TUCSON, Ariz. – A mass shooting Saturday gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed a federal judge, raising serious concerns that the nation’s heated political discourse had taken a dangerous turn.
Police are holding a 22-year-old man in the rampage, which took place outside a supermarket where Giffords was greeting constituents. The gunman shot Giffords in the head at close range and then continued to fire into the small gathering of people, police said.
Police said they think that Giffords was the target of the attack.
Law enforcement and medical officials in Arizona said that at least 18 people were shot in the melee and that six of them had died, including John Roll, the chief U.S. District judge in Arizona, and Gabe Zimmerman, Giffords’s local director of community outreach. A 9-year-old girl was also killed. Two other Giffords staffers, district director Ron Barber and community outreach aide Pam Simon, were wounded.
Authorities said they were seeking a second man as a “person of interest” who might have been at the scene with the gunman. He is not a suspect in the shooting, authorities said.
It was unclear what might have motivated the suspect, identified as 22-year-old Jared Loughner. On YouTube, an individual using the same name had posted convoluted videos with a vague anti-government message, that law enforcement officials said they were analyzing. As of late Saturday, Loughner wasn’t cooperating with investigators.
In an emotional news conference late Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, D, denounced the nation’s vitriolic political climate and noted Arizona’s part in the rancor after a controversial crackdown on illegal immigration.
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital,” Dupnik said. “We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
The fiery rhetoric that has taken hold in politics, Dupnik said, “may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”
President Barack Obama dispatched FBI Director Robert Mueller to the scene, and U.S. Capitol Police, charged with protecting members of Congress, urged House members to take “reasonable and prudent precautions” regarding their personal safety.
Peter Rhee, trauma director at University Medical Center in Tucson, where Giffords was listed in intensive care, said a single bullet had struck Giffords in the head and traveled through her brain. Sources close to Giffords said the lawmaker was responsive when she was airlifted from the scene and before surgery.
Despite cautious optimism about Giffords’s condition, former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, a family friend of Giffords’s, told reporters Saturday night that she could need further surgery. “This is a very devastating wound,” Carmona said.
Loughner was tackled by two people in the small crowd that had formed around Giffords, and he was taken taken into custody. A 9mm Glock handgun was recovered. It had what police described as “an extended clip.”
Dozens of friends and colleagues gathered at the Capitol on Saturday night for a vigil for Giffords. A somber Obama addressed the tragedy late Saturday afternoon.
“It’s not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does – listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors,” Obama said, referring to Giffords by her nickname. “That is the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country.”
Giffords, 40, who narrowly won re-election to a third term in November and was sworn into office Wednesday, was hosting her first “Congress on Your Corner” event of the new Congress when the gunman appeared, law enforcement sources said.
Steven Rayle, a Tucson doctor, said he saw a young man wearing sneakers and what appeared to be navy-blue sweat clothes approach Giffords with a raised semiautomatic pistol. The man shot Giffords once in the face, he said.
After Giffords fell, Rayle said, people near her tried to flee but were trapped by a table and a concrete post. The gunman fired into the crowd, he said.
“There was nowhere easy to run,” Rayle said. “People that were there were just sitting ducks. I don’t think he was even aiming. He was just firing at whatever.”
An intern to the congresswoman who had nursing training was able to attend to Giffords before emergency workers arrived, a potentially critical intervention, a Giffords aide confirmed.
Law enforcement sources said the gun used in the attack was fitted with a magazine that held about 30 bullets. The shooter had another magazine that held about 30 bullets and two that held about 15 bullets each, sources said, and he also had a knife. Reese Widmier, manager of the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson, confirmed that the gun was sold by the store Nov. 30.
The shooting marked the first attempt on the life of a sitting member of Congress since the 1978 killing of Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., while investigating the Peoples Temple cult compound in Jonestown, Guyana.
Although Loughner’s motive remained a mystery, the incident was viewed by many in the political world as a grim coda to a bitterly contentious campaign season, in which Arizona and Giffords featured prominently.
Last March, Giffords was one of 10 House Democrats who were harassed for their support of the national health-care overhaul. After Giffords voted for the final bill, the front door of her Tucson office was shattered in an early-morning act of vandalism.
House Republican leaders had scheduled a vote Wednesday on repealing the health-care law, but they announced after the shooting that it would be postponed, along with other legislative business.
Giffords’s seat was targeted by Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, but she managed to win a tough battle against a tea party-endorsed opponent. The up-and-coming lawmaker, known as a moderate Democrat who stayed in touch with her district, had been singled out by Sarah Palin’s SarahPac as one of 20 Democrats representing states that supported Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president in 2008.
Liberals on Saturday blamed the tea party movement’s sometimes militant rhetoric: for example, Palin’s telling supporters via Twitter, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD,” and Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s advocating “second-amendment remedies” to some of the nation’s problems.
The link to Palin touched off a war of words Saturday on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as prominent left-wing bloggers accused Palin and others of encouraging extremism. Palin weighed in by issuing a call for “peace” on her Facebook page.
Politicians from across the spectrum reacted with shock and alarm. “I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society.”
The “Congress on Your Corner” program was intended as a way for Democratic lawmakers such as Giffords to remain connected to local concerns, especially in highly competitive districts. Giffords was standing outside the grocery store under a banner with her name on it when the suspect approached her and started firing.
Giffords is a former member of the Arizona state Senate and House, and she had served as president of a tire company founded by her father. She speaks Spanish, and her hobbies include motorcycle racing. She is married to Mark Kelly, an astronaut and Navy pilot.
In 2006, she was a top recruit of Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and was viewed as the type of young, middle-of-the-road candidate with crossover appeal. That year, she won the Democratic primary in a crowded field. In the general election, she received 54 percent of the vote against the GOP candidate, anti-illegal immigration activist Randy Graf, to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.
She easily won re-election in 2008.
The debate sparked by the Arizona crackdown last year on illegal immigrants became a defining issue in Giffords’s 2010 campaign. The 8th Congressional District borders Mexico, and although Giffords denounced the law as “extreme,” she refused to join a chorus of liberal outrage. She described the measure as a “clear calling that the federal government needs to do a better job.”
She supported a Republican effort to add National Guard troops along the border and opposed an effort by a home-state colleague, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D, to boycott Arizona businesses in protest of the state law. Giffords won re-election by fewer than 4,000 votes.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who as 2010 chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made Giffords’s re-election a priority, called her “one of our very brightest lights.”
One of her assignments under the Democratic House majority was to chair a subcommittee that oversaw NASA. Kelly, who married Giffords in 2007, recently commanded the space shuttle Endeavor’s trip to the international space station.
Murray reported from Washington and Horwitz from Tucson. Staff writers Paul Kane, Anne E. Kornblut, David A. Fahrenthold and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.