TUCSON, Ariz. — As doctors Tuesday gave their most optimistic assessment yet for critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the parents of the accused gunman in Saturday's mass shooting broke their silence, expressing deep sorrow for the lives lost when their 22-year-old son allegedly opened fire.
"There are no words that can possibly express how we feel," the parents of Jared Lee Loughner said in a statement issued after days of seclusion inside their home in northwest Tucson. "We wish there were, so we could make you feel better.
"We don't understand why this happened. It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. "We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss."
Giffords' doctors, meanwhile, said her condition has improved and were upbeat Tuesday about her prognosis and that of all six victims who remain hospitalized.
"She has a 101 percent chance of surviving," said Dr. Peter Rhee, trauma chief at the University of Arizona Medical Center and a former combat surgeon who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. "She will not die."
Rhee and other doctors now think it's likely she was shot through the front of her head and that the bullet exited the rear, meaning the last thing she saw Saturday may have been the accused gunman taking aim with his 9mm Glock pistol.
Loughner is being held without bail on federal charges in Phoenix and may face the death penalty. Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Raner C. Collins ordered all federal judges in the state not to participate in Loughner's judicial proceedings because one of those Loughner's accused of killing is Arizona's chief federal judge, John M. Roll. A judge from another state likely will preside.
The statements from Giffords' doctors and Loughner's family were issued on the eve of a visit by President Barack Obama to Tucson, where he will attend a memorial service Wednesday evening with Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona.
Giffords remains in critical condition, but Rhee said Tuesday she's able to breathe on her own, although they've left a tube in place to reduce the risk of pneumonia developing. Doctors have cut back significantly on her sedation and said she's able to make slight movements on her right side. She also has been able to follow simple commands such as moving her thumb when asked.
"I have a lot of confidence that she's going to recover," Rhee said, noting that the survival rate for such wounds is "abysmal."
He credited the rapid and large response to the first 911 calls. Within 14 minutes, the first ambulance was on scene in the Safeway supermarket parking lot where the shooting started. Soon 11 others and three helicopters joined in, and the first patient made it to the University of Arizona trauma center within 30 minutes of the shooting.
"That's a system that works well," said Rhee, who was one of the first trauma surgeons sent to Camp Rhino, Afghanistan, and later created the first surgical unit in Ramadi, Iraq.
With the president heading to this grief-stricken city Wednesday, family members of victims were coming forward to describe their suffering and the rapid medical response that kept the death total from growing in Saturday's mass shooting.
Susan Hileman, the 58-year-old woman wounded while escorting a 9-year-old girl to see her congresswoman Saturday, woke up several hours after being shot and was able to briefly ask her husband one thing.
"Susie had her breathing tube removed late Saturday evening," her husband, Bill Hileman, said Tuesday. "And the very first thing she did was grab my hand and ask, 'What about Christina?'"
Christina Taylor Green, the third-grader Susan Hileman brought to the Saturday morning "Congress on Your Corner" event, died from a bullet through her chest and will be memorialized Wednesday, then buried Thursday, the youngest of six people killed in Saturday's rampage.
After a Kansas church group announced plans to picket the girl's funeral, the Arizona legislature Tuesday passed an emergency law barring protesters from within 300 feet of a funeral, sending the measure quickly to Gov. Jan Brewer for her signature.
Before the legislature's action, outraged citizens, liberal and conservative, had agreed to form human shields if necessary to block members of the Westboro Baptist Church, widely known for picketing military funerals.
Wednesday's memorial service at the University of Arizona's McKale Center, a basketball arena, and called "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," comes days before one of the largest gun shows in the nation is due to take place in Tucson.
The "Crossroads of the West" gun show is scheduled to take place at the Pima County fairgrounds Saturday and Sunday amid great debate over whether Arizona's gun laws are simply too lax.
Arizona's policies about guns are "probably the most liberal in the country," Sheriff Clarence Dupnik complained in an interview Monday.
But gun advocates say there is little that could have been done to halt an attack by a deeply troubled young man, and that canceling a gun show because of the attack made no sense.
"It would be like if someone drove a car into a schoolyard and then you canceled a car show," Gun Owners of America spokesman John Velleco said. "We're talking about legal gun owners and a deranged, possibly schizophrenic assassin who apparently planned his attack for quite some time."
Loughner's alleged assault on Giffords and a crowd of constituents gathered to meet her Saturday apparently stemmed from a long-simmering dislike he formed of her. He was described by former classmates as having a deeply troubled personality, a portrait echoed by his rambling Internet postings.
Initially, it was thought that Loughner acted out of some sort of political agenda, particularly because of the heated rhetoric of last year's midterm elections and the fact that the windows of Giffords' Tucson office were smashed after she came out in favor of the health care overhaul.
But former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who Giffords replaced after his retirement, said he didn't think there was anything particularly divisive about his onetime congressional district, which stretches from Tucson to the borders with New Mexico on the east and Mexico to the south.
"I don't think this district is more divided than most," Kolbe said in a telephone interview.
Much of Arizona has a libertarian streak. But many Tucsonans consider themselves sort of an island apart from the rest of Arizona and from controversies over the state's so-called "papers please" immigration law or the attention-seeking antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
This week, discussions on some local talk radio shows sometimes bemoaned that Tucson now had been stained by an internationally known tragedy, while others criticized Dupnik for his public complaints that it had become the "Tombstone of the United States."
Kolbe noted that southern Arizonans "have always prided ourselves as being different from Phoenix, a bit more moderate." Kolbe was one of only two openly gay GOP members of Congress.
But he added that when he was in Congress, his office was the subject of an attack when trash was dumped in front because of anger over immigration.
He said many congressional representatives experienced the same type of anger in years past that Giffords had.
"I experienced a lot of anger at my town halls," Kolbe said. "I was disturbed my last few years in Congress by the hostility and emotion that people had to deal with."
Like others reacting to Saturday's shootings, however, he said Loughner couldn't be categorized as making a political statement by his alleged actions.
"He's a seriously deranged individual," Kolbe said.
However, he agreed with Dupnik and others that more civility and cooperation was needed in the nation's political discourse.
Bill Hileman, whose wife was holding Christina's hand when the shooting began, said he and his wife had searched for two years to find a community where they wanted to live and chose Tucson "because it was one of the most natural melting pots we could ever find."
He said that Saturday night as he waited in the emergency room, a minister walked in off the street uninvited to comfort him.
"That's my Tucson," Hileman said.
(Stanton reports for The Sacramento Bee.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010