Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head and critically injured Saturday during a meet-and-greet with constituents at a Tucson supermarket when a gunman opened fire, killing six — including U.S. District Judge John M. Roll — and wounding at least 12 others.
Giffords, a 40-year-old centrist Democrat who is a leading proponent of immigration reform and fiscal belt-tightening, was shot point-blank, but her surgeon said he was “very optimistic” she would survive the attack.
A 9-year-old girl also was killed in the mid-morning attack that unfolded while Giffords was hosting an event at the bustling shopping center, which quickly turned chaotic as police cordoned off streets and rescue helicopters rushed to the scene.
About 15 to 20 shots were fired in rapid succession, witnesses told news agencies at the scene. A federal source identified the suspect as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who reportedly fired a pistol with an “extended magazine,” the source said.
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.
The youngest woman ever elected to the House when she joined Congress in 2006, Giffords recently survived a tough reelection campaign for her third term, defeating “tea party” candidate Jesse Kelly by just 4,000 votes.
There were no immediate signs that Loughner had overt political connections. A rambling series of YouTube videos posted as “my final thoughts” by someone with that name talked of “a mind controller … able to control every belief and religion.”
Tyler Ramsier, 24, said he attended school with Loughner at Mountain View High School in Tucson and that Loughner graduated in 2007. Ramsier said Loughner hung out with a group of friends who wore trench coats and baggy pants and kept to themselves. Ramsier described them as “contrary.”
Sheriff’s officials cordoned off the area of North Soledad Avenue where Loughner lives, a neighborhood in northwest Tucson of mostly one-story, brick houses.
Bert Escovar, 71, who has been a resident of the neighborhood for 30 years, said he believed the alleged shooter lives with his mother and father. “Every time I saw him, he was by himself,” said Escovar, who added that he had seen Loughner but never spoken with him. “He dressed like a normal teenager.”
David Cook, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years, said the family moved there about four years ago and seemed friendly and often waved when they drove down the street. Cook said Loughner’s father rebuilds classic cars and owns a 1967 Chevelle.
Giffords was shot with a single bullet to the head that went “through and through,” but was “responding to commands” after undergoing neurosurgery, said Peter Rhee, director of trauma at the University Medical Center in Tucson.
“I can tell you at the current time period, I’m very optimistic about recovery,” Rhee told reporters. “We cannot tell about full recovery, but I’m about as optimistic as I can get in this situation.”
President Obama called the shooting an “unspeakable tragedy.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, and we’re going to get through this,” he declared. “I know Gabby is as tough as they come, and I am hopeful that she is going to pull through.”
The president, who called Giffords “a friend,” said authorities still do not know what provoked the attack.
“It is not surprising that Gabby today was doing what she always does, listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors,” he added. “That is the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is a tragedy for more than those involved.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, called the shooter a “wicked person who has no sense of justice or compassion” and said he was praying for the recovery of the victims.
“Whoever did this, whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country and the human race, and they deserve and will receive the contempt of all decent people and the strongest punishment of the law,” McCain said.
Arizona’s GOP chairman, Randy Pullen, said party members are “deeply saddened and mortified” by the shooting.
“Senseless acts of violence like these are shocking, disturbing and have no place in our country. The thoughts and prayers of all Arizonans are with the victims and families during this terrible tragedy in our state’s history. We sincerely hope that the responsible party is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Just an hour before the shooting, Giffords had posted an announcement on her Twitter account: “My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later.”
This has been a winning formula in her conservative, border district. Giffords survived a tough challenge from a “tea party” candidate in the November election.
Her district was littered with signs proclaiming, “Giffords Opposes SB1070,” referring to her opposition to Arizona’s tough anti-immigration measures.
She has been a perennial top target of Arizona Republicans. Her district office was vandalized after she voted for the healthcare reform bill and friends said she had received several unspecified threats.
She is married to Mark E. Kelly, 46, a pilot and astronaut who was commander of the space shuttle Endeavour. His twin brother, Scott, is also an astronaut.
Times staff writer Richard Serrano contributed to this report.