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Vitriol in political rhetoric: Did it play a part in the Arizona shooting?

The Arizona shooting suspect has been called 'unstable,' and no motive has been identified. But did the vitriol that has been present in the debates over immigration and health care trigger the attack?

By Staff writer / January 9, 2011

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaks at the Pima County Sheriff's Office in response to Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords among others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. The shooting has launched a debate about extreme political rhetoric in America.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

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The shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the slaying of six others in a hail of gunfire Saturday has sparked a national debate over whether heated political rhetoric in recent months may have sparked the violent assault.

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The suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, of Tucson, has been described by authorities as “mentally unstable.”

Officials say he is not cooperating with investigators who have not identified a motive for the deadly rampage.

Nonetheless, Prima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has told the press that vitriolic political debate may have played a role in the shooting.

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” Sheriff Dupnik said.

“That may be free speech, but it may not be without consequences,” Dupnik said.

Arizona has been at the center of white-hot political debates over illegal immigration and president Obama’s health-care reform law. Representative Giffords worked near the center of those debates, having just eked out a close reelection victory in November over a tea party-backed Republican candidate. She won by 4,000 votes out of 284,000 votes cast.

Her district was identified by Sarah Palin as a potential target of opportunity for Republicans seeking to regain control of the House of Representatives. The Palin website has been criticized for using what appear to be the cross-hairs of a gun sight on a US map to show the location of 20 vulnerable districts.

After the shooting, the map was taken off the website and a Palin aide told a radio host that the graphic was not gun-related. “We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights,” Rebecca Mansour, a SarahPAC staff member, told Tammy Bruce on her Saturday radio program.

But Palin herself used weapons metaphors in the run-up to the election. At one point she urged that instead of retreating, Republicans in the 20 identified House districts should “reload.”

Giffords complained about the gun metaphors and being portrayed – as she saw it – in the crosshairs of a gun. “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action,” she was quoted as saying.

Some commentators, political analysts, and operatives have been quick to suggest possible connections between the gunman and the tea party movement, Sarah Palin, and other conservatives. Others have urged caution, noting that there is no evidence of a political connection with the shooting.

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