Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was fighting for her life Sunday after being shot at close range by an assailant armed with an automatic pistol and linked to a disturbing series of web postings hinting at vaguely violent and bizarre political beliefs. In a news conference Sunday, doctors said Ms. Giffords is able to communicate with simple commands.
The murderous rampage by a delusional dropout who killed six and wounded more than a dozen others has sent political shockwaves rolling across America.
"This is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country," said President Barack Obama, who praised the outspoken Ms. Giffords who was shot Saturday morning while holding a "meet and greet" with citizens in the mostly conservative state where she only narrowly managed to hold her seat in last November's election.
But in the aftermath of the first political shooting in America since former president Ronald Reagan was nearly killed outside a Washington hotel by a deranged gunman seeking to impress an actress in 1981, accusations and recriminations were flying.
Ms. Giffords, 40 and the youngest-ever woman elected to the House of Representatives, was one of 20 Democrats targeted by Sarah Palin on a map she posted online last fall using icons of gun sights.
Nothing links the shooter to Ms. Palin, and the former Alaska governor was quick to voice condolences to the gravely-wounded Ms. Giffords, but the atmosphere of divisiveness and hate that pervades American politics will be closely examined in the wake of the assassination attempt.
"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous" Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said. "Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who was wrestled to the ground after he ran out of bullets (and it's estimated that two dozen rounds were fired in the murderous spree outside a Safeway grocery store), was in custody but was refusing to speak to police. In recent months he had posting increasingly odd – vaguely violent – internet videos, decrying everything from bad grammar to the community college that kicked him out, to the U.S. currency. But there was nothing overtly threatening in the postings and nothing to suggest that Ms. Gifford was a target.
"The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar," claimed one of Mr. Loughner's postings.
Eyewitnesses said the gunman barged into a crowd waiting to speak with Ms. Giffords, and then opened fire, shooting her first at close range in the head.
The bullet passed through her skull and brain, exiting the other side of her head and leaving her gravely injured. After hours of surgery, she remained in critical condition but doctors were cautiously optimistic that she might survive the horrific wounds. "I am very optimistic about her recovery, … we cannot tell what kind of recovery, but I'm as optimistic as it can get in this kind of situation," said Dr. Peter Rhee, medical director at the University Medical Center in Tucson.
Six others were dead, including a John Roll, 63, federal court judge; Christina Greene, a nine-year-old, third-grade student; Gabe Zimmerman, 30, one of Ms. Giffords' aides; and three elderly voters who were discussing health-care reform with the Democrat congresswoman when the gunfire erupted.
The three senior citizens were identified as Dorothy Murray, 76, Dorwin Stoddard, 76 and Phyllis Scheck, 79. Seventeen others were injured, some of them seriously as the shooter unloaded a specially extended magazine on a 9mm Glock automatic handgun, a deadly weapon readily available in states such as Arizona with lax gun ownership laws.
Police were hunting for a person of interest who apparently drove Mr. Loughner from his family's home to the Safeway – about eight kilometers. Tuscon police released a photo of a middle-aged white man with dark hair, spotted on a surveillance camera near the shooting and asked the public for help in identifying him. He was described as "possibly associated" with the killings. He was later cleared of any involvement in Ms. Giffords shooting.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken overall control of the investigation and President Obama ordered FBI director Robert Mueller to fly to Arizonia and take charge.
In Washington, the United States Capitol Police, responsible for the safety of legislators, warned Congress "to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security" but nothing suggested a wider conspiracy.
Ms. Giffords, a rare Democrat in overwhelmingly Republican Arizona, had been a tough-talking critic of the state's controversial immigration law aimed at targeting and deporting illegal aliens – most of them Mexican. Both she and Judge Roll, who had ruled on immigration cases, had received occasional death threats, according to published reports.
Across America, condolences were voiced and the violence denounced. But nasty debates also erupted as accusations flew over whether political vitriol and divisiveness set the stage for the killings. In one of his videos, usually just text on a black background with music playing as statements appear and then fade, Mr. Loughner described himself "a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon."
Arizona's Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate who lost to Mr. Obama in the race for the presidency in 2008, called the shooter "a disgrace to Arizona, this country and the human race."
"I am horrified by the violent attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many other innocent people by a wicked person who has no sense of justice or compassion. I pray for Gabby and the other victims, and for the repose of the souls of the dead and comfort for their families," Sen. McCain said.
In the wake of the shooting, the House of Representatives suspended sitting for a week -- delaying a Republican effort with its new House majority to force a vote to repeal the president's signature healthcare reform. Ms. Giffords had voted for the healthcare bill.
Subsequently vandals attacked her constituency office and those of several other Democrats last spring. The new Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said representing voters entailed risk. "No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty," he said.
The last Congressman shot was Leo Ryan, a California Democrat who was killed in 1978 in Guyana when he had gone to investigate an extremist religious cult led by Jim Jones which ended in a mass suicide.
- with a file from The Canadian Press