No. 6: Arizona Shooting

Six people were killed and 14 injured when a gunman opened fire January 8 on a crowd gathered to meet U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a Safeway store near Tucson. Among the dead were 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, born on September 11, 2001; federal judge John Roll; and Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, Giffords’s community outreach director. Giffords, the alleged assassination target, was shot in the head at point-blank range.

Quick-thinking citizens were lauded for preventing further deaths. When the shooter reached for a new clip for his semiautomatic handgun, a bystander hit him in the head with a metal folding chair, and another man pinned him to the ground. Patricia Maisch, then 61, wrestled away the ammunition clip.

Others in the crowd tended to the victims. Daniel Hernandez Jr., then a 20-year-old intern in Giffords’s office and a certified nursing assistant, was checking the pulses of other shooting victims when he saw how badly the congresswoman was injured. Hernandez provided physical and psychological first aid and is credited with helping save Giffords’s life.

Hernandez’s welcome was second only to President Obama’s a few days later at an emotional memorial service where Obama announced that Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since the shooting. “None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” Obama said in his address. “None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. … [But] let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

The gunman
Jared Lee Loughner has been charged with the attack. Loughner, described as a “nihilistic” loner and diagnosed with schizophrenia, was 22 at the time. He had attended a Giffords event several years before the shooting and was reportedly unsatisfied with her answer to his question: “What is government if words have no meaning?”

Although he dropped out of high school, Loughner attended Pima Community College until he was suspended after posting a bizarre, inappropriate video online. Emails released after the attack on Giffords revealed instructors’ and classmates’ concerns about Loughner: “He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon,” one classmate wrote.

Loughner’s chilling mug shot and his online ramblings about grammar, the gold standard, and lucid dreaming left little room for surprise when he was ruled unfit for trial. A federal judge authorized prison authorities to administer psychotropic drugs, touching off a legal battle over whether Loughner could be forcibly medicated to make him fit for trial. “Is it ethical and proper to help someone regain competence just to go after them for a death penalty offense or a murder offense?” legal expert Cynthia Hujar Orr asked in a New York Times report.

Judy Clarke, who represented “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, was appointed to defend Loughner. The New York Times reported that Loughner “clashed” with Clarke when she told him Giffords had survived. At a hearing, he burst out, “She died right in front of me. You’re treasonous.” He also has said that security video of the shooting was doctored.

The attack, which predictably brought up questions about gun control and public safety, also prompted a tough look at the political atmosphere. Controversy reignited over former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” election map, and Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s reproach to “vitriol”-fueled discourse touched a nerve. But no connection has been made between the political climate and Loughner’s alleged actions.

A nation’s recovery
Amid the contentious rhetoric and complicated legal developments, observers held close to the concrete milestones of Giffords’s recovery. Crime scene photographs gave way to the first images of a smiling, short-haired survivor. Her struggle to walk became a triumphant return to the House floor. She continues to progress, although it is unclear how complete her neurological recovery can be.

Arizona Senate president Russell Pearce, who wrote a controversial illegal immigration law, was recalled in November, a development some seized as evidence of a shift in Arizona’s political climate.

A meeting room in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center is set to be named for Giffords’s slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman. Former intern Daniel Hernandez won a school board seat in a district near Tucson.

Inmate No. 15213-196, Jared Lee Loughner, remains behind bars. He now believes Giffords is alive.

Caroline Que is the D.C. editor for Yahoo! Local. Before joining Yahoo!, she worked at the Washington Post.