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THE SITUATION ROOM
U.S. to Shrink Combat Role in Afghanistan; Video Games and Guns; "No One Helps Us Here"; Flu Activity Slows in Parts of U.S.; Like A Field Commander Against Flu;
Aired January 11, 2013 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: new plans for ending the war in Afghanistan. President Obama meets with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
The White House looks at the connection between video games and gun violence as battle lines form in the looming fight over gun control.
And a new report on the flu. We now have a clearer picture of where this epidemic stands.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
It's the longest war in U.S. history and now we're learning new details about how President Obama intends to end it for the United States. After meeting with the Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai, over at the White House, the president said the U.S. will probably be able to speed up, to accelerate planned troop withdraws.
Some Americans will remain, though, presumably. Their role, though, potentially becoming clearer.
Our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is joining us right now.
Brianna, break down for us what came out of this meeting.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the main headline was what you said, accelerating Afghan forces taking over control of security of Afghanistan from U.S. forces. And that was -- we heard from President Obama and President Karzai that is set to take place in the spring, which is a slight acceleration.
The other thing we heard from President Karzai was that he's open to giving immunity to U.S. troops who may remain beyond 2014. That's immunity from Afghan courts as well as their laws, and that was a key demand of President Obama's for having troop remain.
President Karzai also said that the U.S. will hand over control to Afghan prisoners to Afghan officials and that was a key demand of Karzai's for having troops remain. But really the big headline was that acceleration of troops taking the lead on security and President Obama was asked about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are able to meet those goals and accelerate them somewhat. So, let me repeat.
What's going to happen this spring is that Afghans will be in the lead throughout the country. That doesn't mean that coalition forces, including U.S. forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops. It does mean, though, that Afghans will have taken the lead and our presence, the nature of our work will be different. We will be in a training, assisting, advising role.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And, Brianna, it seems to be a sign, based on what we have heard from the U.S. president, that the U.S. will be able to pursue an a little bit more aggressive drawdown on those troops this year and next year.
Is that a way to read it?
KEILAR: That is a way to read it.
And we are seeing many signs of that. In addition to what President Obama said, we also saw a statement come out from President Obama and President Karzai talking about how Afghan security forces have exceeded initial expectations, that they have made progress.
And, also, as you know, President -- with President Obama appointing or picking former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his next secretary of the defense, it's widely speculated that a more aggressive drawdown is something that Hagel may favor as well.
But it's sort of unclear, Wolf, what it means for the final number of U.S. troops that will remain in Afghanistan. We know that White House officials are talking about somewhere between zero and 9,000 troops, but one of the things that was really interesting, listening to this press conference today, we didn't hear the presidents talk about there being no U.S. troops.
In fact, the finding of common ground on immunity for U.S. troops and on Afghan soldiers and who will be in control of overseeing them seem to indicate that they have found some common ground on key sticking points and the takeaway there is that likely there are going to be U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
BLITZER: The only thing they have to work out is how many. It looks like you're right. Thanks very much, Brianna, for that.
The date is now set for President Obama's State of the Union address. Following tradition, the House speaker, John Boehner, sent a letter to the president today formally inviting him to address both areas of Congress on February 12. That's a Tuesday night. Last year, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address on January 24.
Vice President Joe Biden and members of his gun violence task force sat down with representatives of the video game industry this afternoon. The vice president has promised that by next Tuesday he will give President Obama set of proposals to try to cut down on gun violence in the United States and prevent mass shootings like the ones in Colorado and Connecticut.
While those incidents certainly caused national outrage, there's concern that the White House still doesn't have enough political clout or public momentum to push big, major changes on guns through Congress.
Let's bring in our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's walking into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
You're working this story. What are you learning?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the vice president said there is no one solution for stopping the nation's recent rash of mass shootings, but it's clear the proposals from his task force will be running head on into the NRA.
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know that it is -- there is no silver bullet.
ACOSTA: With Vice President Biden's task force closing in on making its recommendation for new gun control laws, the focus is starting to turn to what, if anything, can get passed in a Congress mired in gridlock. But on an Iowa public TV show, the state's Republican Senator Chuck Grassley sounded open to two of Biden's likely proposals, restricting high-capacity gun magazines and tightening background checks.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I also think though we have to do things to make sure the database of the FBI has all of the information so people can't buy guns that shouldn't have guns.
ACOSTA: The vice president laid out some of the ideas emerging from his task force on Thursday, but he did not mention a new assault weapons ban, stirring speculation that the White House is dropping the proposal, but the White House says that's not so.
