The gunman accused of shooting Rep. Gabrielle Gifford of Arizona and 19 others was trying to reload his semi-automatic weapon, but the efforts of bystanders and a new magazine that failed prevented what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said could have been "a huge greater catastrophe."
Speaking at a Sunday press conference in Tucson, Dupnik said that the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner
, was attempting to change magazines after his initial volley of shots when "a woman went up and grabbed the magazine and tore it away from him while he was trying to put another magazine in."
Loughner then succeeded in loading another magazine but that "fortunately the spring and the magazine failed" and two other civilians were able to get the weapon away from him and subdue him until the police came, Dupnik said.
Each magazine contained 31 bullets, Dupnik said, and had Loughner been able to reload and fire again, "there would have been a huge greater catastrophe."
Patricia Maisch, the 61-year-old woman who tried to get the magazine away from the gunman, was herself wounded during the shootings.
Roger Sulzgeber and Joseph Zimudie were the other bystanders who tried to stop Loughner, according to The Associated Press.
Loughner was armed with a 9-millimeter Glock semi-automatic which FBI Director Robert Mueller said he had obtained last November. Mueller did not say where Loughner got the gun. CNN reported it was purchased at a store in Tucson.
Federal prosecutors filed charges against Loughner
Sunday afternoon, including one count of attempting to assassinate a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee. Mueller indicated that additional charges may be filed based on the continuing investigation.
The criminal complaint said that investigators found a letter from Giffords in a safe at Loughner's house thanking him for attending one of her "Congress on Your Corner" meetings in 2007. The complaint added: "Also recovered in the safe was an enveloped with handwriting on the envelope stating 'I planned ahead,' and 'My assassination' and the name 'Giffords' along with what appears to be Loughner's signature." (See a copy of the complaint here
Dupnik also disclosed that the second "person of interest" that authorities said they were seeking as a possible accomplice may not have been involved in Saturday's shootings.
While Dupnik said authorities still need to locate the man, whose photo was distributed by law enforcement officials, "we are more satisfied in our minds that this person may not have been involved in this incident at all."
Dupnik, who has received wide attention for his remarks
Saturday attacking the amount of "vitriol" in political rhetoric that he said may contribute to violence, repeated that view with obvious emotion on Sunday and also lashed out at laws that let "everybody" carry guns.
"I think that when the rhetoric about hated, about mistrust of government, about paranoia about how government operates and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 amours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with."
Asked how he felt about Arizona's gun laws, Dupnik said of the state, "I think we're the Tombstone of the United States of America."
"I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want and that's almost where we are," he said. "The legislature at this time is proposing that students and teachers be allowed to have weapons in schools and in college ... that's the ridiculous state to where we have become."
Dupnik was referring to a bill proposed by state Sen. Karen Johnson
that would allow people 21 and older who have a concealed weapons permit to carry a firearm at public colleges and universities, where they are generally not allowed. She said that if a student or teacher was armed, they could act if a gunman tried to open fire on campus as had happened at Northern Illinois University in 2008
The 74-year-old Dupnik is a Democrat who, according to the Washington Post
, "is known for his colorful and often bluntly partisan commentary." He has called Arizona's new law cracking down on illegal immigration "racist" and "stupid" and has refused to enforce it. He has also described the tea party as "bigots."
Dupnik's Saturday remarks drew a rebuke from Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, who said on CBS' Face the Nation, "I didn't really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing last night. It was speculation. And I don't think we should rush to speculate. I thought that the report that we just saw from Tucson seems to have it about right. We really don't know what motivated this young person except to know he was very mentally unstable"