The Attempted Assassination of President Ronald Reagan

Nov 12, 2014 - by Robert Walsh - 1 Comment

The death of former White House Press Secretary James Brady on August 4, 2014, -- grievously wounded during John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 -- was ruled a murder by the Virginia Medical Examiner.

by Robert Walsh

“Honey, I forgot to duck…” – President Reagan after his attempted assassination by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981.

“Guns are neat little things, aren’t they? They can kill extraordinary people with very little effort…” – John Hinckley Jr., President Reagan’s would-be assassin.


On August 4, 2014, former White House Press Secretary and gun-control advocate James Brady died as a result of injuries sustained when John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Brady’s death has since been ruled a homicide by the Virginia Medical Examiner’s office, raising questions about whether Hinckley could be tried for murder if he is ever officially considered fit to stand trial. Brady, 73, died at his home. He had been partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair since the assassination attempt, and his speech was slurred.

Hinckley had attempted to assassinate the President to impress actress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become obsessed after seeing the Robert de Niro film Taxi Driver. Hinckley had also been inspired by the case of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1972.

The two cases have much in common. Both Hinckley and Bremer were unbalanced, obsessive individuals. Both men were insignificant nobodies, the very antithesis of their targets. Both were able to stalk their intended victims for some time without being stopped and to attack before being rendered harmless by the bodyguards. Both were able to easily obtain the firearms to commit their crimes and both were regarded as insignificant and posing no threat until they proved otherwise.


Hinckley's Background

John Hinckley Jr.

Born on May 29, 1955 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Hinckley came from a wealthy Oklahoma oil family. His obsessive tendencies began at an early age and continued as he grew. In early adulthood he developed an obsession with John Lennon (himself murdered by obsessive fan Mark Chapman, recently refused parole once again.)

Like many stalkers Hinckley’s home life was troubled. He came from money but, due to his increasingly bitter relationship with his father, seldom saw much from the family coffers. John Hinckley Sr. was increasingly frustrated by his son’s tendency to not settle on anything or to apply himself. His son had seemingly failed at or dropped out of several careers and managed to show similarly disappointing results at college. His existence seemed to consist of trying and failing at one grand scheme after another while occasionally scrounging money from his parents when they were prepared to give him any.

He also obsessively collected books on true crime, especially books covering serial killers, spree killers, hijackers and assassins. He was a perennial underachiever, intelligent, but simply disinclined to become his own person and take full responsibility for his own life.


Life Imitating Art

Robert De Nero in Taxi Driver

Art imitated life, as the character Travis Bickle so ably portrayed by Robert de Niro was in part based on Arthur Bremer. John Hinckley was about to make life imitate art. To Foster he made unsolicited phone calls and mailed her letters and poems. Hinckley went so far as to make unwanted visits to her dorm at Yale University, even signing up for a course there himself to be near her.

His attempts to gain Jodie Foster’s attention had come to nothing. Foster wanted nothing to do with him but, Hinckley’s deluded mind thought that, by becoming nationally known himself, he would somehow become her equal and therefore she would change her mind. The fact that the campus police at Yale had been warned to keep a close eye out for him, that the dean of Yale had been forwarded some of the letters Hinckley had sent to Foster and that she simply wanted him to stay away from her didn’t enter his thinking.

Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver

Hinckley first chose President Carter as his target but switched to Reagan when the former actor defeated Carter in November of 1980. He chose a president as his target simply because he wanted the maximum possible public profile.

In a diary he kept until several months before his attempt he noted that Arthur Bremer had shot George Wallace after giving up on his attempts to assassinate President Richard Nixon. He told authorities he wrote that he had no desire to "do a Bremer" and settle for less than the most high-profile target possible, especially as Bremer had disappeared into obscurity while Hinckley wanted to be remembered. Ironically, for someone who seems to have looked down on Arthur Bremer for settling for a lesser target, it was Bremer’s keeping a diary that inspired Hinckley to keep his own.

In late-1980 he began to actively stalk President Carter with the full intention of assassinating him.