An administration spokesman told CNN avoiding this issue just because it's been politically difficult in the past is not an option. That's despite what will be fierce opposition from the nation's top gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
DAVID KEENE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: I do not think there's going to be a ban on so-called assault weapons passed by the Congress. ACOSTA: The NRA warns it plans an aggressive campaign to fight the administration's proposals. The group can simply point to what happened in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the last assault weapons ban into law. Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress to Republicans.
NARRATOR: He's become the only Republican candidate in Indiana with an F rating from the NRA.
ACOSTA: Last year, the NRA proved it was willing to go after the GOP as well, running this TV ad against former Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, who lost a primary battle to a more conservative challenger.
The White House appears to be prepared for the fight to come. After Biden spent days meeting with different interest groups, the latest being video game makers, the vice president doesn't seem to be in the mood to take on the entertainment industry.
(on camera): Are Democrats as nervous about the NRA as they used to be?
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: No, they are not.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Maryland Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen says voters are eager for new gun control laws after Newtown.
VAN HOLLEN: If you look at most of the contested congressional races across the country, they are in the suburbs, and in suburban areas, I think the weight of public opinion is on the side of commonsense gun safety provisions.
ACOSTA: But Democrats say it's up to the president to make that case. That's why they expect President Obama to put a heavy emphasis on gun control in his upcoming State of the Union speech next month -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's going to be a big speech.
In other words, the vice president will make the recommendation to the president on Tuesday. That doesn't necessarily mean we're going to learn what those recommendation are. We may have to wait for the State of the Union address?
ACOSTA: That's right. But I think we're starting to find out what the key provisions of this task proposal will be, the high-capacity magazines and the background checks and an assault weapons ban. There will be some other issues to address such as mental health and perhaps a look at the entertainment industry, but really all of these proposals seem to be going after tightening down on the restrictions on gun buying and on the kinds of weapons and ammunition you can have.
At the same time, Chris Van Hollen did mention to me when I talked to him earlier today they have a lot on their plate with the budget and everything else. So squeezing this in is going to take a big, big push from the White House.
BLITZER: A major amount of political capital as well.
Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
A recent CNN/ORC poll, by the way, shows a strong majority of Americans favor a ban on semiautomatic assault guns, 62 percent. That compares to 37 percent who opposed.
Let's dig a little bit deeper with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.
Gloria, there are some significant political risks for the Obama administration, for the Democrats in this gunfight.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. There are a lot of political risks.
Look, if gun control were easy, they would have done it a while ago. The assault weapons ban has not been renewed for eight years, Wolf. It's been sitting out there. And I think in my conversations with administration officials, what they are going to come up with -- and this sort of echoes what Jim was just saying -- is they are going to come up with what one described to me as a menu of options.
The menu of options will include a ban on assault weapons, but it would also include closing the gun show loophole, limiting purchases of these high-capacity magazines. So they are going to put those options out there.
But is a tension. And there is a tension inside the Democratic Party. Do you make a huge push on assault weapons and hurt yourself on the other list, or do you kind of ease up on assault weapons and maybe go after the magazine clips, which some people believe would even be more effective?
Don't forget, there's a lot of history here. And Joe Biden was the person managing that 1994 crime bill, which included the ban on assault weapons. He remembers what happened to Democrats after they got passed and they lost control of the House.
BLITZER: Where could there be some consensus on this issue?
BORGER: Well, again, in talking with administration officials about this who have been involved in some of these sessions, one source said to me that it really may be on the background check issue, that there seems to be some kind of consensus developing that you can close that gun show loophole, require background checks.
And the other area is on these high-capacity magazines. If you could limit those high-capacity magazines, then perhaps that would be another way of going at the assault weapons ban without allowing folks to say, you know what, you're taking away my guns, because you wouldn't be taking away their guns. You would be just limiting those high-capacity rounds. BLITZER: You don't only need to develop a consensus with the Republicans and the president, but among the Democrats, you need a consensus, because there are splits, serious splits even among Democrats.
BORGER: And here's the issue. The polling you just showed earlier, you know, shows that a majority of the American public wants a ban on assault weapons. Two-thirds of the American public want to have some sort of gun control.
But the overall polls don't really matter as much as the state-by- state polls and the question of intensity. There you see it. And so I think what you look at if you're a Democrat, you're a member of Congress, for example, senators up from the states of Montana, Louisiana, South Dakota, all Democrats, gun control a very big issue there. A lot of gun owners.
So what they are trying to measure is intensity of voters who come out in midterm elections, because midterm elections, unlike presidential elections, you tend to get people from the far right and the far left who come out and vote. And so these Democrats have to decide whether those gun owners would be with them on a certain number of issues, so they could still get reelected and still do some kind of gun control, Wolf.
