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School Attack Inflames Gun Debate; Some Texas Teachers Are Armed; Nation Honors School Victims; Bells to Toll for Each School Victim; NRA to Hold News Conference

Aired December 21, 2012 - 09:00   ET



Happening now in the NEWSROOM, a mess as people are trying to get away for the holidays. Interstates closed by massive pile-ups and thousands without power.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just heard a boom. Real loud, and then the tornado was like over my house, whirling over my house, and my whole house was just -- I mean shaking.


COSTELLO: Plus a strong storm damages homes in Alabama, now the digging out and cleanup begins all across the country.

And from Newtown to your town. Americans pause this hour to remember those killed in the school massacre. We'll tell you how the tribute could echo through your community.

And the nation's most powerful gun lobby, the NRA, speaking out today one week after violence rocked that small community in Connecticut.

And devastating implosion. The end of the world? No, it is not the apocalypse, it's what people are saying about the fiscal cliff. After Speaker Boehner's plan B falls flat, what's next?

NEWSROOM starts now.

And good morning to you. Thank you so much for being with us. I'm Carol Costello. This hour a nation pauses to honor the victims of last week's horrifying attack at a Connecticut elementary school. Many Americans including President Obama will take part in a moment of silence at 9:30 Eastern. That marks the moment one week ago that the gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Church bells will toll across much of the country 26 times to remember each of the children and educators killed.

And after being noticeably quiet for the past week, the National Rifle Association holds a news conference next hour. The gun rights groups will comments on the shooting as it faces impassioned calls for tighter gun control. Poppy Harlow, Jason Carroll are in Newtown on this somber morning. But let's begin with Poppy. She's at the town's memorial.

Good morning, Poppy.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Let's just take a moment to look around at what has become this small makeshift memorial that began the day after that horrific shooting, has grown into something absolutely beautiful. It is blocks long, it is across the street and people will gather here this morning and across this town to remember the 26 lives that were lost one week ago at 9:30 a.m.

As you said church bells will toll 26 times for the victims, also the president and the White House will take that moment of silence. Twenty-eight governors from across this country have asked residents of their states to also participate in moments of silence. People will wear green in memory of the victims, that's -- the school color of Sandy Hook.

The governor here in Connecticut saying though we will never know the pain, the anguish these families feel, we can stand next to them in this moment.

And I think, Carol, this is a moment when not only this country but the world will stand with all the people here.

COSTELLO: I think you're right about that. The first lady, she sent a message to Newtown this morning, what did she say?

HARLOW: She did. It was a very moving letter. She spoke about the anguish she feels in her heart as a mother of two daughters herself. I want to read you an excerpt that really stood out to me from the first lady's letter. It is in the local paper here this morning that people are waking up to. She said, "I have been awed and inspired by Newtown's heroes, the first responders who risked their lives at a moment's notice. The educators whose devotion to their students shown brightest in one of our nation's darkest hours. The children who comforted each other despite their fear. The families coming together to support each other as they grieve."

And Carol, I just want to leave with you a moment that I experienced here this morning in the deli just down the road. I met a father and he knew we were part of the media. We were talking and I said, how are you doing? And he said , I have two young girls, two twin 8-year- old girls, who went to Sandy Hook Elementary, and he said there is no moment like this that is more fitting than to say there really are no words, and so in this moment of silence there will be no words for the victims lost but I think everyone here and around the world is going to remember them.

COSTELLO: Absolutely. Poppy Harlow, thank you.

Now let's go to Jason Carroll. He's at the Newtown United Methodist Church.

And Jason, that church has provided a spiritual tether of sorts for a community awash in grief. So what role does this church play today?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well very important role this morning. And this is where the church is going to be ringing the bell 28 times. Everyone in the community is going to be listening as that happens.

It's an ancient ritual that's -- that's taken place over decades. It used to be traditionally a call to worship but today, as you know, Carol, it's a call to remember. Three pastors will take turns ringing the bell 28 times. I spoke to one of the pastors this morning, Past Or Jane Sibley. This is very personal for her, Carol. Like so many people here in -- this is a personal especially personal to Pastor Sibley. Her family is directly connected to the school and she had a message today, a very important message that she wanted to get out to the survivors living here in Newton.


REV. JANE SIBLEY, NEWTOWN UNITED METHODIST CHURCH: My grandsons give me the joy of being able to laugh for a moment and I'm refusing to allow that.


