Wednesday January 16, 2013

N.Y. Legislature passes nation’s 1st gun control law since Conn. massacre

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- New York’s Assembly on Tuesday easily passed the toughest gun control law in the nation and the first since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, calling for a tougher assault weapons ban and provisions to try to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who make threats.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed hard for the bill, which passed the Senate on Monday night. He is expected to quickly sign the measure into law.

"This is a scourge on society," Cuomo said Monday night, six days after making gun control a centerpiece of his State of the State address. The bipartisan effort was fueled by the Newtown tragedy that took the lives of 20 first graders and six educators. "At what point do you say, ‘No more innocent loss of life’?"

The measure, which passed the Assembly 104-43, also calls for restrictions on ammunition and the sale of guns.

"This is not about taking anyone’s rights away," said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Bronx Democrat, when the bill passed the Senate late Monday night. "It’s about a safe society ... today we are setting the mark for the rest of the county to do what’s right."

Obama weighing potential executive action on guns, still pushing assault weapons ban

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Facing powerful opposition to sweeping gun regulations, President Barack Obama is weighing 19 steps he could take through executive action alone, congressional officials said. But the scope of such measures is limited.

The steps could include ordering stricter action against people who lie on gun sale background checks, seeking to ensure more complete records in the federal background check database, striking limits on federal research into gun use, ordering tougher penalties against gun trafficking, and giving schools flexibility to use grant money to improve safety.

Obama will unveil his proposals Wednesday, barely over a month since the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., thrust the gun issue into the national spotlight after years of inaction by Obama and lawmakers.

The White House said Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be joined at Wednesday’s announcement by children who wrote the president letters after the Newtown shooting. Supportive lawmakers and advocacy groups are also expected to attend.

Obama is vowing not to back off his support for sweeping gun legislation that would require congressional backing -- including banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines and instituting universal background checks -- despite opposition from the influential gun lobby.

House debates Sandy aid; passage of $51B likely though some in GOP object

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. House pushed toward a vote to speed $50.7 billion in relief to victims of Superstorm Sandy on Tuesday as the Republican leadership struggled to surmount an episode that exposed painful party divisions inside Congress and out.

"We are not crying wolf here," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., part of a group of Northeastern lawmakers from both parties seeking passage of legislation roughly in line with what the Obama administration and governors of the affected states sought.

Democrats were more politically pointed as they brushed back Southern conservatives who sought either to reduce the measure or offset part of its cost through spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

"I just plead with my colleagues not to have a double standard," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York. "Not to vote tornado relief to Alabama, to Louisiana, to Mississippi, Missouri, to -- with Ike, Gustav, Katrina, Rita -- but when it comes to the Northeast, with the second worst storm in the history of our country, to delay, delay, delay."

Sandy roared through several states in late October and has been blamed for 140 deaths and billions of dollars in residential and business property damage, much of it in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It led to power outages and interruptions to public transportation that made life miserable for millions, and the clamor for federal relief began almost immediately.

Blasts at Aleppo university kill more than 80 people

BEIRUT (AP) -- Twin blasts inside a university campus in Syria’s largest city on Tuesday set cars ablaze, blew the walls off dormitory rooms and left more than 80 people dead, anti-regime activists said.

What caused the blasts remained unclear.

Anti-regime activists trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime said his forces carried out two airstrikes. Syrian state media, for its part, blamed rebels fighting the Syrian government, saying they fired rockets that struck the campus.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a commercial capital, has been harshly contested since rebel forces, mostly from rural areas north of the city, pushed in and began clashing with government troops last summer.

Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed since in fighting and frequent shelling and airstrikes by government forces who seek to dislodge the rebels.

Facebook unveils new search feature for friends, interests, photos and places

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new search feature on Tuesday in the company’s first staged event at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters since its May initial public offering.

Called "graph search," the new service lets users search their social connections for information about people, interests, photos and places. It’ll help users who, for instance, want to scroll through all the photos their friends have taken in Paris or search for the favorite TV shows of all their friends who happen to be doctors.

Until now, Facebook users were unable to search for friends who live in a certain town or like a particular movie. With the new feature, people can search for friends who, say, live in Boston who also like "Zero Dark Thirty".