BLITZER: And they remember the price they paid for all of this back in the Clinton administration.
BORGER: Right. But they do want to do gun control. They just have to figure out what is realistic and what's not. And that assault weapons ban is right there smack in the middle of everything.
BLITZER: Let's see what the vice president comes up with. Thanks very much, Gloria.
More than half-a-million people are fleeing Syria's civil war. Now winter is compounding the misery for many Syrian refugees.
Plus, details of this spectacular weather phenomena.
BLITZER: Syrian opposition groups report at least 80 people killed in civil war fighting today. And the United Nations now says that the number of refugees fleeing the war has topped 612,000, about a third of them have fled to neighboring Lebanon where winter is only compounding the crisis.
Here is CNN's Nick Paton Walsh with more.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're here Arsal (ph), about an hour away from the Syrian border. But in the last three days, 20 centimeters of snow and freezing temperatures have swept in. Doctors saying that 20 children have taken ill, one of whom seriously as this town struggling to absorb quite so many Syrian refugees now has to deal with a bitter winter.
(voice-over): It's nearly Syria but hardly life. Enveloped in snow, the border town of Arsal grimes with refugees, all cold and many young. This man paralyzed, shot near Homs, now surrounded by the children he can't provide for.
"No one helps us here," he says. "No one helps us but God."
In this tiny space for nine, the children are literally climbing the walls. His brother, probably a rebel, doesn't want his face shown. He needs medication for kidney stones, powerless where they now call home.
(on camera): Squirreled away in houses like this across the town of Arsal are 15,000 Syrian refugees, and it's causing the population here alone to rise by about 40 percent. This is rebel-friendly territory, so they are okay here even in the harshest of winter. But the fears amongst many in Lebanon is the longer this stay of nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees goes on across the country, the greater the risk they'll upset the delicate sectarian balance Lebanon has struggled with for decades.
(voice-over): Others survive in ruins, sheeting for doors, dark spaces haunted by a father dead, a son arrested last summer. Left to fend for themselves, knowing worse is behind them.
"I left with the tanks and the rockets and planes overhead," she says. "We went up the mountain on foot with the kids, escaping in the night, walking until sunrise.
Hassan (ph) shows us the water leaks in and explains last night they were almost robbed for the third time. Even though nothing, something to someone here.
This fragile, tiny country left wondering how a new generation of anger will express itself.
(on camera): Well, one side-effect of this snow is making it impossible for refugees to come over the mountain, into this valley for the past few days. But eventually, the snows will met, they'll proceed leaving this town to deal with the consequences of this harsh winter but, again, a steady flow of what was in the past, hundreds of refugees every day.
Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Arsal, Lebanon.
BLITZER: After a week of dramatic testimony about the Colorado theater shootings, there's another delay in moving forward to a trial.
Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the situation room right now.
Lisa, what's going on? LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, James Holmes was scheduled to be arraigned and possibly enter a plea today but a judge put everything off until the week of March 12th. Holmes' attorneys want time to go over the 30,000 pages of evidence in the case. He faces 166 counts, including murder and attempted murder. And today, someone on the victim side of the courtroom shouted, quote, "rot in hell, Holmes."
And the U.S. government is launching a comprehensive review of the design and production of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. In making the announcement today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Boeing officials emphasized they believe the plane is safe.
During our next hour, we will have a closer look at the Dreamliner's recent string of problems.
And, finally, check out these incredible pictures from -- excuse me -- from Australia. You are looking at the red light of a sunset reflecting off a dust storm that formed under a thunderstorm. The dust has been picked up by a weather system that moved offshore over the Indian Ocean and dropped out of the developing thunderclouds. But look at those amazing pictures and it's great that the photographer was able to capture those images.
BLITZER: Yes, I love those pictures.
SYLVESTER: Not something you see every day, Wolf.
BLITZER: Probably not every year either. Thanks very much, Lisa, for that.
He's just back from a controversial visit to North Korea, the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will tell me what he saw and what he learned in the world's most isolated country.
Plus, how one school is now fighting back against the flu.
BLITZER: New numbers on the flu are out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest report says the number of states reporting high levels of flu activity has fallen by five, but the number reporting widespread activity increased from 41 to 47.
Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is joining us right now.
So, Sanjay, what does this report tell us, if anything, about the remainder of this flu season?
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's kind of what we expected, Wolf.
We're about, you know, sort of midway through what we expect this flu season to last. Usually 12 weeks of the intense part of the flu season. We're about six weeks into it now. You know, I could tell you when you look at these sort of statistics, it's just one point in time before you can really tell if things are truly dropping off. It takes a few weeks of data to really look at that, to see if you have a trend.