CARROLL: Chase Kowalski -- Chase Kowalski, one of the little boys who died in the shooting, went to this church here and his mother apparently, Carol, has been a rock throughout all of this. That's what the pastor says, she's been very strong and she had a message as well, she said that life, that she's hoping that her son's life would serve some sort of a purpose, if it brings us to a place of love and care for others and making sure that something like this does not happen again.

That's another message that the pastor wanted to get out from Chase Kowalski's mother this morning -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Something you said struck me, Jason. Most churches across the country will ring the church bells 26 times. You said at the church where you're standing they're going to ring the bell 28 times? They're going to include the shooter and Nancy Lanza as well?

CARROLL: That is correct. And I think from the church's point of view, it's not about getting into a debate about how many times a church bell should be rung. This is simply a day for remembering, remembering those who are hurting, for a loss, whoever that may be.

COSTELLO: Jason Carroll reporting live from Newtown, Connecticut, this morning.

On a day when church bells will toll for the victims of Newtown the nation's most powerful gun lobby is speaking out. After releasing a paper statement earlier this week the NRA will hold its first press conference and unveil what it calls a major contribution to the gun debate in this country. So what is that?

Tom Foreman is in Washington to speculate for us this morning. Good morning, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Carol. We actually don't know in fact what that means. There has been a lot of speculation around the country that it will have something to do with mental health issues because certainly at a lot of local levels people have talked about that on the Republican side, in particular. People have said on the conservative side, people saying that that really has to be addressed at least as much, perhaps more than the gun issue itself. So we're expecting that may be the direction they go but the truth is we don't really know.

What we do know is that the NRA was quiet immediately after this. They often are after such incidents and they usually say as they did this time out of respect for the community and the family involved, but now that a little bit of time has passed what we would certainly expect here is that there'd be a clear message here to the White House and to others which is be careful about overreacting at this point because the NRA will push back and certainly they have proven that politically they have the power to do it not only nationally but certainly at the state level -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Tom Foreman reporting live for us from Washington.

Also happening this morning minutes from now, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will talk about protecting children from gun violence at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. Duncan is part of the president's task force on gun violence which is headed up, as you know, by Vice President Joe Biden.

On to hard core politics now, about that plan B. The Republican plan that was supposed to force President Obama to deal on the fiscal cliff, didn't work because it's dead. House Speaker John Boehner wanted fellow Republicans to vote on a bill that would raise taxes on millionaires and no one else.

The drama surrounding that effort was intense as the speaker tried to convince conservative members of his party to vote yes but in the end the votes were not there, and the speaker pulled the bill from the floor. In short, as Republican Representative Steve LaTourette said the effort was embarrassing.

REP. STEVE LATOURETTE (R), OHIO: Definitely weakens the entire Republican Party. The Republican majority. It means the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party and we are going to be seeing further more and more as these budget extremist that can't even get a majority of our own people to support policies and we're putting forward. That's -- if you're not a governing majority, you're going to be a (INAUDIBLE).


COSTELLO: The House speaker John Boehner will hold a press conference live at the top of the hour.

Across the Midwest, people are trying to clean up from the first blizzard of the season. Blinding snow being blame for this 30-car pile up on Interstate 35 near Fort Dodge, Iowa, Two people died in this accident.

The storm has also cut power to 20,000 in Iowa this morning. Anywhere from half a foot to more than a foot of snow has fallen across much of the Midwest, places like Wisconsin have declared a state of emergency, and the storm is moving toward Ohio, Pennsylvania and the northeast and it all comes as holiday travelers begin their journey home for Christmas.

Be careful out there.

Guns in school in the wake of the Connecticut shooting. More states talk about putting weapons in the classroom. Just ahead we're going to talk to the superintendent of one school district that already allows its employees to carry guns.


COSTELLO: Just about 13 minutes past the hour. Time to check our top stories.

NATO says Syria is firing more scud missiles in an attempt to quash rebel gains. NATO secretary-general calling the action, quote, "acts of a desperate regime approaching collapse." These pictures from Syrian activists claim to show damage from one of those attacks. CNN of course cannot independently verify that claim.

In North Korea, a United States citizen, an American citizen, has been arrested. State media reported today that Pae Jun Ho has been arrested for unspecific crimes against the country. The state news agency says that Pae entered the country November 3rd as a tourist and has confessed to the offense and will face legal action.

