A gunman fired a semiautomatic weapon outside a busy supermarket Saturday during a public gathering for Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, killing Arizona's chief federal judge and five others in an attempted assassination that left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.
The shooting targeted Giffords, according to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, and left the three-term congresswoman in critical condition after a bullet passed through her brain. President Obama called the attack "a tragedy for our entire country."
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.
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. Anger over her position became violent at times, with her Tucson office vandalized after the House passed the overhaul last March and someone showing up at a recent gathering with a weapon.
Police said the alleged shooter was in custody. The suspect was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared L. Loughner, 22.
Dupnik described the gunman as mentally unstable and possibly acting with an accomplice. He said Giffords was among 13 people wounded in the melee. He said the rampage ended after two people tackled the gunman.
The sheriff noted 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 had gone to Mass on Saturday morning like he does every day before stopping by to say hello to his 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."
Giffords expressed similar concern, even before the shooting. In an interview after her office was vandalized, she referred to the animosity against her by conservatives, including Sarah Palin's decision to list Giffords' seat as one of the top "targets" in the midterm elections.
"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.
During his campaign effort 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 fully loaded M-16 rifle. A former Marine who served in Iraq, he was pictured on his website in military gear holding his automatic weapon and promoting the event.
Obama dispatched his FBI director to Arizona. Capitol police asked members of Congress to be more vigilant in the wake of the shooting.
The suspect's exact motivation was not clear, but a former classmate described Loughner as a pot-smoking loner. The Army said he had tried to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for reasons the military did not provide.
Federal law enforcement officials were poring over versions of a MySpace page that belonged to Jared Loughner and over 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 "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, which featured text against a dark background, Loughner described inventing a new U.S. currency and complained about the illiteracy rate among people living in Giffords' congressional district.
"I know who's listening: Government Officials, and the People," he 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)."
Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin said three of her staffers were shot. Gabe Zimmerman, a former social worker who served as Giffords' director of community outreach, died. The other two are expected to survive.
A 9-year-old girl also died.
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."
The shooting occurred at a shopping center 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 her, Kimball said.
"He was not more than three or four feet from the congresswoman and the district director," he said.
In Loughner's middle-class neighborhood -- about a five-minute drive from the scene -- sheriff's deputies had much of the street blocked off.
Neighbors said Loughner kept to himself but that they often saw him walking his dog and almost always wearing a hooded sweat shirt and listening to his iPod. Neighbors said Loughner lived with his parents.
Loughner's MySpace profile indicates he attended and graduated from school in Tucscon and had taken college classes. It did not say if he was employed.
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.