Rerpresentative Gabrielle Giffords,an Arizona Democrat,and 18 others were shot Saturday morning when a gunman opened fire outside a supermarket where Giffords was meeting with constituents.
Six of the victims died,among them John M Roll,the chief judge for the United States District Court for Arizona,and a nine-year-old girl.
Giffords,40,whom the authorities called the target of the attack,was said to be in very critical condition at the University Medical Center in Tucson,where she was operated on by a team of neurosurgeons.
Peter Rhee,Medical Director of the hospitals trauma and critical care unit,said that she had been shot once in the head,through and through,with the bullet going through her brain.
Investigators identified the gunman as Jared Lee Loughner,22,and said he was refusing to cooperate with the authorities.
The police are also looking for another man who was reportedly seen with Loughner before the shooting.
The shootings raised questions about potential political motives,with Pima County Sheriff Clarence W Dupnik blaming the toxic political environment in Arizona.
Giffords,who represents the Eighth District in Arizona,has been an outspoken critic of the states tough immigration law,which is focused on identifying,prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants,and she had come under criticism for her vote in favour of the health care law. Friends said she had received threats over the years.
Judge Roll had been involved in immigration cases and had received death threats.
There were immediate national reverberations of the shooting as Democrats denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere in Giffords district and top Republicans condemned the violence. House Republicans also postponed all legislation to be considered on the floor this week,including a vote to repeal the health care overhaul. The House majority leader,Representative Eric Cantor,Republican of Virginia,said lawmakers needed to take whatever actions may be necessary in light of the tragedy.
The United States Capitol Police,which is investigating the attack,cautioned lawmakers to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security. The police said Giffordss district office was evacuated late Saturday after a suspicious package was found. Officers later cleared the scene.
Mark Kimble,an aide to Giffords,said the shooting occurred about 10 am. Giffords had been talking to a couple about Medicare and reimbursements,and Judge Roll had just walked up to her and shouted Hi,when the gunman,wearing sunglasses and perhaps a hood of some sort,approached and shot the judge. Everyone hit the ground, Kimble said.
Loughner tried to escape but was tackled by a bystander and taken into custody. The event,called Congress on Your Corner,was outside a Safeway supermarket northwest of Tucson and was the first opportunity for constituents to meet with Giffords since she was sworn in for a third term on Wednesday.
Loughner had exhibited increasingly strange behaviour in recent months,including ominous Internet postings at least one showing a gun and a series of videos in which he made disjointed statements on topics like the gold standard and mind control. Pima Community College said he had been suspended for conduct violations and withdrew in October after five instances of classroom or library disruptions that involved the campus police.
Investigators said they were looking for a possible accomplice,believed to be in his 50s.
Several aides to Giffords were wounded in the shooting,and her director of community outreach,Gabriel Zimmerman,30,was killed. The girl who died was identified as Christina Green,a third grader. The others killed were Dorothy Murray,76; Dorwin Stoddard,76; and Phyllis Schneck,79.
Speaking of Giffordss condition,Dr Rhee said at a news conference,I can tell you at this time,I am very optimistic.
Giffords was part of the Democratic class of 2006 that swept Democrats into majority in the House. She narrowly won re-election in November,even as the House turned to Republican control.
A centrist Democrat,Giffords won in part by stressing her strong support for gun rights and for tougher immigration controls,including tighter border security,even though she opposed the controversial Arizona law. As a Democrat,Giffords is something of an anomaly in Arizona and in her district,which has traditionally tilted Republican.
Congressional leaders of both parties issued statements throughout the day expressing outrage at the shooting as well as concern and prayers for Giffords and her family.
Senator John McCain,Republican of Arizona,issued one of the strongest statements,saying: 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… Whoever did this,whatever their reason,they are a disgrace to Arizona,this country and the human race.
Its not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does: listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbours, Obama said during a news conference,calling her a friend of mine and an extraordinary public servant. I know Gabby is as tough as they come, he said. Obviously,our hearts go out to the family members of those who have been slain… Were going to get to the bottom of this,and were going to get through this.