TUCSON, Ariz. -- Bill Badger was a hero even before he helped save people's lives during the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting in a grocery store parking lot that killed six people and injured 13, including former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.
The Army veteran died Wednesday morning of pneumonia, according to his wife, Sallie Badger. He was 78.
Badger was shot in the head at a constituent event for Giffords, who was the target of gunman Jared Loughner. But Badger managed to tackle Loughner, helping others hold him down and disarm him before police arrived.
Giffords, who lives in Tucson, said she was sad to learn of Badger's passing.
"Bill was not only a great man and a proud Army veteran, he was a hero," she said in a statement. "I believe that Bill helped save lives that morning. And I will always be grateful to him for his selfless, brave actions."
Former Rep. Ron Barber, who was wounded in the attack and later elected to Giffords' House seat after she resigned, also released a statement of condolence, according to CBS affiliate KOLD-TV.
"Six people died that day and 13 others of us were wounded, but the toll would have been much higher had not Bill taken fast action when the gunman paused to reload," Barber said. "I will forever be grateful for his bravery and the lives he saved."
In an interview with KOLD the day after the attack, Badger said that when the shooting stopped, he realized Loughner was right next to him. After someone else hit the gunman with a folding chair, Badger said, "it was my opportunity."
"I grabbed his left arm and started to twist it back and grabbed him on the shoulder with my right hand," Badger described, "Another individual grabbed his right hand and together we pushed on him and he went right down on the sidewalk."
Badger continued, "I had a hold of his throat and the guy on the other side had his knee right on the back of his neck, and every time he would struggle, I would squeeze his throat and the guy would put pressure on the back of his neck."
Loughner was sentenced in November 2012 to seven life terms in prison plus 140 years after pleading guilty to 19 counts related to the shooting, including the attempted assassination of Giffords.
Sallie Badger told the Associated Press Wednesday it came as no surprise that her husband had risked his life to help others. The retired Army colonel had spent his entire life doing just that, she said.
"Bill was a hero to many, many people long before he became a hero on Jan. 8. He was very influential in many, many young lives in many ways," she said.
Bill Badger hailed from South Dakota. He joined the National Guard as a high school junior and went on to have a long, distinguished career as an Army pilot for 37 years.
The couple moved to Arizona in 1985 when Bill Badger established the Western Army Aviation Training Site in Marana, just outside of Tucson.
Badger was not permanently injured from the bullet that grazed the back of his head, but he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to his wife.
The couple embarked on a three-year journey across the country to push for stricter gun laws.
"We wanted desperately to have background checks on every gun that was sold," Sallie Badger said. "And Bill just made that his mission."