Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) and seventeen others were shot Saturday after a gunman opened fire at a public event in Tucson, law-enforcement sources confirmed. Six people were killed, including a federal judge, an aide to Giffords and a nine-year-old girl.
The 40-year-old Arizona Democrat was shot in the head once at point-blank range and rushed to University Medical Center (UMC). During a press conference Sunday, Dr. Peter Rhee of the University of Arizona Medical Center said that she was out of surgery and in critical condition, but was awake and following commands. Rhee said that he was “very optimistic about recovery.”
U.S. District Judge John Roll was among those killed at the scene of the shooting, U.S. Marshall David Gonzales confirmed to the Associated Press.
A number of national news organizations including CNN, NPR and Reuters reported prematurely that Giffords had died.
The shooting occurred during Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event in northwest Tucson, when a gunman ran up to the group and started shooting, according to Peter Michaels, news director of Arizona Public Media.
The shooter, identified as 22-year-old Jared Loughner, was tackled by a bystander and taken into custody. The FBI has said he was the only shooter; Loughner purchased his semi-automatic pistol legally in Tucson, the Washington Post reported.
Pima County Sheriff Clarance Dupnik would not confirm that Loughner was the suspect in the shooting, but said the shooter was targeting Giffords.
“He ran into the crowd and when he got to (Giffords), he started shooting,” said Dupnik.
Giffords, Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman, was first elected as a representative of Arizona’s 8th District in 2006 and was reelected to her third term in November.
During her time in Congress, Giffords focused on immigration reform, military issues, stem cell research and alternative energy. Just days before she was shot, Giffords, who was voted one of the “Top Ten Rebels in the House” last year, introduced a bill for a 5 percent reduction in congressional salaries, and said she had real hope for bipartisan cooperation in the next Congress.
Giffords had been the target of death threats, vandalism and harassment in recent months – Dupnik noted a political event at which an audience member dropped a weapon. During another incident, windows in her office were broken shortly after her vote for health care reform in March, and authorities are currently investigating a suspicious package found Saturday at Giffords’ Tucson office.
The shooting has been connected to the heated political rhetoric around issues such as health care legislation and immigration recently, and according to Dupnik the atmosphere in Arizona was particularly tense.
“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capita,” Dupnik said. “We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
Giffords was one of 20 Congress members placed in the crosshairs on Sarah Palin’s “target list,” meant to highlight Democrats in vulnerable congressional districts, which stirred controversy for the use of gun sights.
Speaking to MSNBC about Palin’s list in March, Giffords said, “Sarah Palin has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there are consequences to that action.”
In a statement on Facebook, Palin said “my sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.”
In the Palin camp’s first extended comments on yesterday’s attack, an aide to Palin said the crosshairs were never meant to evoke violence. “We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights,” Rebecca Mansour told talk radio host Tammy Bruce.
Gifford’s Republican opponent in the November race, Jesse Kelly (R-Arizona), was also criticized for a campaign event at a shooting range, advertised with the words “Get on Target for Victory in November,” “Help remove Gabriel Giffords from office” and “Shoot a fully automatic M16.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), who has also been the target of vandalism and harassment, told KOLD News 13, “The lesson we can take from the terrible thing that just happened” is that “we can differ, but that difference does not need to go to an extreme where it becomes danger.”
“Civil discourse and civil debate should be exactly that,” said Grijalva.
In a statement, President Barack Obama called the shooting an “unspeakable tragedy,” and said that while we do not know the motive of the shooting, “what we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society.”