president is galvanizing Americans to pressure lawmakers.

OBAMA: Ask your member of Congress if they support universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. And if they say no, ask them why not?

BASH: That question is already going to reluctant Democrats, like North Dakota freshman senator, Heidi Heitkamp. When CNN's Candy Crowley described the president's plans earlier this month, she said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP (D), NORTH DAKOTA: I don't think that proposal necessarily, as you described it to me, fits the bill for me.

BASH: A gun control advocacy group took out this tough ad against Heitkamp, saying, quote, "Shame on you."

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: And Democratic leadership sources tell me in order to get anything passed, gun control groups, who are traditionally allies of Democrats, are going to have to engage in a lot more of the friendly fire, Wolf, in order to compete with the NRA, which, of course, is powerful, but, also, to beat back genuine concerns among many lawmakers about curbing any Second Amendment rights -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, as you say, Dana, the House is waiting for the Senate to take the lead action. Whatever passes the Senate, they will then consider in the House.

Is that what you're hearing?

BASH: They will consider considering. No promises. But they're not even going to talk about it until the Senate acts. And, again, that's a big if.

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see what Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, decides to do. A sensitive, sensitive subject, indeed.

Thanks very much, Dana.

Still ahead, we're going to talk about all of this with the president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll get his reaction to the president's gun proposals.

We're also going live to a firing range to show you the kind of military-style guns the president wants to limit.

And after a series of scary incidents, two airlines ground their new fleets of Boeing Dreamliner's.

So what's behind the growing concern?

And the top restaurant calorie bombs -- number eight, Smoothy King's king-sized peanut power plus grape smoothie, at only 1,460 calories. You'll see the top five. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama's tough gun control proposals call for a ban on military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Let's get a closer look at the type of weapons he's talking about. CNNs Miguel Marquez is joining us now live from a shooting range in Las Vegas. Miguel, show us what you have.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, this is where some of the complexity of what the president is proposing as they come in. We're at the Range 702, the largest shooting range in Nevada here. And I'm with Carlos Campos who's the range master. We're going to look at an M-16. This is a real M-16 that has fully automatic function. So, I want to show you the difference between fully auto and semi-auto.

Carlos, if you would just set that up for us, I'm going to put some eye protection and ear protection on while he does that. Thank you, sir. So, if you look at this M-16, wolf, right now, it is in the safe position. When you move it to the number one position there, that is the semiautomatic position. And that means, as I pull the trigger, each time I pull that trigger, a round goes off.

When I turn it to the number three position here, that's fully automatic. When I pull the trigger, the gun doesn't stop until I stop pulling that trigger. That's the big difference. One thing of note here, this is an -- it is an m-16, but this weapon would be, except for that feature of the fully automatic, this weapon would be legal under current law.

And how the president would then decide which weapons would not be legal under his - what's really going to be come -- what it's all going to come down to. This is also a 30-round magazine. This would be presumably illegal under what the president is talking about. I want to bring in Mike Heck. Thank you, Carlos, very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sure.

MARQUEZ: I want to bring in Mike Heck who's the GM here at the shooting range, the Range 702. You read through the 23 proposals.

MIKE HECK, GENERAL MANAGER, THE RANGE 702: I have.

MARQUEZ: Not proposals but the executive actions of the president. Any concern with those executive actions of the president took today?

HECK: Well, it's still a bit vague, but, so far, what I'm reading I don't see a huge impact on us, businesswise, as of yet. It seems to me it is more encouragement by the president for bureaucracy and agency's cooperation and all the step that we're already doing will have (ph) to streamlining.

MARQUEZ: But anything in those 23 actions that will affect you and the business that you have here?

HECK: Not severely, not that I see.

MARQUEZ: You can fire these fully automatic weapons here. You don't sell them, but you do sell a lot of the AR-15s, civilian versions that are semi-automatic. How many have you sold and how many -- and how has the price gone up in the last month or two?

HECK: Our sales have more than doubled. We've moved probably 100 to 150 AR platforms. Price used to run 1,000 to 1,500 platform AR-15 and it's approaching 3,000 in the AR-15.

MARQUEZ: Ammunition the same as well as the magazines, these 30- round magazines your selling -- you don't sell the big drums and those 100-round magazines or those large ones, do you?

