NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Even as they buried more victims of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history on Thursday, residents of Newtown, Connecticut, sought ways to pressure U.S. leaders to restrict access to guns and a White House task force on violence met.
Funerals were scheduled for a half-dozen people, some as young as 6 years old, who were shot and killed on Friday by a heavily armed 20-year-old man who attacked an elementary school with an assault rifle.
Hundreds of mourners packed into a Thursday morning funeral for Benjamin Wheeler, 6, filing into the gray stone Trinity Episcopal Church past two rows of Boy Scouts who lined up outside as a flag-bearing honor guard.
The December 14 rampage in which 28 people were killed, including 20 children and the gunman, has sparked new discussion on tightening gun laws, a thorny political issue in the United States, which has a strong culture of individual gun ownership.
Vice President Joe Biden convened the first meeting of a new White House task force charged by President Barack Obama with drawing up a plan to tackle gun violence in the United States.
“You know better than anyone what is needed out there,” he told the group, which included Attorney General Eric Holder, other cabinet members and police officials from around the country. “The president is absolutely committed to keeping the promise that he will act.”
As a senator, Biden authored a crime bill in 1994 that included a temporary ban on assault weapons.
After the meeting, Holder was scheduled to travel to Newtown to meet privately with law enforcement officials investigating the massacre.
The National Rifle Association, the powerful firearms lobby that has long resisted any effort to restrict gun ownership, signaled this week it may be ready to bend. It said it would offer “meaningful contributions” to prevent future such massacres at an event in Washington on Friday.
The group, which kept silent for five days after the shooting, plans to continue its media push over the weekend with its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, due to appear on the television talk show “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s chief of staff, worried publicly that the NRA would not break its past patterns.
“I fully expect the NRA to do exactly what they always do,” Emanuel said at a press conference at Chicago City Hall, where he called for a ban on assault weapons of the kind used in the Newtown killings.
“I expect the Washington gun lobby and the gun lobbies around to do exactly what they always do, which is to try to apply political pressure so you ignore the overwhelming public opinion.”
In Newtown, a few dozen residents met at the town library on Wednesday night to discuss ways they could influence the national debate. Senator Richard Blumenthal told the group it was time for a “seismic change” in gun policies.
“This horrific tragedy has changed America, in the way that it is ready to stop the spread of gun violence,” he said.
The shooter, Adam Lanza, used guns that were legally purchased and registered to his mother Nancy, his first victim in Friday’s attack.
A funeral home outside Connecticut plans to claim her body, The New Haven Register reported, citing Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, Dr. H. Wayne Carver II.
Democrats in Congress who favor gun control have called for quick votes on measures to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, hoping that the slaying of the 6- and 7-year olds in Newtown might be a tipping point to win over more lawmakers.
The backlash against guns has not been limited to lawmakers. Retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc took down an website about Bushmaster rifles, the sort used in the attack. Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled all guns from its store closest to the massacre in Newtown, about 80 miles northeast of New York City.
Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP this week said it would sell the Freedom Group, the largest U.S. manufacturer of firearms, which produced the Bushmaster AR-15-type rifle used in the attack.
Newtown schools - with the exception of Sandy Hook Elementary, the site of the shooting - re-opened to students on Tuesday. On Thursday, school officials said Friday, the last day before the Christmas break, would be a shortened day, rather than a full-length day as originally scheduled.
The town’s post office has been overwhelmed with thousands of letters and packages sent by well-wishers.
“We have a lot of experience in the delivery of love,” Christine Dugas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said on CNN.
Additional reporting by Eric Thayer in Newtown, James B. Kelleher in Chicago and David Ingram in Washington; Writing By Scott Malone; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Vicki Allen and Jim Loney