General Motors recalling 118,000 trucks because of a problem with a latch that could -- that could cause the hood to fly open. The recalled models are the Chevrolet, Colorado, and the GMC canyon from years 2010 to 2012. GM says it will notify owners in mid-January and repairs will be done for free.

Also happening right now, Secretary of State Arne Duncan is about to give remarks on protecting children from gun violence. He'll do that at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., You see the ceremony is just starting up. Duncan is expected to call for comprehensive change in policies to avoid future tragedies, you know, like the one that happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

Secretary Duncan is part of President Obama's task force on violence which is headed up by the vice president Joe Biden.

The NRA also expected to talk about guns in America in just over an hour. It's the first time the powerful lobbying group will speak publicly about the gun culture in this country. Before we hear from the NRA, and from Arne Duncan, a look back at how we got to this point.


COSTELLO (voice-over): Today, exactly a week ago at 9:30 in the morning, the unthinkable happened.

LT. PAUL VANCE, CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE: There were several fatalities at the scene, both students and staff.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A man armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were police with rifles and handguns, they were on the roof, they were surrounding the school, they were going in through the roof.

COSTELLO: The emotion, the passion was unlike anything the country had experienced since 9/11, perhaps it was because of the target and the victims, a school with children barely older than babies and the teachers who were caring for them.

And it wasn't long before questions arose about guns in this country and whether a man like Adam Lanza should have had access to a military-style assault weapon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There should be more gun control, yes.

REPORTER: Why do you think that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, you know, guns are in the wrong hands are very dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guns don't kill people, people kill people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Definitely, there should be gun control. There shouldn't be no guns out there, you know? A lot of crazy people don't know how to handle guns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think taking guns out of civilians who are good contributing members of society are the answer.

COSTELLO: For days, the most powerful gun lobby in the country, the NRA, has remained virtually silent. No official statements, nothing on Twitter, its Facebook page inactive.

Enter the president and a plea that something had to be done.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The NRA is an organization that has members who are mothers and fathers, and I would expect that they have been impacted by this as well. And, hopefully, they'll do some self-reflection.

COSTELLO: Still, the NRA remains silent until Wednesday when it said it was shocked, saddened and heartbroken over the tragedy, insisting it also wanted to make meaningful contributions to the gun debate in this country. Perhaps it was feeling pressure from its supporters including, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia. SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: It's changed me. I don't know of anybody that goes hunting with an assault rifle. I don't know people that need 10, 20, 30-round clips.

COSTELLO: It's still unclear what the NRA means by the words "meaningful contributions", but we know in the past the NRA has been loathe to support any kind of gun control legislation.

In fact, in the past few years, it supported legislation that pushed through some of the most permissive gun laws this country has ever seen. You're allowed to carry a gun into a national park. You can transport a gun on Amtrak. And the NRA fought the handgun ban in the nation's capital.

But today, it feels different. This time, the NRA might not be able to exert its powerful influence over lawmakers, because as we've heard so many times, after Newtown, it feels different.


COSTELLO: And in just about 13 minutes, church bells will toll across the country to remember the victims in Newtown, Connecticut, and then talk of how to prevent such tragedies. This is one idea a lot of people have, to arm our children's teachers, several states are taking up that debate, 10 to be exact, but one school district in Texas, the staff there has been armed for years. The superintendent of that district will join us next.


COSTELLO: Twenty minutes past the hour.

Happening right now: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is about to give remarks on protecting our children from gun violence. He'll give those remarks at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. You see students are gathered, teachers are gathered awaiting Arne Duncan's comments.

Duncan is expected to call for changes in policies to avoid future tragedies. The secretary, part of President Obama's task force on gun violence which is, of course, headed up by Vice President Joe Biden.

One idea to protect children in our schools is to arm teachers. Ten states considering proposals that would allow teachers to have guns inside the classroom. There are already schools that do that, a school district where all employees, not just teachers, can carry concealed weapons.

For the past five years, all staff employees in Harrold, Texas, can carry a weapon, the teachers, the principal, everyone.

Harrold is located in a rural area. There is no local police department and the sheriff is 30 minutes away.

David Thweatt is the superintendent of the Harrold Independent School District. He joins us now. Welcome, sir, and thank you so much for being here.


COSTELLO: So, tell us how it works. So teachers carry concealed weapons in the classroom? Is that how it works?

