* Giffords shot in head, underwent surgery
* Six killed- sheriff’s office
* Suspected gunman in custody (Updates with details, total of 18 shot)
TUCSON, Ariz., Jan 8 (Reuters) - A U.S. congresswoman from Arizona was shot in the head and seriously wounded and at least five other people were killed by a man who opened fire at a meeting the politician was holding in Tucson on Saturday, officials said.
Gabrielle Giffords, a 40-year-old Democrat in her third term in the House of Representatives, was airlifted to a hospital in Tucson after being shot at point-blank range outside a Safeway supermarket in the Arizona city.
Giffords underwent surgery and one of the doctors who treated her said he was very optimistic about her recovery.
President Barack Obama said five people had been killed in the attack, including federal judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl. Obama said Giffords was battling for her life.
“We don’t yet know what provoked this unspeakable act,” Obama told reporters at the White House.
Rick Kastigar, an official from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, told CNN that six people were killed among the 18 people shot.
A federal law enforcement official identified the suspected gunman as Jared Loughner, 22, of Tucson. The official said the suspect was had been tackled after the shooting and was in custody.
“She’s in critical condition,” Dr. Peter Rhee told a news conference at the hospital where Giffords had surgery. “The neurosurgeons have finished operating on her and I can tell you that in the current time period I am very optimistic about recovery... she was following commands.
Nine other shooting victims were being treated for wounds at the hospital, Rhee told a news conference at Tucson’s University Medical Center.
Rhee described Giffords’ wound as “through-and-through ... It went through her brain.”
Giffords was hosting a “Congress on Your Corner” event -- public gatherings to give her constituents a chance to talk directly with her -- when attacked from about 4 feet (1.2 metres) away, NPR said.
The suspect used a pistol with an extended magazine and approached Giffords from behind, firing at least 20 shots at her and others in the crowd, MSNBC said, citing law enforcement officials and eyewitnesses.
‘SENSELESS AND TERRIBLE ACT’
“We do not yet have all the answers. What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society. I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping Representative Giffords, the victims of this tragedy, and their families in our prayers,” Obama said.
Andrea Gooden, an eyewitness who was working across the street from the event, told Fox News she heard about 15 consecutive gunshots during the shooting.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, told CNN that Giffords’ office had been shot at before and she had received death threats in the past.
The Washington Post said it was not the first time someone brought a gun to a Giffords event. A protester in August took a gun to a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Douglas, Arizona. Police were alerted after he dropped the firearm, the newspaper said.
House Speaker John Boehner said in statement he was horrified by the attack on 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,” Boehner said.
Boehner took over the top position in the House of Representatives after his Republican Party won control of the House in elections on Nov. 2. The new Congress convened this week.
WARNING TO LAWMAKERS
U.S. Capitol Police, charged with protecting U.S. lawmakers and the Capitol complex, said in a statement it had advised House lawmakers to “take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security.”
The shooting could affect the immediate congressional agenda.
The House is scheduled to vote next week on a repeal of Obama’s healthcare overhaul, which Giffords backed despite angry opposition from conservative activists in her district. A window in her Tucson office was smashed shortly after the healthcare vote last March.
House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, who is in charge of the House floor schedule, suggested the timing of the healthcare vote might change.
“We will remain in constant communication regarding any schedule changes,” Cantor said in a statement, adding he was “deeply horrified” by the shooting.
Gun violence is common in the United States, which is periodically rocked by mass shootings. Political shootings are rare but not unheard of. There was a series of political assassinations in the 1960s, including those of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy.
The Republican governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, said, “I am just heartbroken. Gabby is more than just a colleague, she’s actually a friend. She’s always been a noble public servant.”
Giffords, who was re-elected in November, has focused on immigration reform, military issues, stem cell research and alternative energy while serving in Congress. She is married to U.S. astronaut Mark Kelly.
She served on the House Armed Services, Science and Technology committees.
Before going to Washington, Giffords served in the Arizona Legislature from 2000 to 2005 and ran her family’s tire and automotive business. [ID:nN08200696]
Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Frances Kerry, Editing by Peter Cooney
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.