US congresswoman battles for life

US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was battling for her life on Sunday after an assailant shot her in the head and killed six others as she met with constituents in Tucson.

The 40-year-old Democratic lawmaker was in critical condition and doctors were cautiously optimistic she would survive. The suspected gunman was in custody as investigators sought a motive in the rare shooting of a federal lawmaker and looked for a possible second suspect.

The suspect, identified as Jared Lee Loughner (22) opened fire with a semi-automatic pistol at point-blank range outside a supermarket on Saturday afternoon. He was tackled by two bystanders after the shooting.

Among the dead were a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Twelve other people were wounded in the shooting rampage.

The shooting shocked Washington, where Congress postponed a key vote on healthcare reform later this week. Following an acrimonious midterm election campaign last year, some suggested the political vitriol might have played a role in the shooting.

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

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the suspect “has kind of a troubled past and we’re not convinced that he acted alone.” He said he believed Giffords was the intended target of the shooting.

Dupnik said the suspect had made threats to kill in the past but not against Giffords. “All I can tell you is that this person may have a mental issue,” he added, describing him as unstable.

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

President Barack Obama put FBI director Robert Mueller in charge of the investigation.

“We don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act,” Obama told reporters.

Giffords was shot once and airlifted to a Tucson hospital for surgery.

“The surgeons I spoke to are cautiously optimistic [that Giffords will survive],” Richard Carmona, a former US surgeon general and family friend, told the Tucson news conference. “With guarded optimism I hope she will survive.”

Politicall fallout
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 1,2m away, according to media reports.

The shooter 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 put off its agenda for next week, including a vote on the repeal of Obama’s contentious healthcare overhaul. The new Congress convened last week after November 2 elections in which the Republican Party gained control of the House.

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 1.30pm GMT on Sunday.

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.

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 realise that there’s consequences to that action,” Giffords told MSNBC.

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

In Phoenix, more than 250 people attended an impromptu candlelight vigil on the grounds of the state Capitol.

“It just shouldn’t have happened,” said Carol Eichert (54) a nurse, fighting back tears. “Hopefully now, all the incendiary rhetoric will stop because the country needs to know that the people here generally are good and we need to come together. More than ever before.”

YouTube videos
In several videos posted on YouTube, a person who posted under the name Jared Lee Loughner criticises 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.

In a biographical sketch on the site, the author of the post writes that he attended Tucson-area schools and that his favorite books include Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in an insane asylum.

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, symbolising 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. Giffords said it would not secure the border or stop drug smuggling and gun running.

Dupnik, who was a friend of federal judge John Roll, one of those killed, criticised the political environment in Arizona and the rest of the country, and speculated 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.” - Reuters



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