HECK: The 30-round magazine are primarily where the demand is. And the price has doubled on those also.

MARQUEZ: The price has doubled on those -- almost double on ammunition, as well, correct?

HECK: Almost, yes. MARQUEZ: All right. These are some of the very difficult choices that are going to have to come out of all this legislation. At the moment, it seems the president just talking about is going to affect gun manufacturers before it will affect retailers like Mike here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Miguel, good demonstration. Thanks very much.

Our new CNN/"Time"/ORC poll is just in. It shows 39 percent of Americans think stricter gun control laws would reduce violence, 61 percent say they would not. "Time" magazine's new cover features the Vice President Joe Biden, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and the New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Joining us now to explain the cover and more, "Time" magazine's managing editor, Rick Stengel. Rick, thanks very much. Tell us why you put these individuals, these three people on the cover.

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, TIME: I think, Wolf, they represent the sort of three legs of the stool of people who are trying to combat gun violence from the progressive side. Obviously, the vice president has been leading the administration's efforts to figure out what could pass and what the president could do by executive action.

Mayor Bloomberg has been out spoken for a very long time about reducing gun violence, and he will be contributing money personally to a kind of Super PAC that will help candidates who are in favor of gun laws and, of course, Gabby Giffords, herself, is a symbol of the terrible tragedies that can happen from deranged people using guns.

BLITZER: They are three of individuals on this fight right now. They didn't get together for a formal photo shoot for the cover, did they?

STENGEL: No. We shot them each -- individually and pieced it together. Congresswoman Giffords couldn't come to New York or Washington. Otherwise, I think we would have gotten them all together.

BLITZER: How difficult will it be -- and your reporters have done a lot of reporting on this -- to get the president's ambitious proposals through Congress?

STENGEL: I think it will be very difficult, as you know, Wolf. Part of it is that such a large percentage of people in Congress are re-elected without much opposition. So, if you're in a red district or blue district, you don't have to be very purple, and because as you see from our poll. I mean, Americans are ambivalent about a lot of this.

They're not convinced that stricter gun regulation will reduce gun violence. They're -- you know, they tend to actually agree with a lot of the NRAs proposals. Forty-eight percent of the people polled agree with most of the NRA proposals. So, I think it's an uphill battle for the White House. BLITZER: Yes, the poll that you and us -- we put out today, do you agree with positions in the NRA? Look at this, 48 percent, as you point out, agree, 42 percent disagree, 10 percent unsure. Illuminating poll underscores why this is going to be such a tough, tough fight for the president and the vice president. Rick Stengel, thanks, as usual.

STENGEL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead, the president of the National Rifle Association, he's standing by to join us live. We'll get his reaction to President Obama's gun control plan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There is more trouble for the airliner that had been billed as the future of air travel. CNN Sandra Endo is here in the SITUATION ROOM with the latest bad news for Boeing and his airlines. What is it?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. Another problem for Boeing's marquee plane, the Dreamliner, after another incident in Japan, now nearly half of all Dreamliner's worldwide have been grounded after two Japanese airlines ordered reviews of its fleet of 787s and with around 800 aircrafts still on order, passengers want to know if these planes are safe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ENDO (voice-over): A Boeing 787 Dreamliner makes an emergency landing in Japan. Two cockpit alarms on Al Nippon Airways flight Wednesday indicated possible battery problems and smoke in the forward compartment. A burning smell was also detected in the cabin. Just hours later, the two airlines with the largest Dreamliner fleets, ANA and Japan Airlines, grounded all 24 of their 787s through Thursday.

The NTSB, FAA, and Boeing are sending investigators to Japan. This latest problem is raising more questions surrounding the Dreamliner's use of lithium ion batteries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen some major problems with lithium batteries across -- transported and used in our computers. I'm sure the FAA is going to be looking at the quality systems of manufacturing of the lithium batteries used on this airplane.

ENDO: Last week, a maintenance worker discovered a fire involving a lithium battery in the belly of a Japan airline 787 at Boston Logan Airport. The charred battery manufactured by a Japanese company, GS Yuasa, is now being analyzed by the NTSB.

