TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - Thousands of people crowded an arena on Wednesday to hear President Barack Obama comfort Americans shaken by a shooting rampage that killed six people and wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
A memorial service that began with an American Indian blessing by a tribal elder was to conclude with a speech by Obama who led a large contingent of dignitaries to the memorial service for the six killed and more than a dozen wounded.
Obama began his visit to Arizona by stopping at University Medical Center in Tucson to see Giffords, who survived a gunshot to the head that traveled the length of her brain on the left side. He also visited four other patients wounded in the attack.
“The president wanted to begin this solemn trip by stopping first at the hospital where Congresswoman Giffords and others continue to recuperate,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Crowds snaked around several Tucson blocks as thousands of people, some with children in tow, stood in line for several hours to get into the McKale Memorial Center to hear Obama address the tragedy.
Obama was expected to speak for up to 18 minutes during which he would urge Americans to unite regardless of political divisions and offer comfort to the victims’ families.
In Washington, the House of Representatives condemned the shootings that gravely wounded Giffords, denouncing the “horrific attack” that has left lawmakers worried about their own security.
Member after member of the House spoke of their respect for Giffords, a third-term Democrat who is in critical condition with a bullet wound to the head, which she suffered while meeting with constituents at an outdoor event.
House Speaker John Boehner, struggling to hold back tears, opened a day of speeches on the resolution saying, “We are called here to mourn an unspeakable act of violence ... these are difficult hours for our country.”
The resolution replaced on the House schedule what originally had been set as a day for voting to repeal Obama’s landmark healthcare reform law.
Besides honoring Giffords and the other victims, the resolution applauded the bravery of those at the scene on Saturday who may have prevented more loss of life.
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been accused of firing at Giffords and others gathered in a Tucson parking lot where the congresswoman was hosting an event for constituents.
Giffords’ doctors reported signs of improvement.
“She is making more and more spontaneous movements ... she is getting better every day,” trauma surgeon Peter Rhee told reporters at the University Medical Center in Tucson.
“She was able to actually feel her wounds herself ... we are very happy” with her progress, Rhee said.
The 40-year-old Giffords, who is married to U.S. astronaut Mark Kelly, was in a tough race for re-election last year. The campaign was marred by violent threats against her and vandalism at one of her Arizona offices.
“Political disagreement and dissent must never violate our nation’s values as expressed in the Constitution for free expression of speech and peaceful assembly,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday, adding, “Gabby spoke to that right here from the floor last week.”
The shooting rampage has fueled a debate about whether the heated partisan rhetoric featured in recent U.S. political campaigns can lead to violence. Politicians in both parties have suggested cooling the tone of discourse in Washington.
Prominent U.S. Republican Sarah Palin defended her fiery rhetoric on Wednesday but ignited a fresh controversy by accusing critics of “blood libel” in linking her to the shooting spree.
Palin has been a focus of criticism from the left since the shootings for urging followers to “reload,” not retreat, after the healthcare debate and publishing an electoral map identifying vulnerable Democratic congressional districts, including Giffords’, with rifle cross-hairs.
Earlier on Wednesday, House members received closed-door briefings on their own security and received an update from the FBI on the investigation into the shooting.
In California, a Palm Springs man was arrested on Wednesday on charges of threatening to kill Democratic Representative Jim McDermott of Washington state.
According to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Charles Turner Habermann, 32, left two threatening, expletive-filled voicemail messages at the Seattle office of McDermott on December 10.
Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas was drafting legislation to permit members of Congress to carry guns in Washington, including into the House chamber, according to an aide.
But Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer said, “I don’t think it’s the answer” to have more guns, when asked by a reporter following a security briefing for lawmakers.
Law enforcement officials were piecing together more about Loughner and the events leading to the shooting that has brought multiple federal charges against him.
Just hours before the rampage, Loughner was stopped by an Arizona Game and Fish Department office for running a stoplight. Authorities said Loughner received a verbal warning and was released.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Donna Smith, Jeremy Pelofsky and John Whitesides in Washington, Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, John Goh in Singapore; Writing by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney