Gun violence task force moves forward in Connecticut

Friday, December 21, 2012 - 3:00am

Trying to move at warp speed in a city accustomed to a more glacial pace, President Barack Obama's administration began its effort to change U.S. gun laws on Thursday, less than a week after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that shocked the nation.

Vice President Joe Biden met with Cabinet members and law enforcement leaders at the White House to start formulating what Obama called "real reforms right now" in the wake of the shooting that killed 27 people -- including 20 children -- and the shooter.

"We have to take action, and there are a number of things ... we can immediately do," Biden said moments before the meeting began. "For anything to get done, we're going to need your advocacy."

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the grief continued with the burials of three children and two teachers killed when Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. Principal Dawn Hochsprung also will be buried, in upstate New York.

"It's an assembly line of wakes and funerals," said Lillian Bittman, former chairwoman of the Newtown school board. "We can't even figure out which ones to go to. There are so many."

Also buried Thursday at an undisclosed location was the shooter's mother Nancy Lanza, said Donald Briggs, a friend of the late woman's family and now police chief of Kingston, New Hampshire. Then known as Nancy Champion, she grew up in Kingston, New Hampshire, with Briggs.

Her son Adam, who fatally shot her Friday before targeting the Newtown school and eventually taking his own life, was not buried with his mother. Asked when and where he might be buried, Briggs said "that's still under discussion" and "if anything, it would be in the spring."

Three 6-year-olds were among those laid to rest Thursday: Allison Wyatt, who loved to draw and wanted to be an artist; Benjamin Wheeler, who sported an impish smile and loved the Beatles; and red-headed Catherine Hubbard, who loved animals.

In addition to Hochsprung, teachers Lauren Gabrielle Rousseau and Anne Marie Murphy will be buried. Calling hours also were scheduled for three more students and two faculty members.

The deaths prompted a national reaction that continued Thursday. Carloads of teenagers from a Minnesota school that suffered a mass shooting in 2005 headed toward Newtown to offer their support to the community.

The bloodshed, focused as it was on little children, shocked a nation that has become all but inured to mass killings and prompted immediate outcry among many to address gun laws and violence.

A slight majority of Americans now favor major restrictions on guns: 52%, up 5 percentage points from a survey in August after the July mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people died, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Wednesday.

And 46% believe the government has a role in solving the issue, up 13 percentage points from January 2011, after the Tucson, Arizona, shooting that killed six and left former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords badly wounded.

Task force begins work

Joining Biden at Thursday's first task force meeting on gun violence were Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Law enforcement officials also attended.

A day earlier, Obama demanded the group provide proposals by January while acknowledging the complex combination of factors involved in gun violence and the overwhelming odds such legislation could face in a Congress heavily influenced by the gun-rights lobby.

"But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing," he said. "The fact that we can't prevent every act of violence doesn't mean we can't steadily reduce the violence and prevent the very worst violence."

Obama highlighted suggestions to better restrict gun sales to criminals and those with mental-health issues and improve access to mental health care.

After Biden's meeting Thursday, Holder will travel to Connecticut to meet with law enforcement officials and first responders, a Justice Department official said Thursday. He will not be attending funerals or memorials, the official said.

In the days after the shootings, conservative Democrats and some Republicans who have traditionally supported gun rights said they would be open to discussing the issue.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has said she will introduce legislation to reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. The White House said Tuesday that the president supports that effort.

More than 195,000 people also signed an online White House petition supporting new gun-control legislation.

The gun industry itself has been largely silent on the issue, although the National Rifle Association said Tuesday it would offer "meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

The group has scheduled a news conference for Friday morning to discuss its plans.

While gun control advocates say they know the battle will be tough, they also believe the killings have so shocked the nation's conscience that change is finally possible.

"I think that we are at a historic moment," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

Strengthening security

In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty made $10 million available to pay for security upgrades to establish a locked-door policy at 4,000 of the province's elementary schools.

"We're not going to brick up these windows, that would be unreasonable, but I believe there is a reasonable expectation by parents that when their kids go to elementary school in Ontario that we will have a locked-door policy in place," he said.

Tributes planned

Planning is also under way for Friday tributes to mark the moment the killings began.

Church bells will toll across the region at 9:30 a.m., and some websites plan to go dark in honor of the victims at the urging of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway, who came up with the idea at a Christmas party attended by Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman.

Some cities across the nation were planning a moment of silence. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were among those calling for residents of their states to pause to reflect one week after the shooting rampage. Perry also asked that churches ring their bells 26 times in honor of the victims.

A round-the-clock vigil is also being planned for Christmas.

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