Gun violence task force meets video game leaders as debate continues
(CNN) — It was the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that spurred the creation of a federal task force on gun violence. But the headlines since then have shown that the issue stretches beyond any single incident.
The work of the task force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, comes at a time when the debate over guns is everywhere.
“I’ve never quite seen anything that has shocked the consciousness of the American people like 6- and 7-year-old kids being riddled with bullets in a classroom, … in an area that was considered to be immune to this kind of behavior and had done everything that seemed logical … to protect children in that school,” Biden said Friday.
On the same day that Biden shared some of the recommendations he is likely to make to the president, another school shooting occurred, this one in California. The incident left one student in critical condition.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, a judge ordered James Holmes to stand trial for his role in the movie theater shooting that left 12 people dead and scores injured. Holmes is charged with 166 counts including murder, attempted murder and other charges in the July 20 shooting rampage.
The conversations the task force is having with stakeholders on all sides — including the National Rifle Association — parallel the debates happening at dinner tables and on Facebook news feeds.
That the issue of gun violence has so galvanized the public means the the task force’s recommendations will be in the spotlight, as will whatever President Barack Obama chooses to do with them.
Biden on Friday met with representatives from the video game industry, the makers of violent games that some blame for incidents of gun violence. The vice president and other attendees were joined by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
“We know there is no single answer and, quite frankly, we don’t even know whether some of the things people think impact on this (gun violence) actually impact on it or not,” Biden said just before the meeting, stressing that video game industry officials are among “a whole lot of people” participating in the discussion.
Obama set up the task force after last month’s mass shooting in Newtown in which 27 people were killed, 20 of them schoolchildren.
There was no immediate indication as to what specifically was discussed at Friday’s meeting.
But about 400 miles away, in Massachusetts, action has been taken against violent video games. Specifically, operators of four rest stops have removed — at the state’s request — arcade games with guns or “shooting components,” said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation.
This action followed a letter to state officials from a couple who, on their way back toward Boston on Christmas Eve, noticed a “young man pointing a life-sized machine gun” at a video game inside the Massachusetts Turnpike’s plaza in Charlton, about 100 miles from Newtown.
“We don’t believe that violent video games are the singular cause of mass shootings,” Tracey and Andrew Hyams wrote. “But games with realistic-looking and sounding plastic assault weapons, which likely desensitize players to the realities of mass destruction, have no place in state-sponsored highway rest stops.”
Massachusetts isn’t alone as leaders in several states are also pursuing changes big and small, post-Newtown.
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday that his office is asking legislators to consider state funding to train school staffers to carry firearms on campus, which is an initiative generally backed by the NRA.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal — like Dewhurst, a Republican — on Friday proposed legislation to join 17 other states and make mental health records part of the screening criteria for federal background checks to buy firearms.
What happens in Washington, meanwhile, remains to be seen. This week, Biden revealed several groups have encouraged one policy change: universal background checks for all gun buyers, including those who purchase through private sales.
Some states have backlogs of thousands of felons who are never registered on lists aimed at helping prevent dangerous weapons from getting into their hands, he noted.
The Obama administration will try to pass an assault weapons ban, an administration official said Friday. Biden has not mentioned such a proposal in public so far, but that does not mean it is off the table, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.
“The president has been clear that Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban and that avoiding this issue just because it’s been politically difficult in the past is not an option,” he said.
The NRA expressed disappointment with a White House task force meeting Thursday, saying it expected mental health, the “marketing of violence to our kids” and school safety to be major topics.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the group said, claiming that the meeting focused largely on placing “restrictions on lawful firearms owners.”
CNN has learned the NRA will soon start an ad campaign to help mount its opposition to possible new gun restrictions.
Since the shooting in Newtown last month, the organization has added 100,000 new members, bringing its total membership to 4.2 million, NRA officials told CNN.
The gun rights effort includes those behind Gun Appreciation Day, set for January 19. On its website, the group asks Americans to “go to your local gun store, gun range or gun show with your Constitution, American flags and your ‘Hands off my Guns’ sign to send a loud and clear message.”
Larry Ward, chairman of Gun Appreciation Day, said the event is a response to gun control laws being proposed in the current session of Congress, such as the assault weapons ban touted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and backed by Obama.
But some find the event’s timing offensive, as it comes just two days before the president’s inauguration and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“There is selfish, self-serving intent in a Gun Appreciation Day,” said Maria Roach, whose group United for Change USA began a petition against the event. Groups calling on people to show off their guns “are really focused on theater, and not solutions,” she said.
Ward had a different interpretation.
“I believe that Gun Appreciation Day honors the legacy of Dr. King,” he told CNN’s Carol Costello. “I think Martin Luther King would agree with me, if he were alive today, that if African-Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from Day One of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery would not have been a chapter in our history.”
“That is ridiculous,” Roach countered.
CNN’s Josh Levs, Kevin Bohn, Marlena Baldacci, Joe Sutton and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.