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L.A. Holding Gun Buyback Today; Massive Funnel Cloud Hits Ground; Tornado Rakes Coastal Alabama; Inching Closer To The Fiscal Cliff; Worst Holiday Sales in Three Years

Aired December 26, 2012 - 13:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: -- brave folks in the Czech Republic took on a freezing river during their traditional Christmas swim. The temperature there, 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux. The renewed debate over guns in America playing out on several fronts today. I want to get right to it. The debate over guns intensifying, of course, after the horrific shooting in a Newtown, Connecticut school that left six adults, 20 first graders dead. Today, Los Angeles is holding a gun buy-back program. It is usually held in May, but the mayor decided to move it up after the Newtown shootings.


ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (D), LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: People want to do something, particularly after the Newtown tragedy and now this latest tragedy where two firefighters were shot and killed. They want to act. They're tired of waiting on the Congress and on our legislatures to do something. They feel like there's too much talk and not enough action, and this is an opportunity for people to act it to get rid of guns that they don't use, that they don't need, that too often are stolen, and, if fact, more often used in an accident than defending themselves against an intruder.


MALVEAUX: The newspaper is facing a backlash after it published the names and addresses of gun permit holders in New York's Westchester and Rockland Counties. "The Journal News" published an interactive map on its Web site. It allows readers to zoom in on red dots that show which residences have gun licenses. Now, the paper say it's in response to the massacre in Connecticut but many readers are infuriated.

Well, turn in a gun, get a gift card in return. That is the deal today in Los Angeles. Paul Vercammen, he's joining us with more on the city's gun buy-back program. Paul, I understand that you can even get like a grocery gift card here. How does this thing work?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: I'll show you exactly what you get. You get one of these cards. This is from Ralph's, it's a grocery store here in southern California. If you turn in a rifle or a pistol, you get $100 in groceries. And if you turn in an assault weapon, you get $200. And right now, Suzanne, it is extremely busy here. This has only been going on for about an hour, and so far 200 guns have been turned in, about 10 assault weapons.

If you look just over my shoulder, you can see a whole batch of rifles in a couple of the trash bins behind me -- in the trash cans behind me. You can see the rifle stocks sticking out. And there's about 40 cars backed up in line ready to hand back guns. One of the reasons this is popular is anonymity. There are no photographs taken. They do not take down license plate numbers. People have asked, is this a sting? And absolutely it is not. So, many guns so far this morning, 200 of them, Suzanne, being distributed, poured into bins here, and people getting those grocery cards that you alluded to earlier.

MALVEAUX: Paul, that's impressive there when you take a look at that. I know they're not asking any questions but has anybody told you, like, why or how they have these rifles, these guns that are just laying around that they want to get rid of?

VERCAMMEN: Yes. A couple of things are at play here, number one is safety. There's a lot of people who feel like they have guns in the house, they've seen some of the recent incidents where either the wrong people have gotten a hold of the guns, you know, they're, of course, referring to Newtown, or they're worried about kids getting a hold of the guns so accidents are very much at play there.

Also, some people found that they had unregistered guns. I talked to a body guard, and he realized that two of his riles were not registered. He didn't need them so he turned them in. So, I think a lot of people are reacting to what has happened recently across the country, and many people just kind of shaking their heads and making sure that they don't somehow get linked to the next accident or tragedy because the guns get in the hands of wrong people or children -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Paul, I understand this is a program that -- it's usually held in May every year but it has been moved up after the school shooting in Connecticut. How are people responding to the fact that this is something that is happening much more immediately now in the community?

VERCAMMEN: Well, as the mayor said earlier, they wanted concrete action. And they're, obviously, reacting very well so far this morning here in the San Fernando Valley. The Valley, by the way, a suburb of Los Angeles, has about a million people. And it's been extremely brisk. I think even the organizers of the event didn't think that this many people would come out so soon, because it is the day after Christmas. Well, it started at 9:00 local time, and, as I said, they've only been open for an hour and there's quite a long line down the street of people ready to turn in those guns so the reaction has been strong.

