Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Others Shot at Arizona Safeway

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Updated 9:19 p.m.

Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and 17 others were shot, Giffords at point blank range, at an event the Southern Arizona congresswoman was holding with constituents outside a Safeway in Tuscon, Ariz., Saturday morning.

All told 18 people were shot in the attack, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said in a televised evening news conference. Giffords was the target in the shooting that has left six dead, he said. In addition to the suspect in custody, Jared Lee Loughner, a second person of interest is being sought in the shooting. Authorities also announced they found a suspicious package outside Giffords's Tucson office, KGUN reporter Sergio Avila told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Saturday evening.

Giffords's surgeon at the University Medical Center in Tucson said shortly after 4 p.m. Eastern that he was "very optimistic about her recovery" and that she had completed surgery. "She was shot in the head," he said, with a bullet that went "through and through." Ten patients arrived at the hospital, including one child. One, the nine-year-old child, died and five remain in critical condition, he said, with five in the operating room.

President Obama issued a statement and followed it with a short speech televised from the White House. "She is currently battling for her life," President Obama said, noting that the roster of those who lost their lives today included federal judge John Roll. Roll is the Chief Judge of the US District Court of Arizona.

"Gabby Giffords was a friend of mine," Obama said, describing her as "warm," "caring," "well-liked by her colleagues" and "well-liked by her constituents."

"I know that Gabby is as tough as they come and I am hopeful that she is going to pull through," Obama said.

"We are going to get to the bottom of this, and we are going to get through this," he said.

Names of the dead began to trickle out late Saturday and included Gabe Zimmerman, 30, Giffords' director of community outreach. NPR reported midday Saturday:

Giffords, who was re-elected to a third term in November, was hosting a "Congress on Your Corner" event at a Safeway in northwest Tucson when a gunman ran up and started shooting, according to Peter Michaels, news director of Arizona Public Media.

Giffords was talking to a couple when the suspect ran up and fired indiscriminately from about four feet away, Michaels said.

Gawker spoke with an eyewitness, Steven Rayle. Their account of what he saw:

The gunman, who may have come from inside the Safeway, walked up and shot Gifford in the head first. According to Rayle, who is a former ER doctor, Gifford was able to move her hands after being shot.

After shooting Gifford, the gunman opened fire indiscriminately for a few seconds, firing 20-30 rounds and hitting a number of people, including a kid no older than 10 years old. Rayle hid behind a concrete pole and pretended to be dead. When the gunman apparently ran out of ammunition he attempted to flee, but a member of Gifford's staff tackled him. Rayle helped hold the gunman down while waiting for the sheriff to arrive, about 15-to-20 minutes later. The EMS came about 30 minutes later. Rayle said he was "stunned" by how long it took medical help to arrive.

The gunman was young, mid-to-late 20s, white, clean-shaven with short hair and wearing dark clothing and said nothing during the shooting or while being held down, although he struggled at first. He was "not particularly well-dressed"; he didn't look like a businessman, but more of a "fringe character," Rayle said. The sheriff's department arrived, arrested the gunman and cordoned off the parking lot.

The motive for today's shooting was unclear.

Another witness account was provided to CNN:

A man working near the scene described what happened.

"What I first heard, I heard about 15-20 gunshots in the parking lot, I came outside immediately, did not see vehicle or any people fleeing, just saw people running, screaming towards where shooting happened, everyone screaming that it was Gabrielle Giffords. I did see them take her away on a stretcher to the life-flight. She was moving with what I saw with my own eyes," said Jason Pekau. "Yes, from what I am being told from people who had seen it, was she shot point blank in the head by the shooter. Then after that basically all chaos broke loose. There was some bullets that went through the window into the Safeway that I can see."

Giffords, 40, was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona State Senate before winning a Congressional seat in 2006. She married Mark E. Kelly, a NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander, in 2002, in a wedding covered by the New York Times Vows column. The couple has two children.