The FAA approved the lithium batteries because Boeing installed specific safety measures to address potential overheating problems. The latest string of incident is putting passengers here on edge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just like what anything that's new, you kind of have to get the kinks out of it. ENDO: The transportation secretary is not worried.

RAY LAHOOD, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: I believe this plane is safe and I would have absolutely no reservation of boarding one of these planes and taking a flight.

ENDO: The only U.S. operator, United Airlines, has six Dreamliners and it says all of its 787s have been inspected and continue to fly. In November, we got an inside look at a United Airlines maintenance facility in Houston where crews work on Dreamliners.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just going over some problems that we've had in the past, talking about them in the future. There's no issues right now.

ENDO: Is it because this is such a new vessel, a new plane?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brand new airplane. We're kind of getting to know it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ENDO (on-camera): Aviation experts say these issues are the normal teething problems that come with any new aircraft. They say there are redundant systems on Dreamliners. So, it's something like a cracked cockpit window appears, there are four layers to that window.

And even though passengers may be concerned about these issues, experts emphasize there are preventative problems in place to keep people safe should problems occur -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. A lot of problems right now. They've got to fix these problems.

ENDO: Absolutely.

BLITZER: I hope they do. Thanks, Sandy, very much.

Up next, the president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene, there he is right there, he's standing by to join us live. We'll get his response to President Obama's gun proposal.

Also, we're going to hear from children who wrote to the president and sat behind him as he signed his executive actions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The National Rifle Association is taking some serious heat for a controversial new ad spotlighting, among other things, President Obama's daughters. David Keene is the president of the National Rifle Association. He's here in the SITUATION ROOM right now. David, thanks for coming in.

DAVID KEENE, NRA PRESIDENT: My pleasure.

BLITZER: I'll play a little clip from the ad first.

KEENE: Sure. Go ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security. Protection for their kids and gun-free zones for ours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's the ad. You're not placing it in a lot of places but it's getting a lot of mileage out there on social media but a lot of people -- why bring the daughters, Sasha and Malia, into this political --

KEENE: Well, it's not about them specifically.

BLITZER: You mention them specifically.

KEENE: Well, we don't mention them specifically. We mention his kids and other kids.

BLITZER: Well, he's only got two.

KEENE: That are attending schools that have private security guards. We're not talking about the Secret Service. David Gregory's kids, for example, go to that same school. What we're talking about is folks who have protections for their own children, send their kids to schools where they have protection, and then pooh-pooh the idea that the average American's children should have the same sort of protection.

BLITZER: The White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, among a lot of other people, were very disappointed. They said, "Most Americans agree that a president's children should not be used as pawns in a political fight, but to go so far as to make the safety of the president's children the subject of an attacked ad is repugnant and cowardly."

KEENE: They know better. They know the point that we're making. It was a very clear point. That we believe the same kinds of safety that elitist kids have should be available to the children of the average working Americans.

BLITZER: But don't you think children of a president are unique, given the fact that he's commander-in-chief, and that the security is so tight around the president --

KEENE: No, that's different. They have their Secret Service protection as the family should and they always should.

BLITZER: Every president -- KEENE: But the school that they attend and is attended by other --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The Bush children, Chelsea -- they all --

KEENE: Of course they --

BLITZER: We try not to bring them into the political debate.

KEENE: Of course that's true. But the fact of the matter is that the schools in Washington that are attended by the -- by the elites, not just the president's daughters but the sons and daughters of others are protected by armed security. Not the Secret Service. The school has other security.

BLITZER: I think you could have made that point without necessarily bringing Sasha --

KEENE: Well, you know --

BLITZER: -- and Malia specifically.

KEENE: Sure, you can make the point.

BLITZER: You could have made the point that elites at private schools, they've got security. We want all kids to have -- that, I think, would have -- that would have been --

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: That's fair. That's fair. You can make the point in a lot of different ways but the important point is that the point that we were trying to make is that point, not some other point.

BLITZER: What did you think of the president proposals today? I want to go through it one by one.

KEENE: The whole thing?

BLITZER: Quickly give me your answer.

KEENE: OK.

BLITZER: As far as background checks, right? What's wrong with making sure, for example, a terrorist or a suspected terrorist who can't board a flight because he's on a no-fly list can't go to a gun show and just buy a gun?

