NEWTOWN/WASHINGTON: Many Americans remembered the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre with a moment of silence on Friday, as a powerful U.S. gun rights lobbying group prepared to plunge into the national debate over gun control.
Church bells rang out in the tree-lined suburban town and up and down the East Coast at 9:30 a.m. EST (1430 GMT) in memory of the nation's second-deadliest school shooting, which unfolded a week ago.
At the Sandy Hook fire house, where worried parents had gathered a week earlier to wait for news about their children, a handful of people gathered in a driving rain on Friday morning. One couple worked to steady one of the 26 trees that have been placed there as a memorial after it was blown down in the wind.
"I just don't want these kids to be forgotten just because the bells are done tolling," said John Dewees, 61, of Kensington, Connecticut, who was in downtown Newtown, where a makeshift memorial rose several feet around two Christmas trees with teddy bears, flower bouquets and printed cards with messages like "We Choose Love" and "Our Newtown Angels rest in Peace."
"What I feel is a sense of guilt because I've been a strong advocate of gun control for years," Dewees said, his eyes welling up with tears. "I wish I'd been more vocal. You wonder, had we all been, could we have averted this?"
The attack, which killed 20 first graders ages 6 and 7, shattered the illusion of safety in this close-knit town of 27,000 people where many residents knew someone affected by the attacks.
"There's just so many connections," said Jay Petrusaitis, whose son was in the same high school class as the gunman.
Churches as far south as Florida and at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., rang their bells.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy had called for residents of his state to observe the moment of silence to mark a week since a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother and then stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School. He killed a total of 28 people that day, including six school teachers and staff in a rampage that ended when he turned his gun on himself.
Governors in Maine, Illinois, Michigan and several other states also called for moments of silence.
The observances were held not long before the National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun rights group and one with powerful ties to Washington politicians, was to begin a media campaign to become part of the gun control debate prompted by the massacre.
Laws restricting gun ownership are controversial in the United States, a nation with a strong culture of individual gun ownership. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. Hundreds of millions of weapons are in private hands.
About 11,100 Americans died in gun-related killings in 2011, not including suicides, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The NRA remained quiet for four days after the Newtown slaughter, citing "common decency." It released a short statement on Tuesday saying it was "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The group scheduled a news conference for Friday in Washington. NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre planned to appear on the NBC television talk show "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Some U.S. lawmakers called for swift passage of an assault weapons ban.
Vice President Joe Biden convened a new White House task force on Thursday charged by President Barack Obama with finding ways to quell violence.
"We have to have a comprehensive way in which to respond to the mass murder of our children that we saw in Connecticut," Biden told the group.
The gunman, Adam Lanza, used a military-style assault rifle and police said he carried hundreds of bullets in high-capacity magazines, as well as two handguns. The weapons were legally purchased and registered to his mother, Nancy, his first victim.
By Thursday, funeral services had been held for more than half of the 27 people Lanza killed last week.
Reflecting a heightened state of alert at schools across the United States, a school district near Boise, Idaho, canceled planned assemblies at a number of its 50 schools after receiving a rash of threats that suggested "something bad" would happen on Friday, Meridian school spokesman Eric Exline said.
In Florida, a 13-year-old student was arrested on Thursday after he allegedly posted a Facebook message threatening to "bring a gun to school tomorrow and shoot everyone," said the St. Lucie County Sheriff's office on Florida's east coast.
Even non-violent gestures brought swift retribution. In Roberta, Georgia, a 16-year-old high school student was questioned by police and suspended from school indefinitely after posting on Facebook that he planned a "big surprise" at school, according to The Telegraph of Macon, Georgia.
He had planned to dress up as Santa Claus and hand out candy to classmates.