Allyson Miller, a founder of the 500-member Pima County Tea Party Patriots, told TPM in an interview today that the members of her group, as well as the entire city of Tucson, were "deeply saddened" by the events of today and said "there is no place for violence" in political debate.
"This is outrageous," she said.
Miller was quick to distance her group from the shooting and said that she felt she had to go on the defensive after news of the tragedy began to spread. "I did feel, you know, very like 'why are they jumping to this conclusion before they even knew the person's name?' They're jumping to this conclusion that it has to do with the hotly contested Congressional race," she said. "Well, apparently, from what I've seen so far...it's looking like that's not the case."
The race she's referring to was between Giffords and Jesse Kelly, a tea party-backed Republican, who held one event in June that said "Get on Target for Victory in November Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."
The suspect, now identified as Jared Loughner, left a trail of rambling YouTube videos on the internet, in some accusing the government of "mind control" and "brainwashing."
Miller said she knows the members of her tea party, who she called "reasonable individuals" closer to her age of 55 than the suspected shooter's 22. She said she's never seen the suspect at an event. "That's why we put out our press release [condemning the shooting] so quickly. I just felt like all the fingers were pointed at the tea party."
There's one thing Miller didn't feel she needed to defend -- the heated rhetoric of the 2010 campaign against Giffords. TPM asked if, after the shooting, Miller thought tea party activists in future campaigns should temper some of the tougher talk.
"There are people in society that are just going to do these things, unfortunately. And then, what happens is, you know, in this case, people trying to use it to create further divisions between the right and the left. I think it's irresponsible, in my opinion...what it does is polarize people even further."
Miller said she hoped opponents of the tea party won't use the Giffords shooting to try to score political points against the movement.
"Well, I don't know what will happen, but I can only hope that will have the responsibility that they do not try to make this, you know, to cause more problems or to create more division. Because there's enough division in this country."
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Dem Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Shot In Arizona]
A number of other Tea Party leaders were similarly quick to condemn Loughner's actions, and disavow him as one of their own.
Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, condemned the shooting as a "terrorist attack" and wrote on the TPN site this afternoon (at the time he believed the erroneous reports that Giffords had been killed. The post has since been updated): "Congressman Giffords was a liberal, but that does not matter now. No one should be the victim of violence because of their political beliefs and certainly a member of Congress should not be shot and killed on a street corner."
But Phillips added that "no matter what the shooter's motivations where, the left is going to blame this on the Tea Party Movement. Already on liberal websites, the far left is trying to accuse the Tea Party of being involved."
In another post, Phillips took things a step further: "The left has simply gone to far. There can be no civil discourse with people as crazy as those on the left are. What that says for the future of this country is tragic."
Patrick Beck, the head of the Mohave County Tea Party, told Dave Weigel that tea partiers might have to be more careful about their rhetoric, "but it makes it real difficult to speak when every few minutes you're giving a disclaimer. 'We have to fight back -- but, wait, I don't mean literally fight.' Those words such as fight, and take back, and restore... we know what we mean but we have to be clear what we mean, and in next few weeks, as this all plays out, people will be more understanding of that."
Beck added: "When we talk about Barack Obama, we've got to be clear, it's not personal. When we say he's destroying this country we are not saying he's doing it out malicious intent and a desire to cripple us. He has good intentions and he's wrong. I worry when that gets lost."
CNN reports that Tea Party Express released a statement saying that "it is appalling that anyone would commit such unthinkable violence."
The statement continued:
These heinous crimes have no place in America, and they are especially grievous when committed against our elected officials. Spirited debate is desirable in our country, but it only should be the clash of ideas. An attack on anyone for political purposes, if that was a factor in this shooting, is an attack on the democratic process. We join with everyone in vociferously condemning it.
DeAnn Hatch, a co-founder of the Tucson Tea Party, told the New York Times that though her group supported Giffords' opponent Jesse Kelly during the 2010 election, but had not protested against the Congresswoman before. "We don't think it's ours," Ms. Hatch said.
"I want to strongly, strongly say we absolutely do not advocate violence," she continued. "This is just a tragedy to no end."