KEENE: Well, most guns, as you know, at gun shows require a background check, something like 90 percent of them do because most --

BLITZER: But that's a huge loophole out there. As you --

KEENE: Well, I don't know how huge it is because there's been empirical studies but there's also --

(CROSSTALK)

KEENE: There's --

BLITZER: Person to person sales, you don't need any background checks.

KEENE: That's correct. That's correct.

BLITZER: So why let somebody buy a gun who potentially is a terrorist?

KEENE: Well, there are two problems, Wolf. First of all, there's no evidence that terrorists are buying guns. But that's not the point. At the gun shows -- and we have proposed this in the past. If I -- if you and I go to gun shows as private parties, I can't check you up, on you, I'm not allowed access to those databases.

Some years ago when this was raised we asked the ATF, we said, you know, you could have a table or a booth at a gun show and you could require everybody on the premises to do it. That's doable. Whether it does -- has a lot of effect or not is a different question. The more difficult question with universal background checks is what if you and I are neighbors and you bought a new shotgun and you say, Dave, you know, I don't want the old one anymore. Do you -- would you like it? And I say, sure, I'll buy it. There's where you get into the question of, how do you enforce it? How do you do it? We haven't seen the president --

BLITZER: You have to do that with cars.

KEENE: Pardon me?

BLITZER: You have to do that with cars. You register cars.

KEENE: You register your car. That's a different question. If you don't have --

BLITZER: When you sell it to your neighbor, they've got to re- register --

KEENE: But you don't have to have -- you don't have to have a dealer's license to sell it to your neighbor. And a car -- your right to a car is not guaranteed by an amendment to the Constitution. But aside from that, what I want to see and what we want to see is what they really have in mind. We've got bullet points. There's going to be a lot more to it than that.

BLITZER: The polls are against -- you've seen all these polls.

KEENE: (INAUDIBLE) all over them.

BLITZER: Including our new polls. They're showing most people favor strict gun control. The new CNN/TIME/ORC poll out today says 55 percent favor stricter gun control laws, 44 oppose. You've got a huge fight on your hands. Give me your political assessment where this is going.

KEENE: Well, as you know, Blitz, when you get into a fight with a president and the Congress, those polls aren't going to mean a lot.

BLITZER: You don't think politicians read polls?

KEENE: Polls are going to change. They read them but if they just read them, but if -- if they just read them, they change their position every other day because these polls are going to go bouncing around. As you know, these so-called assault weapons question hasn't moved much. A lot of these haven't moved much.

But when you're up against the president, if he is in fact willing to spend his political capital, you wouldn't want to mortgage your house and bet on how it's going to come out. I think that as this debate goes on, we've had this debate before, and as people begin to look at it, as the public engages, I think we're going to be fine. I think that the Second Amendment is going to survive this. I don't think --

BLITZER: Will there be any change on the -- on the background checks?

KEENE: I don't know. I mean --

BLITZER: What do you think?

KEENE: I don't know.

BLITZER: Are you open to any change on background checks?

KEENE: We're opening -- I'll tell you what we are open to, which we've been at -- which we were delighted to see, we've been advocating for decades that those were potentially violently mentally ill should be included in the next system. That's a good step. We're glad he's finally taking it.

BLITZER: What about magazines, high-capacity magazines?

KEENE: That was --

BLITZER: He says no more than 10 bullets per magazine.

KEENE: You know, that sounds nice. They were included in so- called assault weapons ban back in the '90s. Didn't make much difference for anything. The problem is, you get into a bidding match. You know, somebody says you shouldn't have a 100-round magazine.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Right.

KEENE: They don't work anyway.

BLITZER: Do you think somebody needs 80, 90, 100 -- KEENE: Well, it depends. If they're at the range, if they're shooting a lot -- in a lot of the competitions they do. I don't need one, you might not need one. But we're not everybody. But the fact of the matter is that you get into this, so the president says, well, we don't need -- 30-round magazine, how about a 10-round magazine? Andrew Cuomo says, well, I can do better than that. I'll make it a seven-round magazine.

The fact of the matter is, that the kinds of people who do this, particularly the mentally unbalanced who are the most likely people to do it, shouldn't have any magazine. They shouldn't have any gun. Let's find them to the extent that we can. Let's make sure they don't get their hands on firearms and provide security because somebody is going to fall through the cracks.