As you said, 47 states with widespread activity. California, Hawaii, and Mississippi are the only ones that haven't yet reported widespread activity but they probably will. You mentioned five states went down in terms of the level of activity but four states also went up.
So, I think it's a bit of a wash, Wolf. I think, we know this flu season started a little bit earlier. It is likely to end a little bit earlier as a result, but we just have to collect some more data over the next couple of weeks, Wolf.
BLITZER: And that's what we'll do. We keep hearing that everyone still needs to get a flu shot, that it's not to late. But we're also hearing potentially about shortages.
Here's the question: is there enough vaccine to go around?
GUPTA: Yes, I believe so. But there's a micro way of looking at this and a macro. You know, you have a certain amount of vaccine that is made and then you've got to sort of predict where it's going to be needed and how to distribute it around the country. A lot of this is based on utilization, flu vaccines in years past.
Let me show you some numbers, Wolf, put this in context for you. A hundred and thirty-five million doses manufactured, 128 million doses distributed, and 112 million vaccinated. Those are actually pretty good numbers in terms of people who have gone to be vaccinated. But if you do the math, and I did this earlier, 16 million doses are in pharmacies across the country. Another 7 million ready to go.
And I can tell you, Wolf, there's a few hundred thousand doses of the nasal spray as well, the flu mist that's available in pharmacies as well. And that flu mist does expire at the end of the month, or next month rather. So, you know, that's something that can be utilized if people are having a hard time finding the shots, Wolf.
BLITZER: If they are having a hard time getting a shot, they can't find a flu shot, what can they do to help prevent getting the flu?
GUPTA: Well, you know, there's two components to this answer. One, if you -- you know, almost sounds silly and simple to say this, but just washing your hands as frequently as possible really makes a difference.
And, Wolf, let me explain it like this. The virus, this germ can live in the air but it can also live on surfaces for eight hours, almost an entire workday. So if you get it on your hands for some reason and inadvertently touch your hands to your nose or your mouth, that's how people get sick. And we touch our nose and mouth several times a day without even thinking about it.
The other part is, if people are sick and I've been telling people in this building, Wolf, they have to stay home, not just for themselves but for everyone around them. So, staving off the spread is the biggest goal here.
If you are at home, one little tidbit and you're taking medications for fever, for the cold symptoms, acetaminophen is an active ingredient in a lot of these medications. Make sure you're doubling up acetaminophen and from over the counter cold medication. Keep tabs on that.
But other than that, your mother's advice, my mother's advice is what is going to apply here. Get plenty of rest and plenty of fluids.
BLITZER: What about chicken soup?
GUPTA: Chicken soup can help as well. My mom told me that as well.
BLITZER: My mom used to say to my dad, it might not help but it can't hurt.
All right. Thanks very for that, Sanjay Gupta.
GUPTA: You got it.
BLITZER: Children are especially vulnerable to the flu. Some precautions are especially important at school.
CNN's Brian Todd shows us what one school is doing to try to protect its students -- Brian.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we all know by now that schools are some of the most dangerous transmission sites for the flu. What are the most common ways it spreads and how can you stave it off?
To find out some of that, we came here in Patuxent Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a typical battleground against the illness.
(voice-over): Cynthia Norris knows she's got to great creative. She's got to keep a nationwide flu outbreak from slamming into her school.
And with this small group of kids, ages 6 to 11, it's the visual that counts. She spreads glitter on her desks.
CYNTHIA NORRIS, REGISTERED NURSE, PATUXENT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: And then I'm going to put my hands in it. That's the germs that we don't see, OK? So, if I cone and I touch you, this glitter being the germs is what I would pass on to you and you can potentially get sick. OK?
Now, my phone rings, I pick up the phone, now after I put it down, look at that. What does that represent?
TODD: As a registered nurse at Patuxent Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Norris is like a field commander against the flu. Her other tactics, coloring sheets with pledges to sign, demos on hand washing, sanitizer dispensers all over the place.
(on camera): What do you think of this? Does this help you?
AMIYA BAKER, 6TH GRADER: Yes, because when you clean your hands, you make sure it's clean and you don't get a lot of germs.
TODD: Do you find a lot of this hard to remember to try to prevent the flu?
TODD (voice-over): Neillsville, Wisconsin, is in the region of the country at the Centers for Disease Control says has been the hardest hit. School district officials says one out of every five students there has had to stay home recently with flu-like symptoms.