Giffords represents Arizona's 8th Congressional District, "a diverse area that covers 9,000 square miles including a 114 mile border with Mexico," according to her website.

She has previously has security issues in the Southern Arizona district, and her office was vandalized after she voted in favor of the health-care overhaul in March.

Her last tweet before the shooting: "My 1st Congress on Your Corner starts now. Please stop by to let me know what is on your mind or tweet me later."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement condemning the shooting. "I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff," he said. "An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve. Acts and threats of violence against public officials have no place in our society. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured, and their families. This is a sad day for our country."

(See a picture of Giffords with Speaker Boehner on Wednesday, from her Twitter feed.)

President Obama also condemned the attack, which he called "an unspeakable tragedy."

"While we are continuing to receive information, we know that some have passed away, and that Representative Giffords is gravely wounded," the president said.

"We do not yet have all the answers. What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society," he continued. "I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping Representative Giffords, the victims of this tragedy, and their families in our prayers."

Giffords narrowly won reelection in 2010 against tea party-backed candidate Jesse Kelly. She also was one of the Democrats targeted by former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in an online map that controversially placed rifle scope marks over the districts of Democrats.

"Sarah Palin ... has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district and when people do that, they've gotta realize there are consequences to that action," Giffords told MSNBC in March.

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Palin issued a statement on Facebook Saturday afternoon offering "My sincere condolences ... to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today's tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice."

Giffords' father told The New York Post he suspected the attack was politically motivated:

The congresswoman's father Spencer Gifford, 75, was rushing to the hospital when asked if his 40-year-old daughter had any enemies.

"Yeah," he told The Post. "The whole tea party."

In 2009, a tea party supporter brought a gun to a Giffords event, Gail Collins recounted in a column looking at the anti-health-care overhaul protests:

Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was not actually holding a town hall when her gun incident occurred. She was conducting a "Congress on Your Corner" at the Douglas Safeway -- a simple event where people line up to get help with things like Social Security or documentation. But the health care protests have spread way beyond actual meetings about health care, and a handful of irritated conservatives have been following Giffords around almost everywhere. "When you represent a district -- the home of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, the town too tough to die, nothing's a surprise," she told a reporter later, showing a commendable ability to respond to any crisis by throwing in a plug for local tourist attractions.

Rudy Ruiz, the father of one of Giffords's college interns, saw the gun hit the floor. "It was an older gentleman, 65 or so. Basically, he was one of the ones holding up a banner saying 'Don't Tread on Me,' " said Ruiz. "He bent over, and it fell out of the holster is what it did. It bounced. That concerned me. I just thought what would happen if it had gone off? Could my daughter have gotten hurt?"

Pima County Sheriff Dupnik, during his news conference Saturday evening, angrily denounced the heated rhetoric that he said helped foster an environment of violence.

"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 foes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately I think Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for hatred and bigotry," he said.

"That may be free speech, but it's not without consequences," he added, returning to the point.

Statements of support for Giffords poured in from both sides of the aisle Saturday, including from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "This senseless attack today in Tucson is a national tragedy," McConnell said, "and all America mourns those who lost their lives in the very act of public service. I join the entire Congress in condemning this horrifying act of violence, and on behalf of the entire Senate family, Elaine and I extend our deepest expressions of sympathy and heartfelt prayers to Rep. Giffords and the families of those who have been killed or injured."

"Congresswoman Giffords is a brilliant and courageous Member of Congress, bringing to Washington the views of a new generation of national leaders. It is especially tragic that she was attacked as she was meeting with her constituents whom she serves with such dedication and distinction," said Pelosi.

For his part, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the senior senator from Giffords' home state, called for the shooter to be harshly punished. "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," he said.

The U.S. Capitol Police issued a statement advising all members of Congress and their staffs "to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security" in the wake of the shooting, and confirmed that the shooting suspect is in the custody of authorities in Arizona.

SEE ALSO: "Suspected shooter identified as 22-year-old Jared Lee Lougner."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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