JUDY WOODRUFF: The renewed concern over mass shootings in the United States and how to prevent them was highlighted today in events ranging from an anniversary appeal to a Colorado court hearing. The day began with solemn remembrance of an attack that left a lawmaker gravely wounded.
Bells tolled across Tucson, Arizona, this morning in ceremonies broadcast on local TV, the ringing two years to the day after a gunman opened fire at an outdoor political event for then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Six people were killed and Giffords was shot in the head. She later left Congress to focus on her recovery.
The gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. Now, in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have opened a new campaign against gun violence.
They appeared today in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Kelly and Giffords also announced in USA Today that they’re launching a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions. They said they “will raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby and will line up squarely behind leaders who will stand up for what’s right.”
To date, the pair complained, Congress has done nothing at all, despite the string of mass killings. But since Newtown, President Obama has commissioned Vice President Biden and an administration task force to find a way forward. Biden is meeting this week with various groups, including a representative of the National Rifle Association.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney:
JAY CARNEY, White House: The NRA has certainly been one of the groups — one of the many groups invited. I would leave it to those groups themselves to decide whether to say whether to make any comment on their attendance in those meetings.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The Biden task force’s proposals are due back to the president by the end of next week, and after that:
JAY CARNEY: The president will decide what he would like to pursue, what he believes is the right course of action, in addition to what he has already called on Congress to do, which is pass the assault weapons ban, pass legislation that would ban high-capacity magazines, pass a bill that would close loopholes in our background check system.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, in Centennial, Colo., this was day two of a preliminary hearing for James Holmes, who allegedly killed 12 people inside a movie theater last July. As the weeklong proceedings opened on Monday, relatives of the victims said they were looking for clarity.
TOM TEVES, father of shooting victim: There’s no way to understand this, because there’s no understanding it. But we’d like to at least want to know what happened.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Holmes is charged with more than 160 counts, including murder and attempted murder. The hearing will formally determine whether the case is strong enough to go to trial.
For more on the hearings, we turn to Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio, who has been in the courtroom both days.
I spoke with her earlier today during a break in the proceedings.
Megan, thank you very much for talking with us.
First of all, tell us about the testimony you have been hearing so far today.
MEGAN VERLEE, Colorado Public Broadcasting: Well, today was devoted to two things.
The first thing we heard in the morning were two 911 calls that came in at the very beginning of the attack. The first caller — he was in fact the first call to 911 — you can’t hear the man who’s called in. You just hear the dispatcher saying, what’s your address, what’s your address? I can’t hear you, and in the background pretty much constant loud gunfire.
The police officers that investigated the tape said that he counted more than 30 shots in the 27 seconds of that call. The second 911 call we heard was a very disturbing piece of tape from a 13-year-old girl who had gone to the movie with her cousins. She called in, reported that they’d both been shot. One wasn’t breathing.
The dispatch tried to take her through CPR, and it was so loud in the theater, that she couldn’t hear any of the instructions. The person that she was working on, the person who she was with, was Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the 6-year-old who died in the theater. That was very chilling testimony this morning, hard on some of the people in the courtroom to listen to, the victims and their families who were there.
And, then, from that, we went into a very detailed description of the explosives found in James Holmes’ apartment, how they were rigged up and what they were made of.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Megan, we know James Holmes is in the courtroom. What is he doing during all this and what are his defense attorneys saying?
MEGAN VERLEE: Well, Judy, since I have been able to see him, Holmes has been very unresponsive. He sits and listens to this. He doesn’t seem to be fidgeting or moving much. I’m not in a position to see his facial expressions, but he just appears to be sitting still through all of it.
His defense attorneys have taken the opportunities that they can to try and lay the suggestion of the insanity defense that everyone expects them to plead down the road. Today, there was a moment. There was an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who gave a timeline of all of Holmes’ weaponry purchases, alleged purchases of ammunition and firearms and ballistic gear.
And at the end, Holmes’ defense attorney stood up and said, is there any process in the state of Colorado that would keep a severely mentally ill person — and that was her phrase, severely mentally ill person — from purchasing this equipment? And the agent said no.
So, obviously, the defense is going to try and say, yes, Holmes may have made all these purchases, he may have been at the scene of the attack, he may have had these booby traps in his apartment, but that doesn’t mean that he can be held as sane and charged with — or found guilty in this case.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You also mentioned there are family members in the courtroom. How are they dealing with this testimony, both today and yesterday?
MEGAN VERLEE: Well, mostly, they have been very calm and quiet. Stoic, I think is the word that keeps occurring to me.
A lot of them are taking very complex notes, but there are moments when the emotion comes through. On the first day of the hearing, an officer described finding Veronica Moser-Sullivan’s body in the theater and searching for a pulse. And there were people crying on the family side.
There was a woman who got up and had to leave. The officer himself actually broke down during that testimony.
Today, during the 911 calls, you saw people holding hands in preparations to hear that call. You saw people crying. At the end of it, one woman stood up and kissed the back of the head of the man in front of her.
So, through it, they are mostly quiet and observant, but there are moments when the reality of these charges and these events, I think, hit everyone in the courtroom.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds as if it’s pretty difficult to listen to a lot of it. Tell us a little more about what you heard yesterday.
MEGAN VERLEE: So, yesterday — the first day of the preliminary — the first day of the preliminary hearings starting out very abruptly.
They called a witness to the stand, a patrolman named Oviatt who was actually the one to first apprehend James Holmes. He described this very tense situation where he was running toward the backdoor of the theater with his gun drawn.
He saw a man in ballistics gear standing by a car and actually originally mistook him for law enforcement because of all the ballistics gear he was wearing, and then realized that, unlike everyone else at the scene, this man wasn’t tense, he wasn’t shouting, he wasn’t moving.
And that’s when the officer decided something might be wrong, approached him, realized he wasn’t an officer, ordered him on the ground, and proceeded with the arrest. So, we heard a lot about Holmes’ arrest and apparently that he was quite compliant and detached was a description of it of his state during the arrest.
And we also heard descriptions in the theater. One officer said that there was so much blood at the entrance, the back entrance of the theater, that he almost slipped.
Others described going in and choking on tear gas — Holmes allegedly threw a canister of tear gas into the crowd — and then being deafened by the sound in there. The movie was still running.
It was dark. It was lit by strobe flashes from the emergency lights. There was a Klaxon going off. And there were the screams of the wounded and apparently the ringing of dozens and dozens of cell phones that people had dropped when they fled.
So the description inside the theater that night was very graphic and very compelling and a big part of the testimony yesterday.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, Megan Verlee, for talking with us.
MEGAN VERLEE: You’re very welcome. Glad to do it.