JOHN GAIER, NEILLSVILLE, WISCONSIN DISTRICT ADMNISTRATOR: We are working hard to try to find kids that maybe have symptoms that are in the district and having our nurse looking and checking those kids out, and sending those kids home if need be.
TODD: Cynthia Norris says the most common ways flu spreads in schools, kids touching each other, with droplets from sneezing or sniffling on their hands, sharing of food and other items, and just close proximity to others.
But mistakes are made by parents, too.
(on camera): Do a lot of parents who may have a kid on the borderline or whatever, do they err on the side of sending them to school too many times?
NORRIS: They do. They do. And sometimes the kids say, I told my mama I wasn't feeling good and mom, you'll be OK, and they'll send them to school. And so, a lot of time, they are just not keeping them home that 24-hour period after they have a fever.
TODD (voice-over): A mistake also made Norris says by many teachers who don't stay home when they are sick.
(on camera): Now, as bad as this outbreak has been, in some school districts around the United States, including this one, health officials say they may have caught a break. They say that just before the schools broke for the holidays, they noticed more widespread flu- like symptoms. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: are sick. Now as bad as this outbreak has been in some school districts around the United States, including this one, health officials say they may have caught a break.
They say that just before the schools broke for the holidays, they noticed more widespread flu-like symptoms and since the kids have come back from vacation, in some cases, including here, they've noticed different flu-like symptoms, at least the holidays may have given them a break and kept the flu from spreading -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Brian Todd on the scene for us. Thank you. Much more on the flu coming up later. We'll also speak with one of the top officials at the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get the very latest on what is going on.
We're about to take a closer look at the emerging strategies for the fight over President Obama's proposals to prevent gun violence. Stand by.
BLITZER: Classes were canceled today at a California high school where a student with a shotgun critically wounded another student yesterday. Authorities say things could have been much worse. The student with the gun had pockets filled with ammunition, but a well- liked science teacher confronted him face-to-face and talked him into putting down the gun.
A campus supervisor is also being praised for helping other students escape during the confrontation. Authorities aren't identifying the gunman because he is 16 years old. He is though in custody.
Let's discuss what is going on in our "Strategy Session." Joining us right now, a pair of CNN contributors, Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the conservative blog redstate.com. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.
I want to play a little clip. David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association was here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, and I asked him if the president signs executive orders to restrict guns in some way or background checks or whatever, what could the NRA and gun advocates in Congress do about it. Paul, just listen closely to what David Keene said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID KEENE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: Some things you can do by executive orders and some things you can't do by executive orders and some things that you do by executive orders need money to be implemented and that's up to Congress.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: What do you think about that? You worked in the White House. All presidents issue executive orders. Does he have a point that if Congress wants to defund that executive order, it's not going to happen?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, as a matter of governmental operations, sure. As a matter of politics, David Keene is a smart guy and I actually like him as a person. He's on the wrong side of this issue. He's on the wrong side even of his own members.
As you know, as Erick knows, I'm a hunter, I'm a gun owner. I'm not in the NRA because I think that they don't they really represent my fellow hunters and gun owners very well.
The vast majority of hunters and gun owners, for example, and NRA members even, when they were surveyed by Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who did a survey last year, the vast majority of them support, for example, a universal background check.
So that everybody even people in casual sales or at gun shows have to pass through some sort of background check. He's just at a step here, Wolf. I think Mr. Keene is not leading his organization in the right direction and it's not helpful for the country.
If the president can bypass Congress using his constitutional authority, you know, the NRA says they love the second amendment. They ought to love Article 2 as well, which gives the president executive authority.
BLITZER: What do you think, Erick?
ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, David is right that Congress can defund certain things if the president's executive order requires funding from Congress. Will the Republicans in Congress be willing to shut down the government and die on this hill on principle? Probably not.
So Dave's got that working against him. There are some things the president probably can do though as an executive order. But you know, historically looking at it, the president would have to base his executive order on existing legislation, which doesn't give him a lot of wriggle room to try to have executive orders to try to deal with this without Congress.
BLITZER: Here's another thing that David Keene said. Paul, I'm going to play it for you once again. I asked him because earlier in the day, a representative, one of the top lobbyist of the NRA was invited to meet with the vice president over at the White House in that task force. And I asked David Keene, if that was a serious meeting or if the NRA participation was merely a prop. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEENE: In a sense, they were checking a box. They were able to say, we've met with the NRA, we've met with the people that are strong second amendment supporters. That doesn't mean that there isn't an area for agreement.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Well, when I pressed about where they might agree, the only thing he suggested was perhaps on dealing with people who might have some mental problems, he didn't see any room for negotiation in terms of assault weapons bans or ammunition clips or anything along those lines, Paul.
