Students in shattered town return to school

Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 00:00

As the fallout over the Newtown massacre spread to corporate America, students in the shattered Connecticut town returned to classes yesterday, their yellow buses passing a church where the funeral for one of the 20 first-graders killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School was taking place.

While students at the indefinitely closed school remained at home, those who attend other schools in the town of 27,000 resumed classes in the run up to Christmas break. At St Rose of Lima Church, back to back funerals were held for a pair of six-year-olds, James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos, the first of eight to be held at the Catholic church in the coming days.

Security was tight. One school in Newtown, Head O’Meadow Elementary School, was ordered to be locked down because of a threat that police did not specify. The school’s principal asked parents to keep their children at home.

As people in Newtown grieved and worried, there were signs the public outrage that followed Friday’s mass shooting was having an impact, unlike previous atrocities. Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm, announced it would sell its stake in Freedom Group, the maker of the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that was used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza to kill 20 first-graders and six teachers and staff inside the school.

The gun was purchased legally by Lanza’s mother Nancy, whom Lanza shot to death in the home they shared before he attacked the school.

Cerberus announced plans to sell even though the gun company had proved a lucrative acquisition. Freedom, the nation’s largest seller of firearms and second-largest seller of ammunition, sold more than one million long guns and two billion rounds of ammunition last year, generating sales of $775 million.

Public pressure

Cerberus was under pressure to divest itself of the gun manufacturer after the group that handles retirement investments for teachers in California hinted it might pull its funds from the private equity firm. Among its other acquisitions, Cerberus owns a chain of Catholic hospitals in and around Boston.

“It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” Cerberus said in a statement.

After previous mass shootings, including one in a cinema in Colorado that left 12 people dead in July, public pressure had little impact on the way the gun industry conducted itself. But the emotional reaction to the murders of 20 children aged six and seven has been more effective than years of lobbying by gun control advocates.

Besides Cerberus, Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the largest sporting goods chains in the US with more than 500 outlets, announced it was stopping all sales and displays of guns at its store near Newtown and would stop selling certain semi-automatic rifles nationwide, at least temporarily. Police said they were still trying to determine whether Adam Lanza unsuccessfully tried to buy a gun at a Dick’s store 12 miles from his home in the days leading up to the massacre.

Still on sale

Walmart, the biggest retail operation in the US, removed from its website the Bushmaster .223 calibre rifle that Lanza used in the school slaughter, but was still selling the rifle.

Even as private industry reacted to public pressure there was anecdotal evidence of a surge in gun sales across the US in recent days, fuelled by fears among enthusiasts that control measures were on the way. Similar runs on guns took place after President Obama’s election last month and in 2008.

In Washington, President Obama was preoccupied with getting a deal to prevent the country from going over the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year, but officials hinted that he will designate vice-president Joe Biden as the administration’s point person on gun control.

White House officials suggested the package the president decides on will be a mix of executive orders that don’t require congressional approval, and a recommendation for laws that would need agreement from the House and Senate. At the very least, the president plans a resumption of a 1994 assault rifle ban that expired in 2004, White House officials said.

Assault rifle ban

Three influential Democrats, senators in gun-friendly states – Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Mark Warner of Virginia – have already signalled their willingness to embrace resumption of the assault rifle ban.

Besides making it illegal to sell rifles like the one used to slaughter the children and teachers in Newtown, the ban would prohibit sales of large-capacity bullet magazines. Lanza’s gun was equipped with a 30-bullet magazine, and police said he was armed with hundreds more bullets that went unused after he shot himself with a high-powered pistol that he had also carried into the school.

President Obama spoke by telephone yesterday to Senator Manchin. But any legislative change would need support from Republicans, who are more closely aligned with the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby’s most powerful organisation.

Republicans have stayed largely silent since the massacre, as has the NRA. Typically, the NRA says little in the wake of mass shootings, but uses its considerable resources and influence to beat back any gun control initiatives filed in response. In a statement yesterday it said: Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of facts before commenting.

“The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

Absolutist

Not all Republicans were silent. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a second amendment absolutist from the gun-friendly state of Kentucky, suggested for the first time that Congress needs to examine whether it can do something to reduce mass shootings.

But in Ohio, Republican governor John Kasich said he planned to go ahead with signing a Bill that would allow guns to be stored in cars parked at Statehouse garages.

Mr Kasich said he supported the Second Amendment right to bear arms “and that’s not going to change”.