TUCSON, Ariz. - Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head yesterday by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store during a meeting with voters, killing a federal judge and five others. The rampage rattled the country and left Americans questioning whether divisive politics had pushed the suspect over the edge.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said Giffords, 40, was the target of a gunman, in custody, whom he described as mentally unstable and possibly acting along with an accomplice.
Dupnik said the six people killed included Arizona's chief federal judge, John Roll; 9-year-old Christina Greene and 30-year-old Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman. Also killed were 76-year-old Dorthy Murray, 76-year-old Dorwin Stoddard, and 79-year-old Phyllis Scheck, investigators said. Dupnik said the rampage ended only after two people tackled the gunman.
Giffords was among 13 people wounded, the sheriff said. Doctors were optimistic about her surviving as she was responding to commands despite having a bullet go through her head.
Giffords is married to astronaut Mark E. Kelly, who has piloted space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery.
Strong words from sheriff
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 Roll, a U.S. district judge. The judge celebrated Mass 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," Dupnik said. "And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
The shooting cast a pall over the Capitol as politicians of all stripes denounced it as a horrific and senseless act of violence.
Police say the shooter was identified by people familiar with the investigation as Jared Loughner, 22. Officials said he used a pistol with an extended clip 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.
The suspect's exact motive was not clear, but a former classmate described Loughner as a loner who had rambling beliefs about the world.
Scene of 'complete chaos'
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.
Giffords is known in her southern Arizona district for her numerous public outreach meetings.
"It's not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does, listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors," Obama said. "That is the essence of what our democracy is about."
Giffords has drawn the ire of the right in the last year over her support of the health care bill. Republican conservative Sarah Palin put Giffords on a list of Democrats who were in Palin's "crosshairs" because of their support for the bill.
It's still not clear whether the gunman had the health care debate in mind or was focused on his own unique set of political beliefs.