BLITZER: Because right now those mentally unstable individuals, they can go out and legally buy guns.

KEENE: That's correct. Because they will not -- because in most states they are not and have not been included on the database. You know, back in --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Forget about the database. They could go to a gun show or they could just buy from an individual without any background checks.

KEENE: You know -- presumably if they could do that, they would.

BLITZER: But they could --

KEENE: But that's not where they are getting them.

BLITZER: Presumably some crazy people who just want to go buy a gun and they can buy a gun.

KEENE: Most -- you know, the only person who recognizing the Aurora shooter was off, was a gun dealer, who said, I'm not selling that guy a gun because he's crazy. He should have been -- a lot of these people should be on the databases. You're never going to catch everybody. That's why you need security. The president is right in that sense --

BLITZER: Are you open to any changes on the military type assault weapons? Are you open at all considering what the president is proposing?

KEENE: That's truly -- if the president were talking about military assault weapons, yes. But military assault weapons --

BLITZER: He says military-style.

KEENE: That look like them. So what are they saying? They're saying, well, some of them slipped through last time because they took off a bayonet lug. Nobody put bayonets on. It was a cosmetic change. So this time they're saying, well, pistol grips. If you have the same gun without a pistol grip, it's legal. If it doesn't have a pistol grip, it's illegal. They're the same gun.

The problem they have with this whole thing is they're talking about semiautomatic firearms which have been in this country for a couple of hundred years and they're saying, based on what we like the looks of, we're deciding we're going to ban some of them.

BLITZER: You're going to fight that.

KEENE: That makes no sense. Absolutely.

BLITZER: What about having a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms?

KEENE: Well, they should have a confident --

BLITZER: But there hasn't been someone in charge for six years.

KEENE: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is a dysfunctional bureau. We saw during "Fast and Furious."

BLITZER: Are you opposed to nominating someone and confirming that individual?

KEENE: We don't --

BLITZER: The president said he wants to nominate Todd Jones to be the director --

KEENE: I don't know Todd Jones. So I don't --

BLITZER: Should there be a bureau --

KEENE: Of course there should be.

BLITZER: And should there be a director?

KEENE: Of course there should.

BLITZER: So you think it's about time that there finally be a director of the ATF?

KEENE: Yes.

BLITZER: OK. We'll continue this conversation.

David Keene is president of the NRA. Thanks for coming in.

KEENE: Any time.

BLITZER: President Obama says addressing the issue of mental health is a key part of solving the problem.

Let's bring in HLN's Dr. Drew Pinsky who's joining us right now. He's got some serious thoughts on this subject. I'll play a little clip, Drew. Listen to this.

Well, I'll read to you what the president said. The president said, "We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence, even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator."

Is the president on to something there?

DR. DREW PINSKY, HOST, HLN'S DR. DREW: Wolf, absolutely. On your program, on the heels of the Newtown disaster, I was asking for exactly this. I mean, basically there are two things the president is going after, which is, there's a fundamental conflict these days between the privacy of the individual and the safety of the community. He is loosening those restrictions so the privacy of the individual does not take precedent over the rest of us. And he is allowing doctors, physicians to do their job.

Many times it is our gut instinct that tells us there is a problem and he is freeing that up to allow us to report that and to do our job. So I am commending him on taking action in these areas. This is precisely what I was looking for. However, I will tell you that I've been in private -- in general medical practice for 30 years. I've been in a psychiatric hospital for 20, and there's been lots of lip service given to power and position to their jobs, and things, instead of getting better, have systematically gotten worse.

So I want to see the actual legislation before I'm going to say this is exactly what we should be doing.

BLITZER: Well, by executive order today, here's among the things he signed, 23 specific things. But among the things involving mental health, he said he wants to clarify that Obamacare does not prohibit doctors asking patients about guns in their homes.

PINSKY: Right.

BLITZER: Clarify that no federal law prohibits doctors from reporting threats of violence, launch a national dialogue led by the Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius and the Education Secretary Arne Duncan on mental health. Is that going far enough?

