Thursday January 10, 2013

Biden hears from
gun-safety advocates, victims as deadline for policy proposals looms

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday heard personal stories of gun violence from representatives of victims groups and gun-safety organizations as he drafts the Obama administration’s response to the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. He pledged that action would be taken.

"I want to make it clear that we are not going to get caught up in the notion (that) unless we can do everything we’re going to do nothing," Biden said. "It’s critically important (that) we act."

The meeting was part of a series Biden is holding this week to build consensus around proposals to curb gun violence after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn. Twenty school children were killed.

Biden meets Thursday with the National Rifle Association and other gun-owner groups. Meetings with representatives of the video-game and entertainment industries also are planned.

President Barack Obama wants Biden to deliver policy proposals by the end of the month. Obama has vowed to move swiftly on the package, which is expected to include legislative proposals and executive action.

Facing certain backlash, AIG won’t join a shareholder lawsuit against the U.S.government

NEW YORK (AP) -- Facing a certain backlash from Washington and beyond, American International Group won’t be joining a $25 billion shareholder lawsuit against the U.S.government over the terms of its bailout at the height of the financial crisis.

The suit was filed by Starr International, a company headed by AIG’s founder and former Chief Executive Officer Maurice "Hank" Greenberg. It alleges that the government took nearly all of the insurer’s stock as part of its bailout without giving investors proper compensation. The $182 billion bailout of the insurer by the Treasury was the largest of the 2008 financial crisis.

The timing of the suit could hardly have been worse for AIG. The company is in the midst of a "Thank You America" ad campaign to show its gratitude for being rescued from the brink of collapse.

The prospect of the insurer joining the lawsuit had already triggered outrage. A congressman from Vermont issued a statement telling AIG: "Don’t even think about it."

AIG, which was legally obligated to consider joining the lawsuit, demurred.

6 billion hours working on taxes: National taxpayer advocate says they’re just too complicated

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Too intimidated to fill out your tax return without help? Join the club.

At nearly 4 million words, the U.S. tax law is so thick and complicated that businesses and individuals spend more than 6 billion hours a year complying with filing requirements, according to a report Wednesday by an independent government watchdog.

That’s the equivalent of 3 million people working full-time, year-round.

"If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States," says the report by Nina E. Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate.

The days of most taxpayers sitting down with a pencil and a calculator to figure out their taxes are long gone, Olson said. Since 2001, Congress has made almost 5,000 changes to U.S. tax law. That’s an average of more than one a day.

Iranians held by Syrian rebels freed in 1st major prisoner swap of civil war

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Rebels freed 48 Iranians on Wednesday in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners, including women and children, held by Syrian authorities -- a deal struck after rare negotiations involving regional powers Turkey, Qatar and Iran.

It was the first major prisoner swap since the uprising began against President Bashar Assad nearly 22 months ago.

Iran is one of Assad’s main allies, and the Iranians, who were seized outside Damascus in August, were a major bargaining chip for factions trying to bring down his regime in the civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people.

The exchange also highlighted the plight of tens of thousands of detainees languishing in Syrian prisons, many of whom were picked up at street protests and have not been heard of since.

The group of 48 Iranians arrived Wednesday at the Sheraton hotel in several vans escorted by Syrian security forces. Looking disheveled but healthy, they were greeted by Iran’s ambassador in Damascus, Mohammad Riza Shibani, and several Iranian clerics who distributed a white flower to each of the men, some of whom broke down in tears.

Researchers cite gun violence as factor contributing to shorter
lives and poorer health

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, due in part to the widespread possession of firearms and the practice of storing them at home in a place that is often unlocked, according to a report released Wednesday by two of the nation’s leading health research institutions.

Gun violence is just one of many factors contributing to lower U.S. life expectancy, but the finding took on urgency because the report comes less than a month after the shooting deaths of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

The United States has about six violent deaths per 100,000 residents. None of the 16 other countries included in the review came anywhere close to that ratio. Finland was closest to the U.S. ranking with slightly more than two violent deaths per 100,000 residents.

For many years, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other wealthy countries. In addition to the impact of gun violence, Americans consume the most calories among peer countries and get involved in more accidents that involve alcohol. The U.S. also suffers higher rates of drug-related deaths, infant mortality and AIDS.

The result is that the life expectancy for men in the United States ranked the lowest among the 17 countries reviewed, at 75.6 years, while the life expectancy for U.S. women ranked second lowest at 80.7 years. The countries reviewed included Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Western Europe.

