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Jan 8 (KATAKAMI / ABC NEWS) — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords survived a gunshot to the head after a gunman opened fire at an event she was hosting outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store.
Authorities said 13 people were wounded and five killed in the attack. Among the dead were a federal judge and a nine year-old girl.
President Barack Obama, speaking at a nationally televised news conference, called the shooting an unspeakable tragedy.
“What Americans do at times of tragedy is to come together and support each other, so at this time I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping all the victims and their families, including Gabby, in our thoughts and prayers,” he said. “We are going to get to the bottom of this and we’re going to get through this.”
“The suspect is currently in custody, but we don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act,” the president said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller was headed to Arizona to coordinate the investigation, Obama said. Federal authorities have jurisdiction in an attack on a sitting member of Congress.
Giffords, 40, was among was taken to University Medical Center, where she underwent brain surgery and was listed in critical condition.
Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma director at UMC, told reporters Giffords was shot once in the head and that the bullet went through her brain. He added that she was responsive to doctors’ commands.
“I am very optimistic about her recovery,” Rhee said.
Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was en route to Tucson from Houston, where he has been preparing to command the last scheduled space shuttle mission, which is supposed to launch in April.
A surgeon at UMC said it had received 10 patients after the shooting. Five, including Giffords, were in critical condition; five are still undergoing surgery, Dr. Peter Rhee of UMC said.
At least five people, including Federal District Chief Judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl, were killed in the attack, law enforcement sources said.
The shooter, identified by multiple law enforcement sources as Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was in custody, but law enforcement officials are still treating the incident as an active crime scene. The Pima County Sheriff’s Office was taking the lead of the investigation and was assisted by the FBI, Joint Counterterrorism Task Force and the U.S. Capitol Police.
An urgent email message to members of Congress from the Capitol Police informed them of the shooting and advised them to “take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal security at home and in public forums.”
Giffords, a Democrat, was holding a “Congress on Your Corner” event at a Safeway supermarket in northwest Tucson when the shooting occurred.
Steven Rayle, who was at the event, told ABC News a man approached Giffords and shot her before turning his gun on other people randomly.
Rayle described the shooter as a Caucasian male in his 20s wearing dark clothes.
“I went to the side of the table by a concrete post and I looked up and saw a man shoot her in the head. And then he began spraying gunfire everywhere. At that point I ducked behind a concrete post and as he came around it,” he said. “The whole thing unfolded in about 12 or 15 seconds. As he came around it I laid down on the ground and acted as if I was shot.”
Rayle, who eventually helped subdue the shooter, said the gunman had an “impassive face” as he was shooting.
“He did try to escape and I think one of her staffers tackled him,” Rayle said. “I assisted in holding him down until more people arrived. He did struggle. He did not say anything.”
Jason Pekau, another witness who worked at a nearby Sprint store, said he heard 15 to 20 gunshots and saw lots of people running and screaming that the Congresswoman had been shot.
Pekau also said two bodies were covered on the sidewalk after emergency responders had arrived at the scene.
A Democratic member of Congress who asked not to be identified said one of the dead was a Giffords staffer.
Official Washington was in shock after the shooting and statements condemning the violence poured in from both sides of the political aisle.
“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,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner said he was “horrified” and strongly condemned the attack.
“An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” he said in a statement.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the shooting a “national tragedy” and praised Giffords as a “brilliant and courageous member of Congress.”
Giffords Had Been Target of Vandals
Giffords, a representative for Arizona’s 8th District who just won reelection to a third term, has been the target of conservative political opponents in recent months.
In March of last year, Giffords’ office was vandalized just after she voted in favor of the health care reform law. The intruders destroyed a glass door and a window at her Tucson Congressional offices.
At the time, Giffords’ press secretary C.J. Karamargin said the office had received many phone calls with “nasty and rude and hateful comments” from opponents of the health care bill.
Recently Giffords, who supports gun rights, has been receiving angry letters from anonymous sources, ranting about the supposed national gun registry and border control.
One letter received on Dec. 15 addressed to “giffords, obama, mccain and sen. Jon kyl” got personal on the topic of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, who was killed in a late night shootout at the U.S.-Mexican border.
“Brian a Terry’s blood is on your hands! How many more legal residents of the USA have to die before the border is CLOSED??? Obama I call you out! CLOSE THE DAMN BORDER NOW! Quit pandering to illegals!,” the letter read.
Giffords has a reputation as a political rebel. She voted with the Democratic party about 40 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly, though she supported her party’s effort to pass a landmark health reform law.
She was also one of a handful of Democrats who did not vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the house, during the recent Democratic leadership elections after Democrats lost their majority in the House last November. (*)