BEGALA: Really a shame. This is where Mr. Keene is out of step with most Americans and most gun owners. You know, in 1968 -- I know it was a million years ago, but when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the NRA supported the gun safety laws that were passed in the wake of Senator Kennedy's assassination.
The NRA has not always opposed everything. They certainly opposed President Clinton when I was working for him when he passed the Brady bill named for President Reagan's press secretary who was wounded when President Reagan was wounded in 1981.
They opposed us on banning assault weapons and they opposed us on banning this multi-round, 30-round ammunition clips, but we won. I think President Obama is going to try to take the same -- I hope he can win. The NRA is very powerful.
BLITZER: Here's what you wrote on your blog, Erick, and I'm going to put it up on the screen. Until we figure out how to fix the family instability and educational problems within the inner city, any solution proposed in Washington will be a Potemkin village solution mask being the real gun conversation we should be having. What is that real gun conversation we should be having?
ERICKSON: If you took away the gun violence in the inner city, largely this nation would not have serious gun problems. We wouldn't have serious gun violence. We would always have acts of violence. Paul said that they won on the assaults weapons ban.
Yes, they did win on the assault weapons ban, but the Violence Prevention Center says it did little good. Columbine happened after it was inacted. They didn't use assault weapons. They used shotguns and handguns and there's much more handgun violence in this country than there is anything else.
Knives, feet, and hammers kill more people than assault rifles in this country, but the assault rifles are the sensationalized crimes because of the number of people who typically die.
But until we're willing to have a conversation about the breakdown in inner cities and families there and poverty and education, we're going to continue to have gun violence in this country. No one is talking about coming after the handguns that's where the violence is.
BEGALA: Let's just focus on mass killings. I think that's what the vice president and the president are trying to do here. Erick's right. There's lots of violence. I don't know where these guys get these hammer talking points. I don't know anyone that kills people with hammers. I don't know. Maybe somebody is like invading the Ace Hardware store.
ERICKSON: It's a Department of Justice statistic.
BEGALA: They are not happening in mass numbers. This monster in Newtown apparently had not only an assault weapon, but multi-round clips, a monster in Aurora, Colorado, who murdered all of those people in cold blood, had one of these multi-round clips. Now that's not for target shooting.
ERICKSON: And Columbine.
BEGALA: It's not for hunting. Look, you're right, a brick is not a wall. We have to look at this. Mental health, yes, but not what the NRA says, just keep a list of people who are mentally ill. We need to actually treat them.
I'm for looking at the culture, Erick, as you know. I hate this first-person point and shoot video games. I find them appalling. They are training our children to kill. I think we look at the whole thing.
But the notion that we exempt a 30-round clip that is only useful for murdering people in mass numbers, if that's the only thing we did was ban those clips, then these animals would have to reload after three to five rounds, not after 30 and the amount of mass killings would drop tremendously.
When Gabby Giffords was killed, he was wrestled to the ground when he stopped to reload, but he was able to get 30 rounds off instead of five. That alone would do a lot good on these mass killings, don't you think?
ERICKSON: No, I actually don't think it would do a lot of good. I think they still have to look at Columbine and look at others. The assault weapons ban in the '90s really didn't prevent things like Columbine. There's a notion, a feeling and a sense that we need to do just something.
The problem is, most of the solution being proposed including expanding finds for gun-free zones and expanding the perimeter of gun- free zones, they make us feel like we're doing something, but we're always going to have these horrible random acts of violence. And sometimes there's no one to blame including --
BEGALA: I mean, look, Cain killed Abel with a rock. It doesn't mean that we can always ban all rocks, but it doesn't also mean that we don't pretend that we're going to try to stop murders.
BLITZER: All right, guys.
BEGALA: We can do more. I did promise -- Wolf, I'm sorry, but I was invited -- it was a great honor. I was able to speak today at the National War College, with my friend Kevin Madden who you know used to work for Governor Romney.
We had a discussion about politics with some of the finest officers and civilians and international security team at the National War College and it was a great honor. So I wanted to publicly thank them.
BLITZER: They gave you a coin?
BEGALA: They did.
BLITZER: Is that one of those new trillion dollar coins? Not really?
BEGALA: It's more than that. It's worth the honor -- these are warriors, statesmen and leaders. That's who were training at the National War College. It was a great honor.
BLITZER: Congratulations to you and congratulations to our friend Kevin as well. Erick, one day if you work hard, play by the rules, you, too might be coined at the National War College just like Paul. Thanks very much, guys, for joining us.
