TUCSON, Ariz. — There's mounting evidence that the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wasn't a political act but a plan by a disturbed high school dropout who had few friends and no clear agenda.
But Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said in an interview Monday that Jared Lee Loughner "targeted the congresswoman specifically; there's considerable evidence to substantiate that."
As more details surface about the background of 22-year-old Loughner, who made his initial court appearance in Phoenix Monday, debate raged over the toxic level of politics in Arizona and whether the state's gun laws will become even more lenient.
"The whole nation and the world are watching us," Democratic state Sen. Steve Farley said Monday, shortly before he was to be inaugurated for his third term holding Giffords' former seat. "I just told a reporter about a week ago that my main goal was to get us off the front page of 'The Daily Show' website this year."
That is a lofty goal, considering that the first bill due to be filed in the new legislature would allow the faculty at the campuses of Pima Community College to carry concealed weapons to school, a proposal that Dupnik blasted Monday as "insane."
Arizona's gun laws allow any qualified buyer to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and gun rights activists frequently wear them openly in public to make their case for gun rights. When President Barack Obama visited Phoenix in 2009, one man showed up at a rally outside carrying an assault weapon. On Monday, as the new legislature was sworn in, one bystander was wearing a pistol on his belt, according to reports.
Since Saturday's massacre that killed six and gravely wounded the Democratic congresswoman, Dupnik's comments have set off a national debate over the tone of national political discourse and whether things have gotten out of hand in Arizona.
Giffords' condition continued to improve Monday, pleasing surgeons who said she may soon be out of danger but will still have a lengthy recuperation. Seven others remained hospitalized but are in good or fair condition and are considered to be out of danger.
Though Giffords may have been the intended target, Dupnik said there's no evidence that the shootings were part of a political agenda. Instead, he said, Loughner is deeply troubled, and "When you try to rationalize irrational acts, you wind up with zero."
"While you can't prove what the motive was in this case, I think we know that people who have troubled personalities are being subjected to the anger and emotion that is being created in this country, and I think we need to at least look into our hearts and souls and think about it," Dupnik said.
Loughner was taken to Phoenix for the first step of court proceedings that may result in prosecutors seeking the death penalty. The federal public defender in Tucson asked to have two public defenders from another office appointed to represent him to avoid any conflicts of interest and to use lawyers with more experience in death cases.
"Given the gravity of the charges, the possibility of the death penalty and our discussions with the U.S. Attorney's office concerning the charges, we believe that death qualified counsel must be appointed," federal public defender Jon M. Sands wrote in court documents.
The federal case alleges Loughner killed two federal employees — U.S. District Judge John M. Roll and Giffords staffer Gabriel Zimmerman — and tried to assassinate the congresswoman and two other staffers. The Pima County Attorney is expected to file additional charges in state court.
Many of the questions surrounding Loughner involve his mental state.
Dupnik said Loughner isn't speaking to investigators, but evidence in his Internet writings and his dealings with others portray a young man who had great difficulty fitting into society.
He fashioned an odd sculpture in the backyard of his parents' home that consisted of a toy human skull, orange peels and candles. The Loughners remained out of sight Monday, but his father appeared briefly after calling deputies because a photographer had climbed the fence to get a shot of the sculpture, sheriff's Lt. David Theel said.
Loughner's father was driven around the corner to try to identify the trespasser but returned home without success.
High school classmates said Loughner behaved in odd ways throughout his days at Mountain View High School on the city's northwest side, where he played saxophone in the jazz band but stopped attending after completing 11th grade, school district officials said.
"He was always to himself. I could not figure out if it's because he wanted to or he was just an outcast," classmate Shannin Macey wrote in an e-mail.
After leaving high school, he took an eight-week algebra class at Pima Community College but was tossed out after three weeks because the teacher began to grow wary of him and his incoherent outbursts.
"It happened from the first day," said Ben McGahee. "At first he was very quiet, and then he started to get these random outbursts."
McGahee said he sent him to see a school counselor several times but that problems continued, and he finally told Loughner he had to leave the class.
"I just couldn't take any chances," he said. "I had to use my intuition and my thoughts for the safety of my other students. By the grace of God I'm still alive, as well as the students."
The Loughners' next door neighbor, aircraft mechanic Stephen Woods, said neither the suspect nor his father would speak to him, apparently because of longstanding neighborhood disputes over the cluttered state of Woods' yard.
Woods said his daughter went to high school with the suspect and that his 19-year-old son tried to be friendly with him, but that "He just walks by with his headphones on and his hoodie on and says nothing."
Woods was home Saturday morning when the Loughner couple arrived home to find sheriff's deputies waiting to speak with them.
"They were very upset," Woods said. "The father put his hand on his head. After a little while, he went to my neighbor and told him his son had been involved in a shooting and he didn't know what he was going to do."
Immediately after the shootings, speculation swirled that Loughner had some ties to right-wing or neo-Nazi hate groups or that he'd been influenced by the nasty state of political discourse involving the federal health care overhaul, which became a major controversy in Giffords' campaign last year.
But one expert who studies such groups said his review of Loughner's jumbled Internet writings made that unlikely.
"This is just someone who is profoundly mentally disturbed," said Brian Levin, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "It wasn't Sarah Palin who did this to him."
Levin said his writings indicate that he may have borrowed some ideas from various hate websites, but that he didn't appear to have any set philosophy.
"This guy is on a slippery slope of impairment, and he appears to be at the bottom of it," Levin said.
Instead, Loughner may have had some self-generated dislike of Giffords that stemmed from when he first spoke to her at an event in 2007.
Court filings indicate the FBI seized papers from his home Saturday that talked of planning an assassination of Giffords and also included a letter she sent him four years ago thanking him for attending the event.
One Loughner friend, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones magazine that Loughner had harbored a grudge against Giffords for more than a year, and that he considered her a "fake."
(Stanton reports for the Sacramento Bee.)
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