THWEATT: Well, our policy addresses all employees in the school district. There are 25 employees in our district, including myself, and it really addresses employees. It has core components, they have to have a CHL in Texas and then they're approved by the board and they undergo further training, and then they have to use frangible ammunition. That's basically our policy in a nutshell.

And it's not all teachers. It's those that meet the criteria.

COSTELLO: So are you carrying a gun right now?

THWEATT: We don't answer that. Personnel anonymity is key, I believe to an effective program.

COSTELLO: So, those teachers who carry guns the students never really see the weapons, right?

THWEATT: No, they really aren't. And reality we are not really doing anything new. We're just kind of supplanting an old idea.

What I basically supplanted was an idea of having one armed security guard or two and have multiple individuals trained in the same way or even better actually and then have them peppered throughout the building, and so that you have some protection for an active shooter.

COSTELLO: You also have a state of the art security system in place. Can you tell us about that?

THWEATT: Well, you know, we have a pretty extensive camera system. As a matter of fact, I rarely got in any school district that has as many cameras as we have. But we also have external locks, magnetic locks. We can lock down the building from our administration offices with one button and we have, you know, they have access through one door during the day.

So we've done everything we can passively, Carol. But you know, we had some issues with the Pennsylvania Amish shooting, (INAUDIBLE) delivery man, we have let him to our doors. He was a friend of the school.

So, we had some issues with protecting. As you said before, we're 30 minutes from law enforcement. That can be a long time with help coming.

COSTELLO: So, are you saying you've had problems with people trying to come in with guns? I mean, have you had problems. Is this why you had a state of the art system and part of the reason why you decided to arm some teachers and employees? THWEATT: We're in rural areas, and rural people have a tendency to consider themselves their own first responders. You know, obviously, when you're 30 minutes from any kind of law enforcement, we protect our self and we've had some issues.

I think there's a misnomer about rural America in general, drug use -- especially meth is on the increase. We've had issues with that within our economy. We had one individual a few years ago that was sold some bad drugs and couldn't find the guy that sold them, so he came looking for the guy's brother, and that happened to be one of our students and just kind of walked into the door, before our security system and we started considering things.

So I think there is a misnomer that we don't have Barney Fife and Andy Taylor in our communities. It's a changing demographic and it is not necessarily one that's a safe one.

COSTELLO: The teachers union, the National Education Association, is against arming teachers, they say if you arm the teachers it will make children more afraid, they'll feel less safe because they'll always be aware there's a need for a gun in school.

THWEATT: Well, you know the Israelis have been doing this for years. I disagree with NEA obviously with their opinion. I do not believe that having people armed does anything that changes the environment except for the fact that our parents are very glad we have this policy in place. While all the other schools across the nation were in lockdown, we were not.

COSTELLO: David Thweatt, superintendent of the Harrold, Texas Independent School District -- thank you so much for sharing your thoughts this morning. We appreciate it.

THWEATT: Thank you, Carol.

COSTELLO: In just a few minutes, remembering those victims at the Newtown shooting. We're back in a minute.


COSTELLO: Good morning. We're coming up on 30 minutes past the hour. I'm Carol Costello.

One week ago today, right about now, a gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School and changed so many lives, not just in Newtown, Connecticut, but all across the country. Sandy Hook is just an incomprehensible tragedy.

But this morning, church bells and a moment of silence to honor the victims. Right now, the governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy, and lieutenant governor, Nancy Wyman, they are standing in front of Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, and they're waiting for those bells to ring.

Shortly you'll see the bell at the Trinity Episcopal Church, it, along with other churches, will ring the bells at 9:30 Eastern time in honor of all of those murders in Newtown. Right now officially 29 states will participate, covering the memorial from Newtown's United Methodist Church which interestingly will ring the bell 28 times.

Here's Jason Carroll. Good morning, Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly, Carol. Twenty-eight times here at the church and, you know, the debate is sort of going back and forth -- should they be doing it for the 26 victims or should they be doing it for the 28 people who died that day?

I think from the perspective from those here at the church they say this is not a time for the debate. This is a time simply to ring the bell, to remember those who lost their lives, to remember those at this point who were suffering, who are in pain, the survivors.

When you speak to so many people here in the community, Carol, including one of the pastors here at this particular church, Pastor Jane Sibley , a lot of people are experiencing survivors' guilt, because now that we're a week out, people start to think more about why am I still here? Why did my son, why did my daughter survive? These are some of the things a lot of people here are thinking about and people need comfort.