Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords remained heavily sedated and in a critical condition today as investigators sought to understand what motivated a gunman to carry out the assassination attempt in a rampage that left six people dead.
University Medical Centre spokeswoman Darci Slaten said that Giffords underwent two hours of surgery yesterday and has not been conscious since the shooting. She said more information will be released at a news conference in which one of the doctors who operated on Giffords plans to speak.
Outside of the hospital, candles flickered at a makeshift memorial.
Authorities said the 40-year-old was targeted at a public gathering by a man with a semiautomatic weapon around 10am yesterday outside a busy Tucson supermarket. Arizona’s chief federal judge and five others were killed and 13 people were wounded, including the Democrat lawmaker.
He also fired at her district director and shot indiscriminately at staffers and others standing in line to talk to the congresswoman, said Mark Kimble, a communications staffer for Mrs Giffords.
“He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman and the district director,” Kimble 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 definitely on a mission,” said Alex Villec, a former Giffords intern.
Police said the gunman was in custody, and was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22.
His motivation was not immediately known, but Sheriff Dupnik described him as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice.
His office said a man possibly associated with the suspect who was near the scene was being sought. The man, who was photographed by a security camera, was described as white with dark hair and 40-45 years old.
The assassination attempt left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.
A shaken President Barack Obama called the attack “a tragedy for our entire country”.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that FBI Director Robert Mueller was travelling to Arizona to help co-ordinate the investigation.
In a brief statement House Speaker John Boehner said flags on the House side of the Capitol in Washington will be flown at half staff to honour Giffords’ slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman. Boehner said normal House business this week will be postponed to focus on any necessary actions in the shooting aftermath, including a vote on repealing Obama’s health care reform overhaul.
Giffords is a moderate Democrat who narrowly won re-election in November against a Republican candidate supported by the ultraconservative tea party movement 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 vandalised after the House passed the overhaul last March and someone showing up at a recent gathering with a weapon.
Authorities said the dead included US District Judge John Roll, 63; Christina-Taylor Green, nine; Giffords aide Zimmerman, 30; Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79.
Nine other wounded in the shooting were being treated at hospital, four of them in critical condition and five of them serious. Three others were treated at other hospitals and released.
Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin said besides Zimmerman, who was killed, two other Giffords’ staffers were shot but were expected to survive. Zimmerman was a former social worker who served as Giffords’ director of community outreach.
The suspected gunman 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 versions of 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.”
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,” Wiens said.
Lynda Sorenson said she took a math class with Loughner last summer at Pima Community College’s Northwest campus and told the Arizona Daily Star he was “obviously very disturbed. He disrupted class frequently with nonsensical outbursts,” she said.