Congresswoman critical, 6 dead in Tucson rampage

Rep. Giffords is expected to survive; US judge killed | Alleged attacker shot 19 attending public meeting | President dispatches FBI director to Arizona

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By Terry Tang and Amanda Lee Myers
Associated Press / January 9, 2011

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TUCSON — Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head yesterday by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store during a meeting with voters, killing a federal judge and five others in a rampage that rattled the country and left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.

Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff, said Giffords was the target of a gunman whom he described as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice, who was described as a 50-year-old white male. He said Giffords was among 13 people wounded by the gunfire that killed six people, including Arizona’s chief federal judge, a 9-year-old girl, and an aide for the Democratic lawmaker. He said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman.

Doctors were optimistic about Giffords surviving as she was responding to commands from doctors despite having a bullet go through her head. “With guarded optimism, I hope she will survive, but this is a very devastating wound,’’ said Dr. Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general who lives in Tucson.

The sheriff pointed to the vitriolic political rhetoric that has consumed the country as he denounced the shooting that claimed several of his friends as victims, including US District Judge John Roll. The judge attended Mass yesterday morning as usual before stopping by to say hello to his good friend Giffords.

“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,’’ the sheriff said. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.’’

The reaction to the shooting rippled across a country aghast at such a violent attack on a sitting member of Congress. The shooting cast a pall over the Capitol as politicians of all stripes denounced the shooting as a horrific and senseless act of violence.

President Obama dispatched his FBI director to Arizona, and Capitol police asked members of Congress to be more vigilant about security in the wake of the shooting. Some politicians expressed hope that the killing spree serves as a wakeup call at a time when the political climate has become so emotionally charged.

“It is a tragedy for Arizona, and a tragedy for our entire country,’’ Obama declared.

Giffords, 40, is a three-term moderate Democrat who narrowly won reelection in November against a Tea Party-movement-backed candidate as conservatives across the country sought to remove her from office over her support of the health care law. Her office in Tucson was vandalized in the hours after the House passed the health care overhaul last March as anger over the law spread across the country.

The sheriff used the word “vitriol’’ several times to express his disgust with the political climate in the country and in Arizona, a conservative state that put itself at the center of the national debate on immigration last year with a contentious crackdown on illegal immigrants. Residents and politicians have also vocally opposed Obama and Democrats on health care.

The shooting occurred at a shopping center as Giffords met with voters outside a Safeway grocery store.

Police said the shooter was in custody, and was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22. Officials said he used a pistol with an extended clip to carry out the attack. US officials who provided his name spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release it publicly.

Federal law enforcement officials were poring over versions of a MySpace page that belonged to Jared Loughner and over a YouTube video published weeks ago under an account “Classitup10’’ and linked to him. The MySpace page, which was removed within minutes of the gunman being identified by officials, included a mysterious “Goodbye friends’’ message published hours before the shooting urging his friends to “Please don’t be mad at me.’’

In one of several YouTube videos, which featured text against a dark background, Loughner described inventing a new US currency and complained about the illiteracy rate among people living in Arizona’s Eight Congressional District.

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Giffords, said three staffers were shot. One died and the other two are expected to survive. Gabe Zimmerman, a former social worker who served as her director of community outreach, died. Giffords had worked with the judge to line up funding for a new courthouse in Yuma, and Obama hailed him for his nearly 40 years of service as a judge.

A vigil service last night outside her Tucson office was disrupted by a loud noise as a bomb squad worked to diffuse a “real strange device’’ that resembled a coffee can, authorities said.

Giffords was first elected to Congress amid a wave of Democratic victories in the 2006 election, and has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate in 2012 and as a gubernatorial prospect in 2014.

Giffords is married to astronaut Mark E. Kelly, who has piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery. The two met in China in 2003 while they were serving on a committee there, and were married in January 2007. Senator Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Commerce Space and Science Subcommittee, said her husband is training to be the next commander of the space shuttle mission slated for April. His brother is currently serving aboard the International Space Station, Nelson said.

Giffords has drawn the ire of the right in the last year, especially from politicians like Sarah Palin, over her support of the health care bill. It is not clear whether the gunman had the health care debate in mind or was focused on his own unique set of political beliefs as witnessed in the Internet videos.

The Tucson office of Giffords was vandalized a few hours after the House voted to approve the health care law in March, with someone either kicking or shooting out a glass door and window. More recently, someone in a “very angry audience’’ at a Giffords event dropped a weapon out of their pants, the sheriff said.

In an interview after the vandalism, Giffords referred to the animosity against her by conservatives. Palin listed her seat as one of the top targets in the midterm elections because of the lawmaker’s support for the health care law.

“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.

The crosshairs were later removed from a map of targeted districts.

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.

Outside the Giffords office on Capitol Hill, a handful of congressional staffers could be seen walking into her office without offering comment, some with roller bags and one who was in tears.

About a half dozen yellow flowers were placed by one mourner outside the door.

In Loughner’s middle-class neighborhood — about a five-minute drive from the scene — sheriff’s deputies had much of the street blocked off as curious neighbors asked what was going on. The neighborhood sits just off a bustling Tucson street and is lined with desert landscaping and palm trees.

Neighbors said Loughner kept to himself but was often seen walking his dog, almost always wearing a hooded sweat shirt listening to his iPod. Loughner lived with his parents, neighbors said.

During his campaign effort to unseat Giffords in November, Republican challenger Jesse Kelly held fund-raisers at which 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 fund-raisers featuring weapons and yesterday’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,’’ Ellinwood said.