After Newtown school tragedy, Connecticut moves cautiously on guns; home to major gun makers

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- A month after the Newtown school tragedy, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is moving cautiously on gun control in Connecticut, a relatively liberal Northeastern state that nevertheless has a strong gun culture and is home to some of the nation’s best-known firearm makers.

Gun control advocates and their allies in the state Legislature want to pass new restrictions on weapons while passions are still high over the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting rampage Dec. 14 that left 20 children and six women dead. But they are bracing for strong opposition.

Gun owners have packed statehouse hearings in recent years to oppose measures that would tighten the state’s gun laws. And gun manufacturers such as Colt Manufacturing Co., which traces its history to a Hartford factory that Samuel Colt opened in 1855, have threatened in the past to leave Connecticut, taking hundreds of jobs with them, if certain requirements became law.

Malloy, a Democrat, became choked up when he mentioned Newtown in his State of the State Address on Wednesday, saying: "Let us do everything in our power to ensure that Connecticut never again suffers such a loss, that we take real steps to make our kids and our communities safer."

He offered no specific proposals, instead noting that an advisory panel he set up last week will issue recommendations in March on gun control, mental health treatment and other issues arising from the Newtown massacre.

Self-portraits of suspect night of theater attack: Holding gun, smiling, sticking out tongue

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) -- The photos were chilling and enigmatic, just like their subject. In the pictures, taken on his IPhone hours before the Aurora movie theater massacre, accused gunman James Holmes mugs for the camera, sticks out his tongue and smiles as he holds a Glock under his face and displays his arsenal arrayed on his bed.

Prosecutors who displayed the pictures at a hearing that ended Wednesday argued the photos display "identity, deliberation and extreme indifference."

Holmes’ attorneys -- who have been setting up an insanity defense and said they might present testimony about the defendant’s mental health -- decided not to call any witnesses.

A judge is due to rule by Friday whether prosecutors presented enough evidence to justify Holmes standing trial for more than 160 felony counts stemming from the July 20 attack, which killed 12 people and injured 70. Holmes, 25, may enter a formal plea that day.

The three-day hearing occurred as the nation still recovers from the shock of last month’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults. It wrapped up just as the Colorado Legislature began its session and pledged to tackle gun violence, and Vice President Joe Biden met with families of victims as part of the White House’s own gun control push.

Hamas flagship university in Gaza grooms new crop of Hebrew teachers in display of pragmatism

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Hamas’ flagship university in Gaza has a new diploma on offer -- Hebrew, the official language of its arch-foe Israel.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers say they want to produce qualified teachers as the government gradually introduces Hebrew studies in its high schools. The aim is simple: It wants Palestinians in Gaza to learn their enemy’s language.

"As Jews are occupying our lands, we have to understand their language," said Education Ministry official Somayia Nakhala.

There are 19 students enrolled in the first one-year Hebrew diploma course offered at the Islamic University in Gaza City, a stronghold of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007. Hamas does not recognize Israel, is officially pledged to its destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, rocket strikes and other attacks.

Officials hope graduates will become Hebrew teachers. Hamas has already begun offering Hebrew studies as an elective to ninth graders in 16 schools, and plans to expand the program to dozens of other schools in the coming months.

Ferry from N.J. strikes dock in lower Manhattan, injuring dozens, 11 seriously

NEW YORK (AP) -- A high-speed ferry loaded with hundreds of commuters from New Jersey crashed into a dock in lower Manhattan on Wednesday during the morning rush hour, seriously injuring 11 people, including one who suffered a severe head wound falling down a stairwell.

Scores of people who had been standing, waiting to disembark, were hurled to the deck or launched into walls by the impact, which came after the catamaran Seastreak Wall Street slowed following a routine trip across New York Bay and past the Statue of Liberty, passengers said.

"We were pulling into the dock. The boat hit the dock. We just tumbled on top of each other. I got thrown into everybody else. ... People were hysterical, crying," said Ellen Foran, 57, of Neptune City, N.J.

The accident, which ripped open a small part of the hull like an aluminum can, happened at 8:45 a.m. at a pier near the South Street Seaport, at Manhattan’s southern tip. Around 70 people suffered minor injuries, and for nearly two hours paramedics treated bruised and dazed passengers on the pier. Firefighters carried several patients on flat-board stretchers as a precaution. Others left in wheelchairs.

The cause of the accident was under investigation. The ferry, built in 2003, had recently undergone a major overhaul that gave it new engines and a new propulsion system, but officials said it was too soon to tell whether they played any role in the crash.