Ms. Giffords, 40, was described as being in very critical condition at the University Medical Center in Tucson, where she was operated on by a team of neurosurgeons. Dr. Peter Rhee, medical director of the hospital’s trauma and critical care unit, said that she had been shot once in the head, “through and through,” with the bullet going through her brain.
“I can tell you at this time, I am very optimistic about her recovery,” Dr. Rhee said in a news conference. “We cannot tell what kind of recovery but I’m as optimistic as it can get in this kind of situation.”
Early into the evening, there was still confusion about the number who were killed. An official with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said that six people had been killed, including a child about 9 years old and John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. He had been involved in immigration cases and had previously received death threats. President Obama said in a news conference that at least five had died, including the child and Judge Roll. The Sheriff’s Department said that a total of 18 were wounded, with the hospital confirming that 10 had been taken there.
Richard Kastigar, a supervisor with the sheriff’s department, identified the gunman as a 22-year-old who was in custody. Various media reports identified him Jared Lee Loughner.
Ms. Giffords was speaking to constituents in a supermarket alcove under a large white banner bearing her name when a man ran up and began firing. He then tried to escape on foot but was tackled by a bystander and taken into custody by the police. The Saturday event was outside a Safeway supermarket and was the first opportunity for constituents to meet with Ms. Giffords since she was sworn in for a third term on Wednesday. She arrived in Washington when Democrats took control of the House in 2006 but narrowly survived a re-election bid in November.
“I saw the congresswoman talking to two people, and then this man suddenly came up and shot her in the head and then shot other people,” said Dr. Steven Rayle, a witness to the shootings and a former emergency room doctor who now works at a hospice. “I think it was a semiautomatic, and he must have got off 20 rounds.”
Dr. Rayle said that Ms. Giffords slumped to the ground and that staff members immediately rushed to her aid. “A staffer had his arm around her, and she was leaning against the window of the Safeway. He had a jacket or towel on her head,” the doctor said.
At least one of the other shooting victims helped Ms. Giffords, witnesses said.
Television coverage showed a chaotic scene outside a normally tranquil suburban shopping spot as emergency workers rushed the wounded away in stretchers. Some were taken from the site by helicopter.
Sylvia Lee, a friend of Ms. Giffords, told CNN that the congresswoman had received numerous threats.
In a statement, the House speaker, John A. Boehner, said: “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. Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords, her staff, all who were injured and their families. This is a sad day for our country.”
Senator John M. McCain of Arizona, who served in Washington with Ms. Giffords issued one of the strongest statements, saying:“I am horrified by the violent attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many other innocent people by a wicked person who has no sense of justice or compassion. I pray for Gabby and the other victims, and for the repose of the souls of the dead and comfort for their families.”He added: “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.”
Ms. Giffords, who represents Arizona’s Eighth District in the southeastern corner of the state, has been an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law, which is focused on identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.
Last March, after the final approval of the Democrats’ health care law, which Ms. Giffords supported, the windows of her office in Tucson were broken or shot out in an act of vandalism. Similar acts were reported by other members of Congress, and several arrests were made, including that of a man who had threatened to kill Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington.
And in August 2009, when there were demonstrations against the health care measure across the nation, a protester who showed up to meet Ms. Giffords at a supermarket event similar to Saturday’s was removed by the police when the pistol he had holstered under his armpit fell and bounced on the floor.
During the fall campaign, Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, posted a controversial map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election; those Democrats were noted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun. Ms. Giffords was among those on Ms. Palin’s map.
Ms. Giffords narrowly won re-election in November in a race that was dominated by the immigration issue. She held on to her seat even as dozens of her Democratic colleagues, including two fellow Democrats from Arizona — Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell — were defeated, and she went on a districtwide “thank you” tour after the race.
Ms. Giffords was able to maintain the support of constituents who favored the immigration law with her strong advocacy in favor of gun rights and for toughening border security.
In an interview at the Capitol this week, Ms. Giffords said she was excited to count herself among the Democrats who joined the new House Republican majority in reading the Constitution aloud from the House floor. She said she was particularly pleased with being assigned the reading of the First Amendment. “I wanted to be here,” she said. “I think it’s important. Reflecting on the Constitution in a bipartisan way is a good way to start the year.” As a Democrat, Ms. Giffords is something of anomaly in Arizona, and in her district, which has traditionally tilted Republican. Last year, she barely squeaked to victory over a Republican challenger, Jesse Kelly, with just a bit over a 1 percent margin. She was aided in part by a blue streak that runs through part of her district in Southern Arizona, which has nonetheless normally been held by a Republican.
But Ms. Giffords had clearly heard the message that constituents were dissatisfied with Democratic leaders in Washington. At the Capitol this week, Ms. Giffords refused to support the outgoing Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, in her symbolic contest with the Republican, Mr. Boehner of Ohio.
Instead, Ms. Giffords cast her vote for Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and hero of the civil rights movement.
“It’s not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does: listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference Saturday afternoon, calling her a “friend of mine” and an “extraordinary public servant.” “I know Gabby is as tough as they come,” he said. “Obviously, our hearts go out to the family members of those who have been slain.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, and we’re going to get through this.”
Ms. Giffords, an avid equestrian, was part of the Democratic class of 2006 that swept Democrats into the majority and that just turned over this past Tuesday to the Republicans.
She ran in an open seat that was vacated by a centrist Republican, Jim Kolbe, and defeated a conservative Republican who was tough on immigration and border enforcement.
Ms. Giffords had worked to win the confidence of her constituents on border issues and beat the White House to the punch last year by announcing administration plans to put more National Guard troops at the border.
Ms. Giffords is married to the astronaut Mark E. Kelly, who is a veteran of three space flights including serving as commander of a space shuttle Discovery in 2008.
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who married the couple and leads Congregation Chaverim in Tuscon, said Ms. Giffords had never expressed any concern about her safety. “No fear. I’ve only seen the bravest possible, most intelligent young congresswoman,” Rabbi Aaron said. “I feel like this is really one of those proverbial — seemingly something coming out of nowhere.”
At Ms. Giffords’s district office, a group of some 50 people gathered and formed a prayer circle with peace signs. Chris Cole, the Tucson police officer whose neighborhood beat includes the district office, said of the shooting: “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Tucson.”
Behind the office, in the parking lot, campaign volunteers were standing around a car with the door open, listening to the live radio broadcast of a hospital news conference updating the congresswoman’s condition. A cheer went up when it was announced she was still alive.
The volunteers includedKelly Canedy and her mother, Patricia Canedy, both longtime campaign workers.
Patricia Canedy had worked for Ms. Giffords since she served in the state senate while Kelly, her daughter, moved to Tucson 13 years ago and was active in last year’s campaign and in the health care debate.
A personal letter from Ms. Giffords arrived at Kelly Canedy’s home yesterday, thanking her and her mother for their help on the health-care issue. “It’s the first political activity I ever did,” Kelly Canedy said.
“She’s one of those people who remembers you. She always spoke to me by my first name,” Kelly Canedy said. “She loved everybody. She was very easy to talk to. She was one of the main reasons I will stay involved in politics.”
Patricia Canedy said she was frequently part of the Saturday counterprotests against the Tea Party. “They were always here and mostly they were very negative and most of the attention was about health care. We were told by Gaby not to engage and not to argue.”