MALVEAUX: Wow. Seems very successful. Paul, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

There was a disturbing letter that was left behind by a gunman who shot and killed two volunteer firefighters in upstate New York. William Spangler wrote what he likes doing best, and he says, quote, "killing people." Two other firefighters were seriously wounded when they showed up to put out a fire on Christmas Eve. Our Poppy Harlow is in New York with the latest. Poppy, this is really kind of a strange story. It certainly seemed like this guy was trying to set up these firefighters --


MALVEAUX: -- and then just opened fire. What have you learned today?

HARLOW: Well, we know that it was, according to police, an ambush, a trap that was set up, Suzanne, by this man. And I want to tell you a little bit more detail that we're learning about William Spangler, the shooter here. We can tell you he is dead. He died of a self- inflicted gunshot wound to the head after killing those firefighters and injuring two others. What we know about him is that he has a long criminal history. He was convicted in 1981 of killing his grandmother. He served time in jail until 1998. He was on parole until 2006. So, he had a major, major record.

What we also know that's very disturbing is how many guns he had. He had three different guns on him at the time, a revolver and shotgun and semi-automatic bushmaster 223 caliber rifle. That's very disturbing. Obviously, he wasn't supposed to have any weapons being released from jail. I want to play you some sound, if we do have it, from the press conference that the police chief there held. We don't have that sound, but I want to read you what he said regarding that note, because a note was found, Suzanne. And it said, in part, quote, "I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best, killing people." Which is very disturbing.

He lit fire to his own home. We know now that that killed his sister, Cheryl Spangler, in the home. Police believe they found the remains of her body. As of yesterday, she was deemed missing. And the really confusing part in this is that they don't know of any motive. There's no motive that they could read from that note whatsoever. But the police chief went on to say, later yesterday, he was, quote, "equipped to go to war and kill innocent people."

MALVEAUX: And, according to that letter, it certainly sounds that was, like, -- that was his intention. Poppy, do we know about the family, the memorials that are taking place for these firefighters?

HARLOW: Well, they started taking place last night on Christmas. Obviously, this happened on Christmas Eve. We have some video we can play you. In the town of Webster, New York, you see the fellow firefighters there saluting those that they lost and those that were injured. Also, a candlelight vigil was held later last night. People from the town all coming out in support of these two men that died and those who were injured that they all knew very well.

I want to also show you some photos of those first. Those two that were injured, Joseph Hofstetter and Theodore Scardino, those are the two you see. Theodore Scardino there has the mustache. Joseph Hofstetter, the younger one right above and to the right of him. And then, those that died, you see there on the corner of your screen, Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini and Tom Kaczowka. The two that died. And Lieutenant Chiapperini just really revered in this community. He was a -- he was a volunteer firefighter also a police officer. He was named firefighter of the year in his -- in -- by his whole department, so an incredibly sad story that just keeps developing.

MALVEAUX: All right, Poppy Harlow. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

A little later this hour, we're going to tell you about a newspaper that triggered a fierce debate by publishing an interactive map that shows where people with gun licenses live.

All right, talk about too close for comfort. A massive funnel cloud forms, heads straight for Mobile, Alabama. This was one of the 28 tornadoes that spun out of a storm system that tore up towns from east Texas to the Gulf Coast. That happened on Christmas day. A tornado touched down right on top of a historic high school in Mobile. It demolished outdoor classrooms, ripped the roof off the main school building. Houses just a few hundred feet away weren't damaged at all, miraculously. Amazingly, nobody was hurt around the school.

I want to bring in Sam Jones. He is the mayor of Mobile, Alabama and joins us live this morning. Thank you for joining us here. Tell us how your residents are doing today.

SAM JONES, MAYOR, MOBILE, ALABAMA: They're doing fine today. We had a lot of people displaced yesterday. A lot of property damage, as you can see behind me. This is the historic Murphy High School and their athletic building that was destroyed. But we also had a lot of trees down, 500 on the public right-of-ways, probably 1,500 on private property. And a lot of that blocked our main arteries. We expect to have all them open by 3:00 today.