It didn’t run smoothly. On October 2, 1980 Hinckley stood within pistol range of President Carter, but decided not to shoot

One week later he was arrested at Nashville International Airport in possession of three handguns and spare ammunition in his carryon bag. The guns were confiscated and Hinckley, inexplicably, was released. One of the first things he did was to destroy his diary and commit its contents to memory, knowing fully that if any police officer had flicked through it he would have been instantly held and probably spent years in prison. Not only was Hinckley released, but he was able to replace his lost guns with a .22-caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver and ammunition, bought over the counter within hours of his release. The ammunition included a number of "Devastator" bullets made by Bingham, Ltd of Atlanta, Georgia.


Devastator Bullets

Devastators are effectively explosive bullets, consisting of a standard .22-caliber long cartridge containing small aluminium and lead azide explosive charges designed to explode on contact. When fired the lead azide slams back into the canister and comes forward as the bullet hits and slows down. This basic law of physics causes the bullet to shatter, massively increasing the kinetic energy transferred from the bullet to its target. Even a round as small as a .22 can do enormous damage when made in such a way.

The revolver was of the type commonly known as a "Saturday Night Special." It was small, easily concealed, with a short barrel and a small calibre but, using expanding bullets, the small .22-caliber bullets could inflict damage out of all proportion to their size. If the weapon had a longer barrel (Hinckley’s gun had a barrel of less than two inches) then the velocity of the bullet would have been faster and its effect almost certainly fatal.


The Washington Hilton

Washington Hilton

Hinckley arrived by Greyhound bus in Washington on March 28, 1981 and checked into Room 312 of the Park Central Hotel, only two blocks from the White House and across the street from the Secret Service headquarters. In his pocket was the RG-14 loaded with the six Devastator expanding bullets. The following morning he read in the newspaper that Reagan was scheduled to give a luncheon address to the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton the next day.

On March 30, Hinckley positioned himself at the rear entrance of the Washington Hilton in the roped off area for spectators 15 feet from the presidential limo and waited for his chance. He got it at 2:25 p.m. when the President emerged and waived to the crowd with a broad smile on his face. Raising his gun as the President approached the limo, Hinckley fired all six rounds in less than two seconds.

The result was instant chaos. His first bullet hit Press Secretary James Brady in the head, leaving Brady face-down on the sidewalk. As he turned to protect the President, the second bullet hit Washington, D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck . With his last clear shot at Reagan, Hinckley fired the third bullet over his head while Special Secret Service Agent in charge Jerry Parr pushed Reagan into the backseat of the limosine. The fourth bullet struck Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy in the abdomen as he spread himself over Reagan to shield him. The fifth bullet was repelled by the limosine's  bulletproof glass. The final bullet ricocheted off the limosine and pierced Reagan's underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, an inch from his heart. The wound was potentially fatal. Had Hinckley’s bullet travelled a fraction of an inch to one side then President Reagan would have joined Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy on the list of U.S. presidents assassinated while in office.

Amid the chaos Hinckley was swiftly pinned down and disarmed before being thrown into a police car and driven away at high speed.


George Washington University Hospital

Ronald Reagan recovers at GW Hospital

Reagan did not know he had been shot. His ribs hurt but he thought it was from being shoved face down in the back of the limosine. The initial plan to take him back to the White House was aborted when Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, inside the limousine, was first to realize that the President had been shot. The 70-year-old was complaining of chest pains, breathing difficulties, and coughing up blood. President Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, two miles from the scene of the crime.

The President spent nearly four hours in surgery and several weeks recovering before being anywhere near healthy again. The bullet in his lung had failed to explode. The only bullet that did was the one that hit James Brady. (Surgeons wearing bulletproof vests removed the bullet from Officer Delahanty's neck on April 2.) Delahanty and Agent McCarthy also made full recoveries.


Insanity Defense

The consequences of Hinckley’s actions were far-reaching and long-lasting. On June 21, 1982 he successfully pled insanity under the laws of the time, enraging the American public in the process. This collective outrage led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act, passed into law in 1984. The act reversed the burden of proof in insanity defense, making it the responsibility of defenders to prove their clients were legally insane where it had always been the responsibility of the prosecution to prove that they were not.