PINSKY: Well, it's still qualitatively good but whether the actual actions taken that allow us -- you know, what are the laws? What are the specifics that are going to allow us to -- if we get a hunch, to report it and to be sure that person doesn't get a gun? At least now we can ask about whether or not somebody can get access to firearms.

It looked for a while that we wouldn't be able to do that which is insane. So much about what we're trying to do here, and I believe the president is doing the same, he is trying to protect the Second Amendment and bring in commonsense. These are all commonsensical approaches. But within that, I think fundamentally, keep your eye on this one thing, privacy has been tighten down to the point where people's privacy takes precedent over everything.

And that must be loosen so that privacy becomes important but our safety and our ability to function as a community is what takes precedent over everything, and thereby loosening privacy so physicians and doctors can do their jobs.

BLITZER: But, you know, there would be a lot of people out there who need mental health and doctors to help them deal with their problems.

PINSKY: Yes.

BLITZER: But might now say, you know what, I'm reluctant to do it. I don't want to be put on some list that's going to prevent me from getting a gun or doing X, Y, or Z.

PINSKY: Right. Wolf, I categorically disagree with that argument. I think it's been brought up. But the fact is, that suggestion is that somehow by going to a physician or a doctor, you're going to be harmed, that is like saying, by restricting my access to firearms because I shouldn't have access to them, somehow that's going to harm me.

No, that's going to make you better. Physicians and doctors are there to protect you, to make your life better. It will not be a harmful interaction and that will be obvious to people early.

BLITZER: Dr. Drew Pinsky is the host on "DR. DREW ON CALL" in our sister network HLN. And we'll continue this conversation.

Dr. Drew, thanks.

PINSKY: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead, we're going to hear from some of the children who wrote to President Obama and sat behind him as he signed his executive actions today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Standing at the president's side today over at the White House, four children, each of whom wrote him letters like this one which reads -- and let me read it to you. "I am writing you to ask you to stop gun violence."

Jessica Yellin spoke to some of the children after the White House event. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What inspired you to write the president?

JULIA STOKES, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I was so overwhelmed with sadness about the Sandy Hook shooting and I knew that as one person I couldn't do anything but I knew that President Obama could. So I decided to write him a letter.

YELLIN: What do you hope can happen next?

STOKES: Well, I hope it's much harder for people to buy guns. I hope that -- that like people with mental illness can't buy a gun and -- yes.

YELLIN: Tell me a little bit about what you said in the letter.

STOKES: Well, basically I just said that I hoped that he would do something and I said that I have four brothers and sisters and I would be really sad if one of them passed away. And I also told him that I know that laws have to be passed by Congress but I hope that he tries really hard.

YELLIN: Is there something -- a message you would give to lawmakers now?

STOKES: Basically, it's for the safety of children. It's not for the safety of -- like I think that it's OK for somebody who wants to own a gun, but I think that it should be much harder to buy one.

YELLIN: Would you tell me a little bit about what your letter to the president said?

TAEJAN GOODE, WROTE LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I want to say I felt really bad about how those children lost their lives and why did they have to, you know, like, live half a life instead of a full life.

YELLIN: What would you like to see happen now?

GOODE: To stop guns, to let only good people and the president be trusted by those good people to use guns instead of those bad people that the president doesn't trust and that people doesn't trust to have guns.

YELLIN: What did you think when they called and said, come to the White House and help sell this?

GOODE: I felt excited.

YELLIN: Why?

GOODE: Because when my mom told me, I didn't believe it but then we got on the plane and -- we got on the plane and I was like, what?

YELLIN: What made you write the president?

GOODE: I wanted the children that still have their lives now to be safe instead of in danger. So I'm going to try to make -- I need a person who can write a rule to stop guns.

YELLIN: And if you had a message to the lawmakers now, to the people who passed laws, what would it be?

GOODE: Keep -- keep your children safe and keep the babies safe, too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Good advice from that kid. Let's bring in Jessica right now.

Did these kids, Jessica, write these letters as part of some sort of a school assignment?

YELLIN: No, they didn't, Wolf. You know, I talked to both the kids and their parents. And in both cases, the parents said that the kids came to them, Taejan and Julia, in both cases, came up to them and said, I'm so upset about the Sandy Hook shootings, I want to write President Obama and tell him what I think.