Zuckerberg says the search feature is "privacy aware," which means users can only search for content that has been shared with them. Still, the company will have to make it clear to users that the new feature isn’t unearthing information about them that wasn’t already available.

Facebook is stressing that graph search will be made available to users very slowly, beginning Tuesday. Though the company has focused on refining its mobile product for much of last year, the search feature will only be available on Facebook’s website for now, and only in English. It will likely take more than a year for search to be available to all of Facebook’s more than 1 billion users as the company’s engineers and designers tweak the service based on how people use it.

Egypt’s most underprivileged fall victim in train crash that left 19 dead, 100 injured

BADRASHEEN, Egypt (AP) -- Packed in a rickety train speeding through the night, the poorly fed, pale-looking Egyptian conscripts were coming from some of Egypt’s most dirt-poor villages to serve in one of the most miserable, lowly jobs of the security forces -- as grunts in an anti-riot force usually deployed against protesters.

At a station just outside of Cairo before dawn Tuesday, the train’s last car jumped the track, slammed into a parked train, and then was dragged for several kilometers. The car was torn to pieces, young recruits were sent flying along the tracks, and others were mangled.

In the end, 19 recruits mostly in their early 20s were killed and more than 100 were injured, some with arms or legs torn off.

The accident was the latest example of Egypt’s decrepit infrastructure turning lethal for the country’s poorest -- and a reminder that the revolution two years ago has brought no relief in the lives of a population where poverty is worsening. The crash brought a new wave of anger at Islamist President Mohammed Morsi for failing to carry out reforms or overhaul the country’s crumbling public services.

After daybreak Tuesday, a military helicopter hovering over the wreckage of the train enraged bystanders gathered at the site near Badrasheen station, 12 miles south of Cairo.

French triple troops in Mali, prepare for massive land assault as al-Qaida rebels gain ground

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- After a punishing bombing campaign failed to halt the advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters, France pledged Tuesday to send hundreds more troops into Mali as it prepared for a land assault to dislodge the militants occupying the northern half of the country.

The move reversed France’s earlier insistence on providing only aerial and logistical support for a military intervention led by African ground troops.

France plunged headfirst into the conflict in its former colony last week, bombarding the insurgents’ desert stronghold in an effort to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

But despite five days of airstrikes, the rebels have extended their reach, taking over a strategically important military camp in the central Malian town of Diabaly on Monday.

On Tuesday, France announced it was tripling the number of soldiers in Mali from 800 to 2,500. The offensive was to have been led by thousands of African troops pledged by Mali’s neighbors, but they have yet to arrive, making it increasingly apparent that France will be leading the attack and not playing a supporting role.

France’s military campaign to stop advancing Islamist insurgents in Mali has been met with a volley of threats from the extremists, feeding fears that the French could be targeted within their own borders. On Tuesday, as security forces stepped up patrols everywhere from airports to the Eiffel Tower, France’s top security official issued a grim warning: the enemy is already here.

"We’re facing an exterior enemy and an interior enemy," Interior Minister Manuel Valls said as French jets strafed targets in Mali, a once-stable African nation where a coup d’etat last year gave the extremists an opening to seize the vast north.

At least two arrests bolster fears that some French have joined or are trying to join the radicals in Mali -- and perhaps return to plot attacks at home.

Schumer announces support for Obama’s choice of Hagel for Pentagon’s top job

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Chuck Hagel secured the backing of two of the staunchest pro-Israel Senate Democrats in a clear boost to the Republican’s prospects of becoming President Barack Obama’s next defense secretary.

Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California said Tuesday that they had spoken extensively with Hagel and he had addressed their earlier reservations about whether he was "anti-Israel," too soft on Iran and opposed to gay rights.

"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said the day after a 90-minute meeting with Hagel at the White House. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."

Boxer expressed her support and urged fellow senators to do the same after receiving a letter from Hagel in which he insisted that he supports Obama’s foreign policy positions. In the letter, the former Nebraska senator also expressed regret for using the term "Jewish lobby" to describe pro-Israel groups, calling it a "very poor choice of words."

Republicans said it was highly unlikely that Schumer and Boxer would have opposed a Democratic president’s nominee at the start of Obama’s second term. Still, the support of two of the most prominent Jewish members of the Senate is certain to ease concerns among pro-Israel lawmakers and rally noncommittal Democrats to Hagel’s side.