 Expert witnesses were now barred from directly testifying as to the sanity (or otherwise) of a defendant. The act was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but was ruled constitutional in the case of United States vs Freeman. Three states, Utah, Montana and Idaho, abolished the insanity defense.


Hinckley Confined to St. Elizabeth's

And what of John Hinckley Jr.? He was sent to the St. Elizabeth psychiatric hospital for compulsory treatment and remains there today. He’s been granted a number of short stays at the family home and his lawyers regularly petition for greater freedoms and eventual release. The most recent ruling allowing him greater liberty came in December, 2013 despite ongoing doubts in some quarters. It seems as though the doubters do have some strong reasons for wanting to keep him where he is.

Hinckley at one point told psychiatrists, when asked if he was still a danger to Jodie Foster, that:

“Not now. If released I would go the other way but in one or two years if things go on the same, no response from her, then I’ll kill her.”

In 1983, Hinckley made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. In 1988 the Washington Post ran a story that Hinckley had written to serial killer Ted Bundy, then awaiting execution. In his letters Hinckley was reported to have expressed sympathy for Bundy’s plight. He had also written to Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, herself jailed for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford and had also asked for Charles Manson’s prison mailing address. A search of his room at St. Elizabeth’s also uncovered more than 20 photographs of Jodie Foster.

In 2011, further doubts emerged as a result of one of Hinckley’s furloughs. His mother had driven him to see a movie and left him outside the theater before driving home. Instead, Hinckley went straight to a nearby bookstore where he spent a couple of hours flicking through books on true crime, especially books on assassins and particularly looking for references to his own crime. He didn’t know that he was under the covert surveillance of the Secret Service, the agency charged with protecting current and former presidents from assassination. What particularly disturbed them when Hinckley was questioned about this unauthorized absence was his having thoroughly studied the movies so he could try and convince anyone questioning him that he’d actually seen the films in question. Had investigators not had solid evidence that he hadn’t been to the movies as he claimed, Hinckley might well have fooled them.

Hinckley’s attempts to prove himself sane enough to be fully released might prove counter-productive. Given that James Brady’s death has recently been ruled a homicide, there exists a question of whether a sane Hinckley might face murder charges. There are also the cases of Delahanty, McCarthy and President Reagan to consider as all were seriously injured in the attack. If Hinckley is sane enough to release, is he by default sane enough to prosecute? If so, three charges of attempted murder and one of murder might await him. That particular legal controversy looks set to run for some time before a definitive answer is reached in the courts.


The Brady Act

James Brady with Bill Clinton as he signs the Brady Act into law.

James Brady became an advocate of gun control, successfully lobbying for what became known as the Brady Act. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (to give it its full name) passed into law on November 11, 1993 during the tenure of President Clinton. It came into effect on February 28, 1994.

From then on, gun buyers had to pass stricter background checks when buying from federally licensed dealers, makers or importers. The act was, however, subject to certain exceptions. Firearms defined as curios or relics by a municipal, state or federal museum curator are exempt, meaning that you could buy a handgun used by John Dillinger without such checks, but not an exactly similar weapon of the same brand and calibre. If a curator certifies a firearm as being of historic interest or that a large part of their monetary value comes from its association with an historical event, period or individual then it is exempt. At the bill’s signing, Brady expressed his attitude in honest and pungent terms:

“Twelve years ago my life was changed forever by a disturbed young man with a gun. Until that time I hadn’t thought much about gun control or the need for gun control. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t have been stuck with these damn wheels.”

James Brady was strongly supported by his wife, Sarah, in his gun control campaigning. He was also heavily opposed by pro-gun organizations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). In a landmark court case, Printz v. United States, the NRA argued that the entire Brady Act was unconstitutional and demanded it be voided. The NRA lost, but not without one significant gain. The act itself was upheld, but the clause making it mandatory for state and local law enforcement to carry out the background checks was ruled unconstitutional. It became non-mandatory, so background checks would now be carried out at the discretion of the agencies concerned. 

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1 comment on "The Attempted Assassination of President Ronald Reagan "

Marilyn Z Tomlins Nov 17, 2014 · Log in or register to post comments

The death of Brady was not reported in France where I live, so I do appreciate Robert Walsh's piece here on Crimemagazine.

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