And in each case it was inspired by their own sense that as kids they personally can do something to change public policy. They really felt empowered -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What did they say about meeting the president of the United States?

YELLIN: Well, Julia said that the most amazing part was that she got to hug the man who was elected president of the United States. She said it was fantastic. And Taejan said that he didn't really believe when he got the call that it was real, that he was coming to the White House until he was actually on the plane on his way. He came all the way from Georgia. They were both incredibly articulate, I have to say.

And on a more serious note, you know, there's been some criticism that the White House is sort of using children to sell a political message. In each case, the parent said they did not feel that way. They were impressed that their children had these strong views and they felt gratified that they had a chance to voice their opinions so publicly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I can only imagine how excited these kids and their parents must have been to be with the president and the vice president over at the White House today.

YELLIN: It was a treat to meet the kids.

BLITZER: I'm sure it was a treat for you, I'm sure it was, Jessica. Thanks.

And by the way, in our next hour, I'm going to speak with two of the other children who were there, who wrote to the president and then witnessed a moment of history today at the White House. Stand by for that.

Other news. The top restaurant "Calorie Bombs," as they're being called. Number six, Johnny Rockets' bacon cheddar double burger with sweet potato fries and big apple shake. That's only 3500 calories. Wait until you see the top five.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We've been telling you exactly how many calories are in some of the menu items at some of those popular restaurants in the United States.

Now CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has the top five most calorie-laden items out there. And some of them may surprise you.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when you see some of these calorie counts, your eyes are going to pop out. Because some of these dishes have more calories in the one dish than you're supposed to have in the entire day. So let's do a countdown. This is from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

On their list, number five, UNO's Chicago Grill, deep-dish macaroni and three cheese, 1,980 calories. Now to put that in perspective, you're supposed to have about 2,000 calories a day and you're getting almost all of that in one dish. And then number four, Johnny Rockets' bacon cheddar double burger with sweet potato fries, 2,360 calories.

And at number three, from the Cheesecake Factory, Crispy Chicken Costaletta, with mashed potato and asparagus, you got asparagus, you got chicken, both are supposed to be healthy, a whopping 2,610 calories. At number two from Maggiano's, Veal Porterhouse with crispy red potatoes. Looks pretty simple, no cream sauce or anything, 2,710 calories.

And coming in at number one on the extreme eating list, the Cheesecake Factory's Bistro Shrimp Pasta. It's because that shrimp is battered, that pasta, it has cream sauce, 3,120 calories. Again, way more than you're supposed to get in an entire day.

Wolf, we reached out to all these restaurants and said, hey, can you talk to us about these high calorie entrees. Here are the responses.

Maggiano's said, "Our dishes are served in generous portions, perfect for sharing or enjoying later at home."

Johnny Rockets said, "There are other menu options for those who've made a New Year's resolution to lose weight."

And UNO's Chicago Grill said, "We've worked really hard to make sure that choice is everywhere. In addition, every single one of our restaurants has a nutrition kiosk which is in the lobby."

Now speaking of nutrition information, you may remember that during the debate over Obamacare, one of the things that's actually in the Obamacare health reform law is to have nutrition labeling on restaurant menus for these big chains, but it hasn't happened yet and it's not entirely clear when it is going to happen.

So in the meantime, what you can do is really look at the menu and certain words should put up a red flag, should let you know that maybe you ought to go look at something else on the dish. For example, if a dish has something that's battered, that's likely very high in calories, same for breaded. Something that says Con queso means that it's served with cheese. Crispy is just kind of a nice word for fried. And stuffed, well, you don't know what it's stuffed with. It's probably stuffed with something cheesy or creamy.

Here's another idea when you're sitting there at the table. You can pick up your smartphone if you have one, you can just go online and find the calories. If it's a big restaurant, it's likely it's going to be easy to find. I do it all the time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks very much. Another key word to look out for, as we reported earlier, the word shake. If you add a shake to any of those dishes, there's going to be a lot more calories included as well.

Americans taken hostage in Algeria and the United States military is considering options to try to free them. We have new information coming in.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Americans held hostage by terrorists in Algeria.

President Obama unveils his plan to curb gun violence. Children who wrote to him after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre visit the White House. And one of them is here to read her letter to the president.