WASHINGTON — U.S. Capitol Police advised members of Congress to take safety precautions after a lone gunman opened fire Saturday morning on a townhall meeting hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., killing a federal judge, a 9-year-old girl and four others and critically wounding Giffords, an Arizona Democrat.
At least 18 others were wounded, including members of Giffords' staff. Giffords, 40, who was shot through the head at close range and airlifted to a local hospital where she underwent emergency surgery. Doctors expect her to survive.
The suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, of Tucson, is in custody after witnesses apparently tackled him to the ground.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said the shooting was "a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country." The president dispatched FBI Director Robert Muller to Arizona to personally coordinate the investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies.
"We are going to get to the bottom of this and we are going to get through this," Obama said Saturday afternoon . . . "I know Gabby is as tough as they come and I'm hopeful that she's going to pull through."
Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, a NASA Shuttle astronaut, arrived in Tucson Saturday evening aboard a NASA jet to join his wife.
Dr. Peter Rhee of the University of Arizona Medical Center said Giffords was conscious and following commands. Late Saturday, she remained in critical condition.
"The neurosurgeons have finished operating on her and I can tell you that in the current time period, I am very optimistic about recovery," Rhee said.
Obama called for the nation to come together after the shooting, which many already have characterized as an outgrowth of the nation's intemperate and polarized political climate following the Great Recession and the 2008 presidential election.
Heated confrontations at townhall meetings during the health care debate, protesters bringing guns to political rallies and members of Congress being spit on outside the Capitol are just some of the intolerant acts that have characterized the political landscape in recent years.
Giffords was among the Democratic members of Congress singled out for defeat last spring by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who used rifle scope-like crosshairs to single out the 20 seats she wanted to turn Republican. Like Giffords, many were Democrats who'd supported Obama's health care overhaul last year but were elected from districts where Palin and Arizona Sen. John McCain had won in 2008.
Palin issued condolences on her Facebook page to Giffords' family Saturday.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said it's unacceptable that politicians are at risk for their lives when meeting in public.
"We are deeply concerned about the heated political rhetoric that escalates debates and controversies, and sometimes makes it seem as if violence is an acceptable response to honest disagreements," Helmke said.
U.S. district Judge John Roll was among the dead. Several years ago, Roll received death threats for ruling a civil-rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants could proceed. The Arizona Republic reported Saturday that Roll and his wife were under protective detail for a month after the ruling as death threats poured in from people who opposed the ruling.
Oliver W. Wanger, a U.S. district judge in Fresno, Calif., noted that rulings can make judges targets of dangerously angry individuals. In the wake of the Arizona shooting, Wanger said he expects courthouse security will be "closely scrutinized."
Calls to Loughner's home went unanswered, but a YouTube page established by a Lougnher contains a series of anti-government sentiments and incoherent ramblings.
"My ambition is for informing literate dreamers about a new currency: in a few days, you know I'm conscience dreaming! Thank you!" Loughner posted on the Web page several weeks ago.
Her House colleagues describe Giffords, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat moderate, as an affable lawmaker with a knack for winning tough races in a swing southern Arizona district that borders Mexico.
"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 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"I am horrified by the senseless attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and members of her staff. 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," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Giffords' district had been represented by veteran Republican Jim Kolbe until his 2006 retirement. Giffords, a Tucson native whose father owned a tire company, had served in the Arizona House and Senate.
She first won her congressional seat in 2006 with 54 percent of the vote, against Randy Graf, who proved too conservative, particularly because of his hard line on immigration, for the swing district. In November, she squeaked out a win against conservative Jesse Kelly, a favorite of the conservative tea party movement.
Giffords faced some political trouble because she often sided with Democrats on bigger issues. She voted for the party's health care overhaul, economic stimulus plan and cap and trade legislation.
During the health care debate, Giffords, like many supporters, reported getting angry phone calls and. The night after the vote, her Tucson office was vandalized, as the panel to the front door and adjacent glass panel were smashed.
Party of Giffords' appeal to swing voters in her district, one of a handful in the nation that borders Mexico, has been her tough line on immigration. She backs hiring more border patrol agents, stiffer sanctions for employers that hire illegal immigrants and more technology to protect the border
However, Giffords has criticized Arizona's controversial law, which requires law enforcement officials to check anyone's immigration status, and supports a guest worker program to make it easier for seasonal employees to work across the U.S. border.
(Barbara Barrett, Erika Bolstad, James Rosen, Mike Doyle, William Douglas, Nancy A. Youssef, Margaret Talev, Lesley Clark and Beryl Adcock contributed to this article.)
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