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May 7, 2019

Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan, 1981

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley Jr. in Washington, D.C., as they were leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinckley’s motivation for the attack was to impress actress Jodie Foster, who had played the role of a child prostitute in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. After seeing the film, Hinckley had developed an obsession with Foster. He left a long letter in his hotel room on the day he attempted to assassinate Reagan, indicating that he believed that he might be killed in his attempt and professing his love:
“... Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever.

I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am doing all of this for your sake! By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.

I love you forever,

John Hinckley”
Reagan was struck by a single bullet that broke a rib, punctured a lung, and caused serious internal bleeding, but he recovered quickly. No formal invocation of presidential succession took place, although Secretary of State Alexander Haig stated that he was “in control here” while Vice President George H. W. Bush returned to Washington.

Besides Reagan, White House Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded. All three survived, but Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently disabled; Brady’s death in 2014 was considered homicide because it was ultimately caused by this injury.

A federal judge subpoenaed Foster to testify at Hinckley’s trial, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity on charges of attempting to assassinate the president. Hinckley remained confined to a psychiatric facility. In January 2015, federal prosecutors announced that they would not charge Hinckley with Brady’s death, despite the medical examiner’s classification of his death as a homicide. On July 27, 2016, it was announced he would be released by August 5 to live with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia; he was subsequently released on September 10.

President Ronald Reagan waves to the crowd immediately before being shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

Secret service agents and police surround John Hinckley Jr. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

Assassination attempt

On March 21, 1981, new president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy visited Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. for a fundraising event. Reagan recalled,
“I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation ... I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to the president to shoot him.”
On March 28, Hinckley arrived in Washington, D.C. by bus and checked into the Park Central Hotel. He noticed Reagan’s schedule that was published in The Washington Star and decided it was time to act. Hinckley knew that he might be killed during the assassination attempt, and he wrote but did not mail a letter to Foster about two hours prior to his attempt on the president’s life. In the letter, he said that he hoped to impress her with the magnitude of his action and that he would “abandon the idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you.”

On March 30, Reagan delivered a luncheon address to AFL–CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The hotel was considered the safest venue in Washington because of its secure, enclosed passageway called “President’s Walk”, which was built after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Reagan entered the building through the passageway around 1:45 p.m., waving to a crowd of news media and citizens. The Secret Service had required him to wear a bulletproof vest for some events, but Reagan was not wearing one for the speech, because his only public exposure would be the 30 feet (9 m) between the hotel and his limousine, and the agency did not require vests for its agents that day. No one saw Hinckley behaving in an unusual way; witnesses who reported him as “fidgety” and “agitated” apparently confused Hinckley with another person that the Secret Service had been monitoring.

At 2:27 p.m., Reagan exited the hotel through “President’s Walk” and its T Street NW exit toward his waiting limousine as Hinckley waited within the crowd of admirers. The Secret Service had extensively screened those attending the president’s speech. In a “colossal mistake”, the agency allowed an unscreened group to stand within 15 ft (4.6 m) of him, behind a rope line. As several hundred people applauded Reagan, reporters standing behind a rope barricade 20 feet away asked questions. As Mike Putzel of the Associated Press shouted “Mr. President—”, Reagan unexpectedly passed right in front of Hinckley. Believing he would never get a better chance, Hinckley fired a Röhm RG-14 .22 LR blue steel revolver six times in 1.7 seconds, missing the president with all six shots.

The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head and the second hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan. Hinckley now had a clear shot at the president, but the third bullet overshot him and hit the window of a building across the street. As Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr quickly pushed Reagan into the limousine, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy put himself in the line of fire and spread his body in front of Reagan to make himself a target. McCarthy stepped in front of President Reagan, saving the president from harm at considerable risk to his own life. He was struck in the abdomen by the fourth bullet. The fifth bullet hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open side door of the limousine. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine and hit the president in the left underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, causing it to partially collapse, and stopping less than an inch (25 mm) from his heart. Parr’s prompt reaction had saved Reagan from being hit in the head.

After the shooting, Alfred Antenucci, a Cleveland, Ohio, labor official who stood nearby Hinckley, was the first to respond. He saw the gun and hit Hinckley in the head, pulling the shooter down to the ground. Within two seconds agent Dennis McCarthy (no relation to agent Timothy McCarthy) dove onto Hinckley as others threw him to the ground; intent on protecting Hinckley, and to avoid what happened to Lee Harvey Oswald, McCarthy had to “strike two citizens” to force them to release him. Agent Robert Wanko (misidentified as “Steve Wanko” in a newspaper report) took an Uzi submachine gun from a briefcase to cover the president's evacuation and to deter a potential group attack.

The day after the shooting, Hinckley’s gun was given to the ATF, which traced its origin. In just 16 minutes, agents found that the gun had been purchased at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas, Texas. It had been loaded with six “Devastator” brand cartridges, which contained small aluminum and lead azide explosive charges designed to explode on contact; the bullet that hit Brady was the only one that exploded. On April 2, after learning that the others could explode at any time, volunteer doctors wearing bulletproof vests removed the bullet from Delahanty’s neck.

White House senior staff hold an emergency meeting on the assassination attempt in the situation room. From left to right: Helene Von Damm, Fred Fielding, Drew Lewis, Richard Allen, Don Regan, Alexander Haig, David Gergen, Max Friedersdorf, Larry Speakes, Richard Darman and Caspar Weinberger. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

Secretary of State Alexander Haig speaks in the White House Press Room about President Reagan's condition. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan looks at a “Get Well Soon Mr. President” photo while recovering at George Washington Hospital, April 8, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan talking with James Baker and Senator Laxalt while recovering at George Washington Hospital, April 8, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan leaving George Washington Hospital escorted by Nancy Reagan and daughter Patti Davis, April 11, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan returning home to the White House. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan working in his study four days after returning. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

President Reagan attends his first cabinet meeting after returning. From left to right: James Watt, Alexander Haig, Martin Anderson, President Reagan, Frank Carlucci, Joseph Wright. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)




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