NEWTOWN, Conn. - The White House said President Barack Obama is "actively supportive" of reinstating an assault weapons ban as the United States wrestled with the treacherous issue of gun control in the aftermath of an elementary school massacre. With the debate sharpening, the country's most powerful gun rights group broke its silence over the shooting and promised "to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
In the Connecticut town where the shooting occurred, funerals were held for two more of the tiny fallen, a 6-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, the latest in a long, almost unbearable procession of grief. A total of 26 people were gunned down at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S history. The gunman, who committed suicide, also killed his mother in her home.
The massacre has rattled the usual national dialogue on guns in America, where public opinion had shifted against tougher arms control in recent years and the gun lobby is a powerful political force.
Congressional gun rights supporters showed an increased willingness Tuesday to consider new legislation — provided it also addresses mental health issues and the impact of violent video games. Republicans in the House of Representatives discussed the gun issue at their regular closed-door meeting Tuesday, and at least some were willing to consider gun control as part of a solution.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama is "actively supportive" of reinstating an assault weapons ban and would also support legislation to close the gun show "loophole," which allows people to buy guns from private dealers without background checks.
Obama has long supported reinstating the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, but was quiet on the issue during his first term. Obama has said he believes the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms.
The president was not expected to take any formal action on guns before the end of the year, given the all-consuming efforts to resolve tax and deficit-reduction talks and nominate new Cabinet secretaries.
The most powerful supporter of gun owners, the National Rifle Association, broke its silence Tuesday, four days after the school shooting. After a self-imposed media blackout that left many wondering how it would respond to the killings, it said in a statement that its members were "shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders."
The group — typically outspoken about its positions even after shooting deaths — also said it wanted to give families time to mourn before making its first public statements.
"The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again," the organization said.
As shares in publicly traded gun manufacturers were dropping for a third straight day Tuesday, the largest firearms maker in the United States said it is being put up for sale by its owner, which called last week's school shooting a "watershed event" in the American debate over gun control.
Freedom Group International makes Bushmaster rifles, the weapons thought to have been used in Friday's killings.
The New York-based private equity group Cerberus Capital Management — which invests money on behalf of public employees like teachers, among other clients — said it will sell its controlling stake in the company, while investors fled other firearms makers.
However, many Americans who consider firearm ownership a bedrock freedom remained opposed to tightening gun laws. Firearms are in a third or more of U.S. households and suspicion runs deep of an overbearing government whenever it proposes expanding federal authority.
AR-15 assault rifles — the same rifle that gunman Adam Lanza used in Newtown — have been flying off the shelves at gun shops across the U.S., according to Andrew Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Dealers Association. He attributed the sales boom to fears among gun owners that the weapon will be outlawed.
"It's what you might expect especially when people start talking about banning certain guns," Molchan said. "I would be surprised if there is much inventory on the shelves anywhere at this point."
A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted over the weekend showed 54 per cent in the U.S. favour tougher laws, about the same as the 51 per cent in favour earlier in the year. Seven in 10 are opposed to banning the sale of handguns to anyone except law enforcement officers, the highest percentage since 1999.
After the meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday, Congressman Jack Kingston said that nothing should be done immediately.
"Put guns on the table, also put video games on the table, put mental health on the table," he said. "There is a time for mourning and a time to sort it out."
Authorities say the horrific events of Friday began when Lanza shot his mother, Nancy, at their home, then took her car and some of her guns to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary, where he broke in and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself.
A Connecticut official said the mother, a gun enthusiast who practiced at shooting ranges, was found dead in her pyjamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-calibre rifle.
The motive remained a mystery. Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain why Lanza, described as smart but severely withdrawn, targeted the school.
In Newtown, students returned to their classrooms Tuesday for the first time since the shooting, though not at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The students who survived the Sandy Hook shooting will return to class after the winter break in the neighbouring town of Monroe at a school that was closed last year. Volunteers and town officials have been making the Chalk Hill School safe and suitable for them, the Connecticut Post reported.
At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, back-to-back funerals were held for little James Mattioli, who especially loved math and recess, and Jessica Rekos, who loved horses and had asked Santa for new cowgirl boots and hat.
Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers David Klepper, Michael Melia, Larry Margasak, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliot and Joshua Freed.
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