A gunman nearly unloaded a semiautomatic weapon at a busy supermarket Saturday during a public gathering for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounding the Democrat and killing Arizona's chief federal judge and five others in an attempted assassination that left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.
The shooting targeted Giffords and left the three-term congresswoman in critical condition after a bullet passed through her head. A shaken President Barack Obama called the attack "a
tragedy for our entire country."
Giffords, 40, is a moderate Democrat who narrowly won re-election in November against a tea party candidate who sought to throw her from office over her support of the health care law.
Anger over her position became violent at times, with her Tucson office vandalized after the House passed the overhaul last March and someone showing up at a recent gathering with a weapon.
Police say the shooter was in custody, and was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22. U.S. officials who provided his name to the AP spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release it publicly.
His motivation was not immediately known, but Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described him as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice.
Dupnik said Giffords was among 13 people wounded in the melee that killed six people - including 9-year-old Christina Greene, 30-year-old Gifford aide Gabe Zimmerman, and U.S. District Judge John Roll. The 63-year-old judge had just stopped by to see his friend Giffords after attending Mass. Dupnik said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman. Also killed were 76-year-old Dorthy Murray, 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard, and
79-year-old Phyllis Scheck, investigators said.
The sheriff blamed the vitriolic political rhetoric that has consumed the country, much of it occurring in Arizona.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," he said. "And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Giffords expressed similar concern, even before the shooting. In an interview after her office was vandalized, she referred to the animosity against her by conservatives, including Sarah Palin's decision to list Giffords' seat as one of the top "targets" in the midterm elections.
"For example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to
realize that there are consequences to that action," Giffords said in an interview with MSNBC.
In the hours after the shooting, Palin issued a statement in which she expressed her "sincere condolences" to the family of Giffords and the other victims.
During his campaign effort to unseat Giffords in November, Republican challenger Jesse Kelly held fundraisers where he urged supporters to help remove Giffords from office by joining him to shoot a fully loaded M-16 rifle. Kelly is a former Marine who served in Iraq and was pictured on his website in military gear holding his automatic weapon and promoting the event.
"I don't see the connection," between the fundraisers featuring weapons and Saturday's shooting, said John Ellinwood, Kelly's spokesman. "I don't know this person, we cannot find any
records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don't see the connection.
"Arizona is a state where people are firearms owners - this was just a deranged individual."
Law enforcement officials said members of Congress reported 42 cases of threats or violence in the first three months of 2010, nearly three times the 15 cases reported during the same period a year earlier. Nearly all dealt with the health care bill, and Giffords was among the targets.
The shooting cast a pall over the Capitol as politicians of all stripes denounced the attack as a horrific. Capitol police asked members of Congress to be more vigilant about security in the wake of the shooting. Obama dispatched his FBI chief to Arizona.
Giffords, known as "Gabby," tweeted shortly before the shooting, describing her "Congress on Your Corner" event: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me
know what is on your mind or tweet me later."
"It's not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does, listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors," Obama said. "That is the essence of what our democracy is about."
Mark Kimball, a communications staffer for Giffords, described the scene as "just complete chaos, people screaming, crying." The gunman fired at Giffords and her district director and started shooting indiscriminately at staffers and others standing in line
to talk to the congresswoman, Kimball said.
"He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman and the district director," he said.