Before sentencing, Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, confronted Loughner. Reading from prepared remarks, Kelly delivered an impassioned statement that was not only highly personal but also deeply political in its appeal for stricter gun control.
In the statement, the couple told Loughner that although he had changed Giffords’s life forever, he had not succeeded in his mission; he had “failed to extinguish the beauty of life.”
“Mr. Loughner, by making death and producing tragedy, you sought to extinguish the beauty of life, to diminish potential, to strain love and to cancel ideas,” Kelly said. “You tried to create for all of us a world as dark and evil as your own. But know this, and remember it always: You failed.”
The court appearance marked the first time that Giffords has come face to face with Loughner since he opened fire at a constituent meeting she was holding in a supermarket parking lot in January 2011. He shot Giffords in the head at close range.
Giffords did not speak at the hearing. She stood at Kelly’s side as they faced Loughner, who was about 20 feet away and showed little emotion as he listened to a succession of victims.
“You pointed a weapon and shot me three times,” said Susan Hileman, another survivor, as she looked directly at Loughner.
“We’ve been told about your demons, about the illness that skewed your thinking,” Hileman said, according to an Associated Press report. “Your parents, your schools, your community, they all failed you.” Hileman said she would “walk out of this courtroom and into the rest of my life, and I won’t think of you again.”
Loughner told U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns that he did not want to speak at the hearing. Burns said the sentence — including a life term for each of the six people killed and a seventh for the attempted assassination of Giffords — meant that Loughner “will never have the opportunity to pick up a gun and do this again.”
In Washington, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued a statement echoing that sentiment. Holder also said, “For the victims, their families and the larger community impacted by this tragic event in our nation’s history, it is my sincere hope that this conclusion will help in their journey toward physical and emotional recovery.”
Armed with a 9mm Glock 19 pistol he had bought at a sporting goods store, Loughner fired 33 shots during the 2011 attack before he was tackled while trying to reload. He was carrying 93 rounds, and he intended to assassinate Giffords, according to federal authorities.
Kelly called on politicians across the country to deal with the issue of gun violence. It was the first time that he or Giffords had spoken so forcefully on the issue.
“We are a people who can watch a young man like you spiral into murderous rampage without choosing to intervene before it is too late,” he said. “We have a political class that is too afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence not as a problem to solve but as the white elephant in the room to ignore.”
Many of the survivors of Loughner’s rampage were in the packed federal courtroom for the sentencing hearing. Also present were relatives of those killed in the attack, who included John M. Roll, a federal judge; Gabe Zimmerman, a member of Giffords’s staff; and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. Kelly paid tribute to each of the victims in his remarks, before continuing:
“Gabby would give anything to take away the grief you visited upon the Morrises, the Schnecks and the Stoddards — anything to heal the bodies and the psyches of your other victims,” Kelly said.
Giffords was critically wounded in the attack, of which she was thought to be the primary target. Her injuries, Kelly said, damaged her ability to speak and to see and left her partially paralyzed.
The 42-year-old Democrat resigned her House seat in January, but she appeared at the Democratic National Convention in September to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance.
On Thursday, Kelly was critical of Arizona’s governor, Republican Jan Brewer, saying she was among the “feckless” political leaders who had failed to take on gun control. He cited Brewer’s remark after the attack that the shooting did not “have anything to do with the size of the magazine or the caliber of the gun.”
Arizona gun laws are among the most lenient in the country. The state allows anyone 21 or older to own a firearm and to carry it concealed, and gun owners can carry their firearms almost anywhere in Arizona, including inside the State Capitol and other government buildings. In January 2010, Brewer signed a bill that repealed a state law that required gun owners to have permits to carry concealed guns.
On Thursday, Kelly ended his statement to the court by paying tribute to his wife.
“Even amid all that was lost, Gabby and I give thanks for her life, her spirit and her intellect, which are a continued force in the world despite what you’ve done,” he said.
Loughner, who was declared schizophrenic after the attack, pleaded guilty in August to 19 federal charges in the shooting rampage. Arizona authorities have said they will not file state charges against Loughner.
William Branigin contributed to this report.