TUCSON, Ariz. — Piece by piece, details of the weekend rampage in Tucson are beginning to emerge: The heartbreaking tales of people slain on a sun-splashed morning, the courage of those who overpowered the gunman and the state of mind of the suspect, a young man who the authorities say had plotted for weeks, and perhaps longer, to assassinate a member of Congress.
As the full scope of the tragedy sank in Sunday, it also had rekindled a national conversation, sparked by the outspoken sheriff of Pima County, about the role that an environment of partisan and vitriolic political discourse did — or did not — play in the shootings.
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was formally charged Sunday with two federal counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of U.S. District Judge John Roll and an aide to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and three counts of attempted murder, of Giffords and two other aides who were injured.
Law enforcement officials said Loughner appeared to have prepared his attack on Giffords with some care. The Democratic congresswoman had just begun one of her “Congress on Your Corner” public events outside a grocery store near his home when the shooting began.
Loughner had purchased a 9-millimeter Glock semi-automatic pistol at a Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson five weeks ago, and investigators who searched his home over the weekend found, hidden in a safe, two key pieces of evidence — a letter from Giffords thanking Loughner for attending one of her “Congress on Your Corner” events in August 2007 and an envelope that bore the handwritten phrases “I planned ahead” and “My assassination,” the name “Giffords” and what appeared to be Loughner’s signature.
Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, lived nearby and had come to the event to thank Giffords and one of her aides for helping “resolve issues related to the volume of cases in the District of Arizona,” according to an FBI affidavit filed with the charges.
Authorities said Loughner fired 31 bullets from the weapon, hitting at least 20 people. When he paused to reload, he was tackled by two men attending the event.
The chaos of those early minutes was captured in a wrenching series of 911 calls released Sunday. In one of them, a man at the scene said Giffords had been hit but was still breathing, and there were “multiple people shot.”
The first sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene three minutes after the initial 911 call.
Doctors said the bullet that passed through Giffords’ brain tore through only one hemisphere before exiting, missing the crucial central parts of the brain that control most bodily and cognitive functions.
The bullet entered through the back of Giffords’ head, passed through the left hemisphere of her brain and exited just above her left eye, Dr. Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center in Tucson, said Sunday at a news conference
Giffords remained in critical condition late Sunday, doctors said, but they saw her ability to respond to simple commands as a hopeful sign for her recovery. She was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma, but she was being wakened periodically for examinations.
“We are very encouraged by that,” Lemole said. Her ability to follow those simple commands “implies a very high level of functioning in the brain,” he said.
Dr. Peter Rhee, one of Giffords’ doctors, said she was doing well but it would be some time before doctors could say whether she was likely to make a full recovery. The next major milestone, he said, would be to determine whether she can breathe on her own, and that was a week or two away.
Meanwhile, the investigative focus was on Loughner, who remained in custody but was saying little during questioning. Authorities said Sunday that they now believe he acted alone.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said Sunday that although it was premature to discuss motives for the attack, “it appears the target was the congresswoman.” The director called the shootings “an attack on our institutions and an attack on our way of life.”
In a series of disjointed YouTube slide shows Loughner posted in recent weeks, he railed about government mind control and brainwashing through grammar, proposed a new world currency and complained about illiterate people and “federalist” and “treasonous” laws.
The shootings touched off nationwide debate and lit up the blogosphere, where some argue that the angry tone of political dialogue in the country, and particularly on the airwaves, might have inspired the attack. Others contend that mental illness was the only driving force.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a key figure in the investigation and a personal friend of both Giffords and Roll, said at a news conference that the level of vitriol, particularly on radio and TV, could have contributed to Loughner’s delusions. He said the lax gun laws in Arizona were part of the problem as well.
Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., took issue with Dupnik’s remarks in a Sunday appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I didn’t really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing,” he said.
Dupnik hasn’t identified any of the broadcast figures who he believes have contributed to the charged atmosphere. But in a tense exchange with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on Sunday, Dupnik criticized people “who get up in front of a camera … and say things that are not true to try to inflame the public. I think it’s time we take a look at it.”
Kelly, noting that the sheriff was a Democrat, suggested it was “irresponsible” of him to speculate about the gunman’s sources of inspiration.
“It is irresponsible of us not to address this kind of behavior,” Dupnik said.
“Is it the place of a sheriff to stir the pot?” Kelly asked.
“I guess that’s for the listeners to decide,” Dupnik said.