Continuing the new trend, President Obama's about to award the Medal of Honor to another living hero of the Afghanistan war. His story is coming up.
Along with a new image of the Duchess of Cambridge, a royal portrait that is causing some major disagreement.
BLITZER: A hero of one of the most deadliest fire fights in the Afghanistan war will receive the Medal of Honor next month. Lisa's back. She is monitoring this and some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, tell us all about it.
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Retired Army Staff Sergeant Clinton Romesha is one of the survivors of a 2009 attack on a combat outpost in (inaudible) in Afghanistan. At one point, Romesha, took out an enemy machine gun team and while engaging a second he was hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade, but he kept fighting. He will be the fourth living of recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And Democratic U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia announced today he won't run for re-election in 2014. He was first elected to the Senate back in 1984 and served as the state's governor before that.
And the District of Columbia police just announced they won't bring any charges against NBC or David Gregory because he displayed a magazine capable of holding up to 30 rounds of ammunition on "Meet the Press."
Those high-capacity gun clips are illegal in D.C. and the December broadcast originated here in the district. Police say it was a very close decision, but since Gregory has no criminal record, he won't be charged.
And finally, you are looking at the first official portrait of Katherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. She and her husband, Prince William, are said to be pleased with the painting, which is on display at London's National Portrait Gallery.
Our critics, on the other hand, they are complaining that it makes her look old beyond her years. We're going to take a look at that photo. We can judge for ourselves and see what people think. She's a very beautiful woman either way -- Wolf.
BLITZER: She's beautiful but that picture is not that flattering, I've got to tell you.
SYLVESTER: I got to tell you too. I mean, if we can show another --
BLITZER: She looks so much older in that picture than she actually is.
SYLVESTER: Yes, if you see the head on shot of it, there you go. She's a very beautiful woman.
BLITZER: She's beautiful but the picture --
SYLVESTER: Doesn't quite capture it.
BLITZER: Not great, OK, thank you.
Innocent people wrongly convicted possibly because of this man's testimony. A medical examiner now under scrutiny. He's speaking out for the first time.
BLITZER: In Mississippi, prisoners including death row prisoners could be set free. It's all because of questions about a doctor whose workload and tactics have become the focus of a major investigation.
CNN's Victor Blackwell has been looking into this very disturbing story.
MATT EICHELBERGER, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: If you died in Mississippi of any sort of suspicious circumstances, chances are Dr. Hayne was going to be cutting you open.
VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): That's Matt Eichelberger, a former public defender talking about Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist who claims to have conducted tens of thousands of autopsies.
(on camera): How many would you say you had done in average from the late '80s until probably a few years ago?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somewhere in the range of 1,400, 1,500 in that range, maybe 1,600.
BLACKWELL (voice-over): That's five to six times what's recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners. For the first time on television, Hayne is responding to claims that an oversized workload and questionable tactics may have led to the convictions of many innocent people.
For decades in Mississippi, there's seldom been a state medical examiner. Counties relied on state approved pathologists to conduct autopsies. Hayne was one of them although he has never been certified by the Board of American Pathologist as a forensic pathologist.
EICHELBERGER: He was a prosecutor's best friend. Law enforcement would go to Dr. Hayne with their investigation pretty much complete. They would tell him what they suspected had happened and nine times out of 10, probably 95 times out of 100, they would get the result they were looking for.
DR. STEVEN HAYNE, PATHOLOGIST: I'm not a friend of law enforcement. If a crime has been committed, I don't support a D.A. if he wants to charge a person with a crime that I don't think a crime was committed.
BLACKWELL: One high-profile case Hayne's critics often cite is that of Tyler Edmonds. In 2003, the 13-year-old boy confessed of pulling a trigger of a gun with his older sister to kill her husband.
He later recanted that confession. Edmonds was tried as an adult and Hayne testified as an expert witness for the state. Edmonds was sentenced to life in prison. Three years later the conviction was overturned and Edmonds is now a free man. Then Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz wrote a skating concurring opinion.
OLIVER DIAZ, FORMER MISSISSIPPI SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: I saw that Dr. Hayne had testified that he could tell by the bullet wounds on the victim that there were two hands on the trigger that fired the shot that killed the victim. And I said, that just doesn't make sense.
HAYNE: All I could say was, I favored two people who were involved in shooting, I couldn't exclude only one person did the shot. It was not a definitive statement.
BLACKWELL: In 2008, Hayne was removed from the list of state approved pathologists. Recently, the Mississippi "Innocence Project" has asked the State Supreme Court to review four separate murder cases in which Hayne was the pathologist and it expects to file ten additional requests, some of them death penalty cases.
