An assassination attempt has left a Democratic congresswoman in a critical condition, killed Arizona’s chief federal judge and five other people and forced Americans to question the toxic legacy of their divisive politics.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among 13 people wounded in the shooting at a public event in Tucson, Arizona. The gunman was in custody.
The Pima County Sheriff’s department released a photo today of a possible accomplice they were seeking, a white man with dark hair, 40-45 years old.
A shaken President Barack Obama called the attack “a tragedy for our entire country” and sent his FBI chief to Arizona to help the investigation.
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. During the campaign, Sarah Palin had urged supporters to oust Gifford.
Gifford and nine other wounded were being treated at University Medical Center. Spokeswoman Darcy Slaten said five were in critical condition today and five in serious condition. She said the three other wounded were treated and released.
Event volunteer Alex Villec said the gunman asked to see Giffords but was told to wait his turn. He returned minutes later.
Firing a semiautomatic weapon, the gunman targeted Giffords as she met constituents outside a busy Tucson supermarket, shooting her in the head. He also fired at her district director and shot indiscriminately at the crowd, said a member of Giffords’ staff.
“He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman,” the staff member said, describing the scene as “just complete chaos, people screaming, crying”.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman. He was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22.
Authorities said the dead included US District Judge John Roll, 63; Christina Greene, nine; Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, 30; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79. Judge Roll had just stopped by to see his friend Giffords after attending Mass.
The sheriff blamed the vitriolic political rhetoric that has consumed the country, especially Arizona.
Giffords expressed similar concern, even before the shooting. In an interview after her office was vandalised last year, she referred to the animosity against her by conservatives.
“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 told MSNBC.
After Saturday’s shooting, Palin issued a statement in which she expressed her “sincere condolences” to the families of Giffords and other victims.
During his campaign 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 loaded M-16 rifle. Kelly is a former Marine who served in Iraq.
“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 ... 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.
Doctors were optimistic about Giffords surviving as she was responding to commands from doctors. “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.
Greg Segalini, an uncle of Christina, the nine-year-old victim, told the Arizona Republic that a neighbour was going to the event and invited her along because she had just been elected to the student council.
The suspect Loughner was described by a former classmate as a pot-smoking loner, and the Army said he tried to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for reasons not disclosed.
Federal law enforcement officials were poring over a MySpace page that included a mysterious “Goodbye friends” message published hours before the shooting and exhorted his friends to “Please don’t be mad at me.”
In one of several YouTube videos, Loughner described inventing a new US currency and complained about the illiteracy rate among people living in Giffords’ congressional district in Arizona.
“I know who’s listening: Government Officials, and the People,” Loughner wrote. “Nearly all the people, who don’t know this accurate information of a new currency, aren’t aware of mind control and brainwash methods. If I have my civil rights, then this message wouldn’t have happen (sic).”
Neighbours said Loughner lived with his parents and kept to himself. He was often seen walking his dog, usually wearing a hooded sweat shirt and listening to his iPod.
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,” Wiens said.