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Ronald Reagan Assassination Attempt



On March 30, 1981, United States President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded by John Hinckley Jr. in Washington, D.C. as he was returning to his limousine after a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinckley believed the attack would impress actress Jodie Foster, with whom he had become obsessed.


Reagan was seriously wounded by a .22 Long Rifle bullet that ricocheted off the side of the presidential limousine and hit him in the left underarm, breaking a rib, puncturing a lung, and causing serious internal bleeding. He was close to death upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital but was stabilized in the emergency room, then underwent emergency exploratory surgery. Here is a clip of the breaking news of the shooting:



Hinckley was suffering from erotomania and his motivation for the attack was born of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970s, he saw the film "Taxi Driver" at least 15 times, apparently identifying strongly with protagonist Travis Bickle, portrayed by Robert De Niro. The story involves Bickle's attempts to save a child prostitute played by Foster. Toward the end of the film, Bickle attempts to assassinate a United States senator who is running for president. Over the following years, Hinckley trailed Foster around the country, going so far as to enroll in a writing course at Yale University in 1980 after reading in People magazine that she was a student there. He wrote numerous letters and notes to her in late 1980. He called her twice and refused to give up when she indicated that she was not interested in him.


Hinckley was convinced that he would be Foster's equal if he became a national figure. He decided to emulate Bickle and began stalking President Jimmy Carter. He was surprised at how easy it was to get close to the president (he was only a foot away at one event) but was arrested in October 1980 at Nashville International Airport and fined for illegal possession of firearms. Carter had made a campaign stop there, but the FBI did not connect this arrest to the president and did not notify the United States Secret Service. His parents briefly placed him under the care of a psychiatrist. Hinckley turned his attention to Ronald Reagan whose election, he told his parents, would be good for the country. He wrote three or four more notes to Foster in early March 1981. Foster gave these notes to the dean, who gave them to the Yale police department, who sought but failed to track Hinckley down. Here is a clip with more details:



The first round hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head above his left eye, passing through underneath his brain and shattering his brain cavity; the small explosive charge in the round exploded on impact. District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty recognized the sound as a gunshot and turned his head sharply to the left to identify the shooter. As he did so, he was struck in the back of his neck by the second shot, the bullet ricocheting off his spine. Delahanty fell on top of Brady, screaming "I am hit!". Hinckley now had a clear shot at the president, but Alfred Antenucci, a Cleveland, Ohio, labor official who stood nearby him, and saw him fire the first two shots, hit Hinckley in the head and began to wrestle the shooter down to the ground. Upon hearing the shots, Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr almost instantly grabbed Reagan by the shoulders and dove with him toward the open rear door of the limousine. The third round overshot the president, instead hitting the window of a building across the street.


Parr's prompt actions likely saved Reagan from being hit in the head. As Parr pushed Reagan into the limousine, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy snapped his attention toward the sound of the gunfire, pivoted to his right, and put himself in the line of fire. McCarthy spread his arms and legs, taking a wide stance directly in front of Reagan and Parr to make himself a target. McCarthy was struck in the lower abdomen by the fourth round, the bullet traversing his right lung, diaphragm, and right lobe of the liver. The fifth round hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open rear door of the limousine as Reagan and Parr were passing behind it. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine, passed between the space of the open rear door and vehicle frame, and hit the president in the left underarm. The round grazed a rib and lodged in his lung, causing it to partially collapse before stopping less than an inch from his heart. Here is a clip with an interview with eye witness ABC News correspondent, Sam Donaldson:



President Reagan recovered and was released from the hospital on April 11. The attempt had great influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be about 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose and, although not a Catholic, meetings with Mother Teresa, Cardinal Terence Cooke, and fellow shooting survivor Pope John Paul II reinforced his belief.


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. He was released from institutional psychiatric care on September 10, 2016.


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