EICHELBERGER: We're going to have to go back and we're going to have to examine just about every case that he had any contact with and we're in the process of doing that, thankfully, here in Mississippi now.
BLACKWELL (on camera): Ballpark, how many cases?
EICHELBERGER: Thousands, thousands.
BLACKWELL (voice-over): Hayne sued attorneys for the "Innocence Project" for defamation, libel, and slander, a case that led to an out of court monetary settlement.
But information gathered in that case was also used in the petition seeking reviews of other Mississippi murder cases. When asked tough questions about his tens and thousands of autopsies, Hayne has a simple answer.
HAYNE: I don't think there are errors in my work.
BLACKWELL: And we reached out to Mississippi's Attorney General Jim Hood and his people sent us this statement. Our office would not say this is or has ever been a matter of defending Dr. Hayne. If fraudulent testimony is found to have been given, either by a witness for the state or for the defense in any criminal case, this office will investigate and prosecute if warranted.
Our office has the singular responsibility to not only ensure that the guilty are punished, but that the innocent are set free. As for improving the process regarding medical examiners, this office formed a task force that recommended a complete revamping of the system and full DNA testing. And there is now a state medical examiner in Mississippi -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Keep us up to speed. Victor, thanks very much, very solid reporting.
Frustrated but determined, a town nearly wiped out by Hurricane Sandy has a bold plan to rebuild.
BLITZER: Tens of thousands of New Jersey families are still displaced almost three months after Superstorm Sandy. CNN's Poppy Harlow found some are trying to rebuild on stilts.
POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, this is Sea Bright, New Jersey, known as a small picturesque coastal town, but Sandy completely wiped out 100 percent of the businesses here and 75 percent of the homes were either destroyed or severely damaged.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's devastated us, to be honest with you. We don't live here anymore. We don't operate a business here anymore.
HARLOW (voice-over): Both his business and his home destroyed. That's what Superstorm Sandy took from Scott Kelly and many folks here in Sea Bright.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the area where most of the damage came through. The water was probably about three feet inside the house.
HARLOW: Ocean Avenue still shuttered months after the storm. This is how vulnerable Sea Bright is, sandwiched between ocean and river.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is my street.
HARLOW: And this is the woman fighting to rebuild. Dina Long, don't let the pink sneakers fool you. The mayor is as tough as they come. MAYOR DINA LONG, SEA BRIGHT, NEW JERSEY: I have reached a point where I am like Governor Chris Christie. I am ready to kick butt and take names.
HARLOW: She, too, is one of the displaced. Her home ravaged by Sandy. Her plan is gutsy.
(on camera): You want to elevate all of downtown Sea Bright?
LONG: I do.
LONG: That is a Sea Bright that's built to last.
HARLOW (voice-over): The houses would look like this one which cost $250,000 to raise. She wants FEMA to pay for it. If not, they'll look for private investors, but not elevating is nonnegotiable.
SCOTT KELLY, OWNER, MAD HOTTER RESTAURANT: We'll knock this building down and rebuild on top of pilings about 15 feet high.
HARLOW (on camera): Fifteen feet high?
KELLY: If I stay where I am, my flood insurance could go up 600 percent in the next five years.
LONG: We're waiting for the help that's been promised to show up.
HARLOW: Who are you asking?
LONG: I've been asking the state of New Jersey. I've been asking FEMA, and we are waiting.
HARLOW (voice-over): So far Sea Bright has received about $78,000 in public assistance from FEMA. There are no state funds as of yet and how federal relief dollars will be allocated is unclear.
LONG: Very often the answer I get is this, meaning, ask him, ask him. This department knows, call the federal government, call the state government, call the county government.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: As a state, we have waited 72 days, seven times longer than the victims of Hurricane Katrina waited.
HARLOW: Scott Kelly is more than a million in the hole between his home and his restaurant, but he's not banking on federal aid.
KELLY: We opened a business with insurance policies, we had our home with insurance policies, so in case anything eveer happened like this, we'd be covered. And in the long run, you're not. They're going to argue, and it's a game, and you gotta play the game. And that's the part that hurts the most.
HARLOW: He and Mayor Long are tired of people questioning if Seabright should even rebuild.
LONG: It is possible to build smart. It is possible to mitigate risk from flood water. It is possible to build hurricane-proof -- look at Florida.
HARLOW: Just last week, Congress approved $9.7 dollars in federal Sandy aid, after partisan bickering delayed the vote. Next week, Congress will take up a measure for $51 billion in additional Sandy aid, but we may see more political in-fighting around that, while towns like Seabright wait.
BLITZER: Poppy, thanks.