US congresswoman wounded, six killed in shooting

Emergency personnel use a stretcher to carry a shooting victim outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz. where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others were shot as the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. (AP

A gunman shot a US congresswoman in the head, seriously wounding her, and killed six other people in a shooting rampage at a public meeting in Tucson on Saturday.

The attack by a suspect authorities described as having a "troubled past" took place outside a supermarket where Gabrielle Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat, was meeting with constituents.

Among the dead were a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl. Officials said 12 people were wounded, down from a previous estimate of 13.

The suspected gunman, identified by a federal law enforcement official as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol at point-blank range. The suspect was tackled to the ground by two bystanders after the shooting and was in custody.

The motive in the attack was unknown. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said he believed Giffords was the intended target of the shooting.

"He has kind of a troubled past and we're not convinced  that he acted alone," Dupnik told a news conference in reference to the suspect.

Authorities were seeking a second male in connection with the shooting, he said.

Dupnik said the suspect had made threats to kill in the past but not against Giffords.

Dr. Steven Rayle, who helped restrain the suspect, told CNN that the shooter was dressed in a shabby manner but looked focused as he fired indiscriminately into the crowd.

President Barack Obama sent FBI Director Robert Mueller to Arizona to oversee the investigation, telling reporters, "We don't yet know what provoked this unspeakable act."

Giffords, beginning her third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, was in critical condition after surgery at Tucson University Medical Center and doctors said they were cautiously optimistic about her prospects for recovery.

"The surgeons I spoke to are cautiously optiomistic (that  Giffords will survive)," Richard Carmona, the country's former surgeon general and a family friend, told the Tucson news conference. "With guarded optimism I hope she will survive."

Giffords was hosting a "Congress on Your Corner" event -- public gatherings to give her constituents a chance to talk directly with her -- when the gunman attacked from about 4 feet (1.2 metres) away, National Public Radio said.

The gunman approached Giffords from behind, firing at least 20 shots at her and others in the crowd, MSNBC said, citing law enforcement officials and witnesses.

The shooting prompted lawmakers in Washington to postpone their agenda for next week, including a vote on the repeal of Obama's healthcare overhaul. The new Congress convened this week after Nov. 2 elections in which the Republican Party gained control of the House.

"All legislation currently scheduled to be considered by the House of Representatives next week is being postponed so that we can take whatever actions may be necessary in light of today's tragedy," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement.

Gun violence is common in the United States, which is periodically rocked by mass shootings, but political shootings are rare.

The shooting followed contentious congressional elections in November marked by heated rhetoric over issues such as the Democratic party-led legislative drive to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system and immigration reform.

Giffords, a supporter of the healthcare overhaul that passed last year, had warned previously that the heated political rhetoric had prompted violent threats against her and vandalism at her office.

But it was not known if the shooting was connected to any political stance.

In an interview last year with the MSNBC television network, Giffords cited a map of electoral targets put out by former Alaska Republican Governor and prominent conservative Sarah Palin, each one marked by the crosshairs of a rifle sight.

"When people do that, they've got to realize that there's consequences to that action," Giffords told MSNBC.

Palin quickly condemned the shootings on Saturday and offered condolences to the victims.

In several videos posted on the Internet site YouTube, a person who posted under the name Jared Lee Loughner criticizes the government and religion and calls for a new currency. It was not known if he was the same person as the suspect.

"The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar. No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver! No! I won't trust in God!"

The FBI was investigating whether the shooting suspect was the same person who posted the videos, a federal law enforcement official said.

Giffords, who is married to a NASA astronaut, is regarded as a rising star in the Democratic Party. She narrowly defeated a conservative opponent and was one of the few Democrats to survive the Republican sweep in swing districts in the November elections.

Her state has been at the center of a political firestorm the past year, symbolizing a bitter partisan divide across much of America.

The spark was the border state's move to crack down on illegal immigration last summer, a bill proposed by conservative lawmakers and signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer.

Most Arizonans supported it, but opponents and many in the large Hispanic population felt it was unconstitutional and would lead to discrimination. Griffords said it would not secure the border or stop drug smuggling and gun running.

Sheriff Dupnik, who was a friend of federal judge John Roll, one of those killed, criticized the political environment in Arizona and the rest of the country, and speculated that it might have had a role in the shooting.

"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 sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

US Capitol Police, charged with protecting US lawmakers and the Capitol complex, said in a statement it had advised House lawmakers to "take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security."

A gun owner, Giffords differed with many Democrats on gun control and supported the Second Amendment to the Constitution on Americans' right to bear arms.

The Washington Post said it was not the first time someone brought a gun to a Giffords event. A protester in August took a gun to a similar event in Douglas, Arizona. Police were alerted after he dropped the firearm, the newspaper said.

House Speaker John Boehner, who holds the top post in the House of Representatives, said in statement he was horrified by the attack on Giffords and members of her staff. He called a news conference for 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT) on Sunday.

 

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