MALVEAUX: Mayor, amazingly, no one was injured around that school. Do you have a sense, a tally of those in your community either who were injured or who lost their lives or is this an event that took place and, miraculously, everyone survive survived?

JONES: We're very fortunate everyone survived. No major injuries and no life lost as a result of this tornado.

MALVEAUX: Mayor, what do the residents of your community need today? Clearly, this is something that happened on Christmas. It was something that people did not expect. I imagine that there are probably pretty shocked and need some help.

JONES: Well, this happened Christmas afternoon. Just remember, five days ago, we had another tornado that came through the downtown area. This is highly unusual on the Gulf Coast. Normally, we have hurricanes, so tornadoes are unusual for us. Mostly, really, our residents are trying to get back in place. We didn't have a whole lot of people who were displaced from their homes. We did have some, not a whole lot, as a result of this, but we did have a lot of property damage.

MALVEAUX: All right. We know there's a plane passing over you, there. We can still hear you though, Mayor. Tell us, where were you when the tornado struck?

JONES: I was at home. I left home about 5:30 and came to the downtown area and stayed there until about 9:45 last night, trying to put together our relief effort and our clean-up effort. A lot of it included power companies. We had to actually cut off power in use, but we were trying to remove trees, so that went on all night. And they've been out here a long time working and they've done a tremendous job clearing the arteries and we expect all of the main arteries to be open by 3:00 today.

MALVEAUX: All right. Mayor, we are so happy that nobody was actually injured or killed in that. It was an unbelievable storm that took place with the tornadoes. We appreciate that, and we certain wish your residents a good holiday as best that it can be. Thank you, Mayor.

Alexandria Steele, she is watching where the storm is headed next, and who is going to get hit. What do we know?

ALEXANDRIA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: All right. Well, one thing we do know, after listening to the mayor also, you know, this was the greatest Christmas day tornado outbreak on record. So, it certainly was substantial and poor Mobile, only five days prior, of course, that other tornado. And tornadoes are not done with this system. This system has some seriously long legs. We've been dealing with it for two days and we've got another two days in it.

But we've just got a couple more hours for severe weather so here it is. Right now, in Eastern North and South Carolina, we do have tornado watches posted until 5:00. That means that, historically (ph), conditions are ripe for tornadoes to develop. And just four minutes ago at the top of the hour, we had tornado warnings posted. Two of them in eastern North Carolina but they have since expired. But it's from these lines right along 95, so driving 95 in North Carolina really a perilous scenario right along I-40 as well.

So, that's the severe side, and we've got until about 5:00 with that watch. And then, here's the snowy side. And the real snow sweet spot where we'll see between six and 12 and maybe 15 inches of snow, right here along this I-70. Really, it's from Indianapolis, the north of 70 through Cleveland, and then toward Buffalo and Syracuse. That's where the heaviest snow will be. And you can see what we've got, of course, severe weather is on the move, but we have certainly seen an awful lot the snow.

And that will continue but, you know, we also have blizzard warnings part and parcel to, A, the snow, but it's the winds. The winds have been the biggest player with this storm. Currently looking right now at Indy, 33-mile-per-hour wind gusts all the way down toward Virginia, Nashville, Cleveland. You see the scope of this thing, and these are the current wind gusts. But let me just show you where the blizzard warnings are, they're right here delineated in red. It's Indiana and into Ohio. Central Indiana including Indy all the way up through I-80 in Ohio. That's where we'll see the snow coupled with 50-mile-per- hour winds. And then, all in the northeast, we've got winter storm warnings as well. So, we're certainly going to see an awful lot of snow, two feet plus in upstate New York. And even, guys, what we're going to see, Suzanne, at the big airports in New York and Newark and Washington, the heavy rain with the winds will slow travel tonight and tomorrow at the airports there as well. And that's not the snow, that's the winds. Winds and airplanes certainly do not mix.

