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Jan. 30, 2013 at 5:15 PM
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Giffords, NRA clash on gun restrictions

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords told a U.S. Senate panel Wednesday "the time is now" to act on gun violence because "too many children are dying."

But Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Law-abiding gun owners will not accept responsibility" for the massacres that plague the United States.

The hearing was prompted by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14 in which 20 schoolchildren and six adults were killed by a gunman who used his mother's legally registered weapons, including an assault rifle with high-capacity magazine.

LaPierre said schools need to be made more secure.

"It's time to throw an immediate blanket of security around our children," said LaPierre, who had to endure sometimes testy Democratic questioning during the hearing.

Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was the target of multiple death threats after voting for healthcare reform in the House. She was seriously wounded Jan. 8, 2011, at a public event outside a supermarket near Tucson when a gunman shot her in the head, killed six others including a federal judge and a child, and wounded 13. She resigned her congressional seat last year to concentrate on her recovery.

The gunman, now serving multiple life terms, did not appear to have political connections.

The judiciary committee is considering curbs on assault weapons, limiting magazine size and expanding background checks for gun sales.

In a halting voice that grew firm when she was making her main points, Giffords told the panel, "This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult. But I need to say something important.

"Too many children are dying," she said, reading from a short statement. "Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you."

Syrian opposition leader offers to talk

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The top Syrian opposition leader offered for the first time to talk with Bashar Assad's government, but set two conditions.

Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib said his offer was conditioned on the government meeting two demands: the release of 160,000 prisoners held by the government and the renewal of all expired passports held by Syrians abroad, The New York Times reported.

The newspaper said the passport demand apparently was to help expatriates and exiled opposition leaders who could not travel to Syria even if they wanted.

The offer was posted on Khatib's Facebook page.

The Times said it quickly drew criticism from others in the Syrian opposition coalition, saying Khatib had not consulted with them in advance. In the face of the criticism, the sheik said he was only expressing a personal opinion.

There was no was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Times said Khatib is a respected Sunni cleric, once the imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus. His coalition, has been formally recognized by the Arab League, the European Union and the United States.

Also Wednesday, world leaders met in Kuwait to try to raise $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria as activists reported Syrian planes bombed several cities.

Patrick names former aide to U.S. Senate

BOSTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced Wednesday that his former chief of staff will replace John Kerry in the U.S. Senate.

William "Mo" Cowan will hold the seat for less than five months until a special election June 25, The Boston Globe reported. Kerry, D-Mass., resigned this week after he was confirmed as U.S. secretary of state.

"He has been a valued ally to me and our work on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth," Patrick said of Cowan at a statehouse news conference. "In every step, he has brought preparation, perspective, wisdom, sound judgment, and clarity of purpose."

The appointment means the U.S. Senate for the first time in its history will have two African-American members serving at the same time. In December, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley named Tim Scott, R-S.C., to replace Jim DeMint, who resigned from the Senate.

Unlike Scott, Cowan apparently has no plans to run for the seat.

Cowan grew up in Yadkinville, N.C. He was the first person from his high school to attend Duke University, one of the most prestigious colleges in the south, and settled in Boston after receiving a law degree frm Northeastern Univeristy.

Patrick and Cowan became close when both were practicing law in Boston.

Poll: 60 percent of Americans like Obama

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- As President Obama begins his second term, his favorability ratings are the highest since his first year in office, a Washington Post-ABC News poll has found.

The poll, released Wednesday, found some 60 percent of Americans like the president.

That's up dramatically from the 2012 campaign season, when his ratings held fairly static in the mid-to-low 50s.

The president was "strongly" liked by 39 percent of those polled, compared to 26 percent who strongly disliked him, the poll said.

While 24 percent said they had no opinion about the president's second inaugural speech, his general likeability grew among a number of groups, including liberals, racial minorities and people under 40. Obama was seen positively among at least two-thirds of those in each group.

However, partisan views of Obama have changed little. Some 80 percent of Republicans still don't like him. Among Democrats, 92 percent favored the president, up 5 percent from last year.

The poll was conducted Jan. 23 to 27 with a random national sample of 1,022 adults. The margin of error was 3.5 percent.

Kerry, in Senate farewell, scores gridlock

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., about to take office as secretary of state, warned in a farewell speech in the Senate Wednesday about political gridlock.

Kerry didn't mention names or parties, but in an emotional speech suggested some lawmakers have put their own interests ahead of the national interest, The Boston Globe reported. Gridlock threatens the U.S. reputation abroad and erodes relationship-building and bipartisan cooperation in the Senate, Kerry said.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved Kerry's nomination Tuesday.

"As I prepare to represent our nation in capitals around the world," Kerry said in prepared remarks, "I'm conscious that my credibility as a diplomat -- and ours as a country -- is determined to a great degree by what happens in our own capital city. We can be no stronger abroad than we are at home.

"If we posture politically in Washington, we weaken our position across the world. If democracy deadlocks here, we raise doubts about democracy everywhere. If we do not in our deeds prove our own ideals, we undermine our security and our sacred mission as the best hope of Earth."

Kerry said the nation's problems "come from individual choices made by senators themselves not the rules."

Death penalty remains in Hasan case

FORT HOOD, Texas, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- The death penalty will stay a possibility in the outcome of the trial of accused Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people and injuring 32 in a massacre at the military base in 2009, had hoped to persuade Judge Col. Tara Osborn to spare him the death penalty, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

In the first day of hearings, Osborn ruled a previous Supreme Court decision involving a capital murder trial at Fort Hood applied to Hasan's upcoming trial and consequently the death penalty would remain on the table, the Killeen Daily Herald said.

Lawyers familiar with the case and military law called the bid by Hasan's legal team to remove the death penalty from consideration a desperate attempt with little possibility of success, the Express-News said.

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