Tucson: US prosecutors charged a lone young gunman over the attempted assassination of a congresswoman as doctors voiced guarded hope she would recover from the attack that killed six others.
President Barack Obama called on Americans to observe a moment of silence on Monday for victims of the attack in Arizona as some officials asked if the nation`s often divisive politics had spiralled out of control.
Representative Gabrielle Giffords, 40, was in an induced coma as doctors treated bullet wounds to her head. Outside her Tucson hospital, well-wishers left candles, flowers and notes including one that read, "Fight, Gaby, Fight!"
Authorities said Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old expelled last year from a community college, fired 31 shots as Giffords met with constituents at a grocery store on Saturday. He was overpowered as he tried to reload his 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol, which he bought at a local store.
Prosecutors said Loughner was charged with five counts including murder and attempted murder and would appear in court on Monday in the state capital Phoenix.
"As the investigation goes on, there may well be additional charges that will be filed," Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told reporters in Tucson.
Mueller said that no "specific threat" remained, although authorities urged lawmakers to be careful. Police questioned a taxi driver seen entering the Safeway store with Loughner but concluded he was only seeking change for the fare, sheriff`s deputy Jason Ogan said.
Prosecutor said Loughner went to a similar public meeting with Giffords in August 2007. Investigators searched a safe at Loughner`s home, where he lived with his family, and found a letter from Giffords thanking him for his attendance, the criminal complaint said.
Also in the safe they found an envelope with the hand-written notes, "I planned ahead," "My assassination" and "Giffords”, it said.
Officials declined to assess Loughner`s motives or mental state. He wrote a stream of barely coherent postings on the Internet that showed an interest in developing a new currency and criticism of "illiterate" fellow residents.
But Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik criticised the political climate in Arizona, which was put under the international spotlight last year over tough laws cracking down on illegal immigration from Mexico, an hour south of Tucson.
"The rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates -- and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- has an impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with," said Dupnik, a member of Obama`s Democratic Party.
Giffords, who narrowly won re-election last year over a favourite of the conservative Tea Party movement, is a centrist Democrat who supports increased border security and, incidentally, loose restrictions on gun ownership.
Lawmakers of the rival Republican Party, which swept last year`s election, denounced the attack and suspended proceedings of the House of Representatives whose new leadership had taken over just three days earlier.
John Boehner, the newly minted house speaker, said in his Ohio constituency that an "attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve”.
"No act, no matter how heinous, must be allowed to stop us from our duty," he said.
Doctors said it was too early to say how long Giffords` recovery would take. Many patients with such serious wounds need months to return to anything close to normal life.
But the doctors voiced optimism after her rapid progress, helped in part by the fact that the bullet did not go through both hemispheres of her brain.
"Because of that, Congresswoman Giffords is able to communicate with us... following simple commands. We`re very encouraged by that," said Michael Lemole, the neurosurgeon who operated on her at University Medical Centre.
"Brain swelling at any time can take a turn for the worse. But I am cautiously optimistic," he told reporters.
Peter Rhee, director of the hospital`s trauma surgery division, said: "Overall this is about as good as you are going to get" for a patient shot in the head.
Authorities hailed the courage of Patricia Maisch, who was waiting to have her photograph taken with the congresswoman when Loughner opened fire. Maisch grabbed the bottom of the suspect`s weapon to prevent him from reloading.
"This is one of the most heroic acts I`ve ever seen," Dupnik, the sheriff, told Fox News.
But six people were killed and at least 14 others were injured. Among the dead was federal judge John Roll, who came to speak with the congresswoman, and a nine-year-old girl.
The girl, Christina-Taylor Green, was born on September 11, 2001. Her mother, Roxanne Green, told the Arizona Daily Star that her accident of birth gave her a precocious interest in politics.
"She was very patriotic and wearing red, white and blue was really special to her," she said.