Newtown massacre: Barack Obama plans to reinstate assault weapons ban as retail giants suspend rifle sales after backlash

White House says it will support weapons ban while ‘heartbroken’ NRA breaks silence

As the backlash against America's lax gun laws continued to grow after the Newtown tragedy, Wal-Mart announced yesterday that it was suspending the sale of models of the AR-15 Bushmaster rifle similar to the one police say Adam Lanza used last Friday.

The decision by America's most recognised discount retailer followed a similar move by another chain, Dick's Sporting Goods, to suspend sales of all hunting rifles. At the same time, one of the country's largest asset management firms, Cerberus Capital, said it would sell its stake in Freedom Group, the maker of the Bushmaster, lending weight to the sense that patience with years of inertia on gun control may have snapped.

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said last night that President Barack Obama wanted to reinstate an assault weapons ban. He said the President was "actively supportive" of a Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's plan to introduce a bill on the first day of the next Congress and would also consider curbs on high-capacity ammunition and loopholes.

Mr Obama has told members of his cabinet to come forward with concrete steps to reduce public access to guns, which among other things could include reinstating a ban on assault weapons that had been in place for 10 years before it expired in 2004. The task of co-ordinating that effort will go to Vice-President Joe Biden, according to reports.

Last night the National Rifle Association broke its silence on the shootings. The powerful lobby group issued a statement that read: "We were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown

"The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

Momentum after the Newtown tragedy, which saw 28 people killed including 20 children aged five and six, the killer and his mother, is also coming from moderate Democrats in the US Senate who, in spite of having strong ties to the gun lobby, have stepped forward this week to voice their support for a review of the laws. These include the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a long-time supporter of the NRA.

"We ought to feel guilty," Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman said in the Senate yesterday. "We have failed to fulfil what seemed to be our most natural responsibility, which is to protect the safety and lives our children." Despite these moves, anecdotal evidence suggests that in some parts of the US the shooting has increased demand for guns. Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, told the Huffington Post: "This tragedy is pushing sales through the roof. It's like putting gasoline on a fire."

Among clients for whom Cerberus makes investments are the pension funds of public workers, including teachers. Indeed, California State Teachers' Retirement System said on Monday that it was reviewing its relationship with Cerberus because of the stake it held in Freedom Group. But there may also be a far more personal reason behind Cerberus's decision: the father of its founder, Stephen Feinberg, is a resident of Newtown.

There will be no real debate in Congress until next year, and even then many members will be assessing what kind of political risk will come with taking on the NRA. So far there have been no Republicans among those senators speaking out.

It was not clear for how long the sales suspensions at Wal-Mart and Dick's would last. "Out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning we have removed all guns from sale and from display in our store nearest to Newtown and suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide," Dick's said in a statement.