TUCSON, Ariz. – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head Saturday 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.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said Giffords was the target of a gunman whom he described as mentally unstable and possibly acting along with an accomplice. He said Giffords was among 13 people wounded in the melee 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.
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 U.S. District Judge John Roll. The judge celebrated Mass on Saturday morning like he does every day 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 the country as Americans were aghast at the sight of 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. Capitol police asked members of Congress to be more vigilant about security in the wake of the shooting, and 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,” President Barack Obama declared.
Giffords, 40, is a three-term moderate Democrat who narrowly won re-election in November against a tea party candidate as conservatives across the country sought to throw 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 overhaul last March as anger over the law spread across the country.
Police say the shooter was in custody, and was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Laugher, 22. Pima County Sheriff’s officials said he used a 9 mm pistol to carry out the attack. U.S. officials who provided his name to the AP spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release it publicly.
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.
Giffords’ Tucson office 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, the sheriff also said that someone in a “very angry audience” at a Giffords event dropped a weapon out of their pants.
In an interview after the vandalism, Giffords referred to the animosity against her by conservatives. Palin listed Giffords’ seat as one of the top “targets” in the midterm elections because of the lawmakers’ 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.
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.
The sheriff used the word “vitriol” several times to express his disgust with the political climate in the country and in Arizona, a heavily 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 here have also vocally opposed Obama and Democrats on health care.
The shooting occurred at a shopping center called La Toscana Village as Giffords met with voters outside a Safeway grocery store.
Mark Kimball, a communications staffer for Giffords, described the scene as “just complete chaos, people screaming, crying.” The gunman fired at Giffords and her district director and started shooting indiscriminately at staffers and others standing in line to talk to the congresswoman, Kimball said.
“He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman and the district director,” he said.
Law enforcement officials and reporters from around the country quickly descended on Tucson, the second biggest city in the state and home to the University of Arizona. The scene has been converted into a command post with about a dozen or so emergency vehicles and agents in FBI jackets milling about the location.