MALVEAUX: All right. You just got to be patient there.

STEELE: Yes, bring a good book.

MALVEAUX: Just get through the travel. All right, thank you. Appreciate it, Alexandria.

STEELE: You're welcome.

MALVEAUX: Six days, that is how long Congress has to make a deal to keep your taxes going up. By how much? We're going to tell you after the break.


MALVEAUX: Just six days away from the massive spending cuts, the tax increases known as the fiscal cliff. President Obama, he's heading back from his holiday vacation in Hawaii early in case there is a last-minute deal. Now, the Senate returns from Christmas break tomorrow. House leaders say they're prepared to call members back if there is an agreement.

So joining us to talk about all of this, CNN contributor John Avlon. He is a senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast."

John, good to see you. We are here again. It's like "Groundhog Day," you know. We don't think there's going to be any kind of grand bargain at this point. So what are the short-term measures? What's the best thing we can hope for in the next six days?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The best thing we can hope for is they start getting back to work again, Suzanne. I mean from all reports, leadership isn't even talking to each other at this point. So it really is urgent. With six days left, the clock is ticking. The countdown is going on. And this is not something abstract that only occurs on the Washington level. People need to appreciate that if the country goes over the fiscal cliff, it will impact their bottom line as well directly. Money out of their pocket in the form of tax hikes.

MALVEAUX: So, John, we've got some stop gap measures. There are some things that perhaps they could do. What are they at least talking about?

AVLON: Well, the measure -- I mean the president said in his Friday press conference before he jetted off to Hawaii, that he was hoping for not a grand bargain but a piecemeal. Let's try to come up to an agreement so that the vast majority of Americans don't have their taxes hiked, that unemployment insurance is extended for some 2 million Americans who (INAUDIBLE) it's set to expire on, and then we can deal with more fundamental tax reform and entitlement reform in the new year. The hope for a kind of grand bargain, which we've been really keeping an eye on for most of the year, that looks like it is too big to hope for in these next few days. But not having taxes go up on 98 percent of Americans, that should be do-able. Making sure that 2 million Americans aren't kicked off the welfare rolls, that should be do-able.

MALVEAUX: John, remind us what the consequences are if there is nothing -- nothing that happens in six days.

AVLON: Suzanne, this is important for folks to appreciate how it impacts their wallet, their bottom line. According to the Tax Policy Center, if you made $37,000 last year, your taxes are going to go up almost $3,000 if nothing is done to avert the fiscal cliff. If you and your family make $104,000, doing pretty well, you're going to see your taxes go up some $6,200. And if you make $400,000 a year, you're going to see your taxes go up over $9,000. That's overnight. The Bush tax cuts sunset if we don't do anything to overt this fiscal cliff. And here's what's so frustrating about it, Suzanne, for so many folks at home. This is something that the president and Republicans agree on. They agree that 98 percent of Americans should not have their taxes raised, and yet that 2 percent disagreement is brings us to the edge of the fiscal cliff.

MALVEAUX: And, John, finally, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, says, hey, you know what, let's just write on our coffee cups "come together." Do you think anybody's going to pay attention to that in Washington?

AVLON: You know what, anything helps. Everything helps. Just merely spreading the message that America's watching and we're waiting for Congress to act to find a way to reason together, that's an important act. And everyone doing their part, if that's what the Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz can do, I say good on him because we all need to send this message to Washington and make sure it isn't settled. We'll be going deeper into this tonight on "OutFront with Erin Burnett" at 7:00 p.m. as well. This is urgent. The clock is ticking, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. John, we're looking forward to seeing you tonight.

AVLON: Thanks.

MALVEAUX: And thanks again for keeping us posted. Appreciate it.

AVLON: Absolutely.

MALVEAUX: Many American families have adopted children from Russia, but that might actually be ending thanks to a controversial bill that was passed in Russia parliament.


