A US congresswoman was fighting for her life today after being shot in the head outside an Arizona supermarket as she met constituents.
The gunman killed Arizona’s chief federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others in yesterday’s rampage in Tucson that shocked the country and left a question over whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.
“It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country,” US president Barack Obama, who has sent his FBI director to Arizona, said last night.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said today congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 40, was the target of the gunman whom he described as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice.
He said the Democrat was among 13 people wounded in the massacre that also killed one of her aides.
The sheriff said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman, identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22. Sheriff’s officials said he used a 9mm pistol to carry out the attack.
The sheriff pointed to the vitriolic political rhetoric that has consumed the country as he condemned the shooting that claimed several of his friends as victims, including US district judge John Roll.
“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 shooting cast a pall over Washington as politicians of all parties condemned the shooting as a horrific and senseless act of violence. Capitol police warned congress members to be more vigilant about security in the wake of the shooting.
Moderate Ms Giffords narrowly won re-election in November against a tea party candidate as conservatives across America sought to oust her from office over her support of the health care law.
Her office in Tucson was vandalised hours after the House of Representatives passed the reforms last March.
A former classmate described Loughner as a pot-smoking loner who had rambling beliefs about the world and investigators were poring over versions of a MySpace page that belonged to Loughner and 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, which exhorted his friends: “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 Ms Giffords’ constituency.
The shooting comes amid a highly-charged political environment that has seen several dangerous threats against lawmakers.
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 Ms Giffords was among the targets.
A San Francisco man upset with House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support of health care reform pleaded guilty to threatening the Democratic congresswoman and her family, calling her on March 25 and threatening to destroy her Northern California home if she voted for the changes.
In July, a California man known for his anger over left-leaning politics engaged in a shoot-out with highway patrol officers after planning an attack on the American Civil Liberties Union and another non-profit group.
Ms 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,” she said on Twitter
Mr Obama said last night: “It’s not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does, listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbours. That is the essence of what our democracy is about.”
Ms Giffords has angered right-wingers including former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in the last year, over her support of the health care bill.
Mrs Palin last night expressed “sincere condolences” to Ms Giffords’ family and the other victims.
The shooting happened at the La Toscana Village shopping centre as Ms Giffords met constituents outside the Safeway store.
Alex Villec, 19, a volunteer for the event, told the Arizona Daily Star that the gunman asked to speak to Ms Giffords, but Mr Villec told him to go to the back of the queue. The gunman did but minutes later walked towards her.
“He was intent,” Mr Villec said. “He was intent when he came back – a pretty stone-cold glance and glare.”
“I didn’t see his gun, but it was clear who he was going for.”
Neighbours said Loughner, who lived with his parents in a middle-class area five minutes’ drive from the shooting scene, kept himself to himself.
High school classmate Grant Wiens, 22, said Loughner seemed to be “floating through life” and “doing his own thing”.
“Sometimes religion was brought up or drugs. He smoked pot, I don’t know how regularly. And he wasn’t too keen on religion from what I could tell,” Mr Wiens said.