MALVEAUX: A new study detailed in "The New York Times" shows that obesity levels among American children from low income homes is actually going down. The reason is not exactly clear. But one of the study's authors says that breast feeding might be a factor. Breast feeding is becoming more popular with mothers, and doctors believe that the practice promotes healthier weights among kids.

Americans trying to adopt children from Russia could soon be told some rather crushing news, that those adoptions might not go through. And here's why. A law banning all Americans from adopting in Russia has been approved by Russia's parliament. And President Vladimir Putin, he is expected to sign it. So the measure is considered a payback of sorts for an American law passed two weeks ago. That law puts financial restrictions on Russians accused of human rights violations and bans them from traveling to the United States.

Well, the U.S. State Department says that over the last 20 years, Americans have adopted more than 60,000 children from Russia, more than any other country, and that the need is great. There are more than 650,000 orphans in Russia. In the United States, there's more than 58,000 children living in state institutions or group homes. Well, earlier I talked to Adam Pertman with the Donaldson Adoption Institute and I asked him, what does this ban mean for those pending adoptions? And here's what he said.


ADAM PERTMAN, EXEC. DIR., DONALDSON ADOPTION INSTITUTE: If what they say is going to happen really happens, those families are not going to be able to adopt the kids, even if all the legal processes already have been in place. But much more important, let's focus on the children. What it means is those children will remain institutionalized, which is not a good place for any kid, rather than be in families.

MALVEAUX: Why is it that you have in Russia -- and there are some statistics say that special needs kids in Russian orphanages, as much as 9 percent of the 956 Russian children adopted last year, those children who have disabilities, why is it so difficult for them in their home country?

PERTMAN: Well, most countries, other than the U.S., do not have an a adoption culture. The U.S. adopts more children of all -- in all sorts of adoptions than the rest of the world combined. So it's not part of the -- blood ties are important in most countries. Our country is a little different now. There are adoption cultures building in some countries, but Russia isn't there yet. So, again, for the children who do not get homes domestically or internationally, homes are good. For those who do not get homes as a result of this bill, they are going to remain in institutions where their prospects are dim.

MALVEAUX: But why do you say their prospects are dim? What is the life? What does life look like for a young Russian child in an orphanage?

PERTMAN: Well, again, it's not just Russia. Orphanages, institutions, that's what they are, are not good places for children. Children who lives in institutional care, temporary care, lose IQ points every day, they suffer from developmental delays, they have psychological issues that develop as a result of institutionalization. Kids -- this is research. Research shows this very clearly. It's research that shows the sun is shining. Kids grow up well in families loved and tended to, not in institutions where they are among tens, hundreds, thousands of children who are being tended to by very, very few people.


MALVEAUX: If Vladimir Putin signs this anti-adoption measure, it's going to go into effect January 1st. And tomorrow on the program, we're going to be joined by a young woman, a Russian adoptee herself, who's going to share her personal thoughts on this proposed ban.

So, do you have the right to know if your neighbor owns a gun? Well, a newspaper in New York published the names, the addresses of people who own one. Let the backlash begin.


MALVEAUX: It's Boxing Day in the U.K., Canada and several other countries. A fitting name, right? Kind of like Black Friday in the United States. Retailers cut their prices hoping to entice shoppers to look for a good deal willing to spend their holiday cash. Look at them, they're just running. Analysts expect that British shoppers are going to spend almost $5 billion today.

In the U.S., not good news for retailers. Early figures showing that it's the worst holiday sales performance in three years. Alison Kosik, she's at the New York Stock Exchange.

Alison, why so bad this year?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, you know, the fiscal cliff issues were hanging on shoppers' minds. That's one reason. But, you know, you look at whether or not the after Christmas shopping is going to help. It will in some ways. You know, in many ways, though, people are walking into stores today using gift cards. In fact, the National Retail Federation says that 80 percent of shoppers bought a gift card. That's almost $30 billion worth. And the thing is, those are counted when they're initially sold, not when they're redeemed. But if you're a retailer, most people wind up spending more when they're in the store.