History Stories

It was the first presidential shooting since the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. wounded President Ronald Reagan and three others in an assassination attempt he hoped would earn the affection of the Oscar-winning actress he was stalking, Jodie Foster.

The effects are still felt today. Secret Service tightened security, using tents to shield presidential entrances and exits, and Hinckley’s subsequent acquittal caused states and Congress to place restrictions on the use of the insanity defense. Left partially paralyzed, James Brady and his wife, Sarah, became outspoken gun control advocates who lobbied for the 1993 enactment of the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases and was supported by Reagan himself.

Hinckley moved to Hollywood and became obsessed with “Taxi Driver” and Jodie Foster.

Growing up in an upscale Dallas neighborhood, Hinckley was a good athlete and a popular in junior high, even elected president of his homeroom class in seventh and eighth grades, but that all changed. In high school, Hinckley became increasingly withdrawn, spending solitary hours playing guitar and listening to music. After dropping out of Texas Tech University, he moved to Hollywood in 1976 with hopes of becoming a songwriter.

A note written to actress Jodie Foster from John Hinckley, Jr. on March 6, 1981, just over three weeks before President Reagan was shot.

A note written to actress Jodie Foster from John Hinckley, Jr. on March 6, 1981, just over three weeks before President Reagan was shot.

Instead of finding success, Hinckley became consumed by the movie “Taxi Driver,” watching it upwards of 15 times. He identified with the film’s central character, violent loner Travis Bickle, who sought to gain a woman’s affection by trying to assassinate a presidential candidate. Hinckley even wore army boots and drank peach brandy like Bickle had in the film.

Hinckley grew increasingly obsessed with Foster, who played a young prostitute in “Taxi Driver.” He stalked the actress after her enrollment at Yale University, sending her dozens of love letters and poems, calling her on the phone and traveling in person to New Haven, Connecticut, with hopes of making contact. Like Bickle, Hinckley believed he could earn Foster’s love by assassinating a politician.

Looking for a target, Hinckley first picked Jimmy Carter.

Hinckley first pursued President Jimmy Carter. He attended a campaign rally for the president in Dayton, Ohio. In October 1980, he was arrested at the Nashville International Airport after three pistols were discovered in his suitcase on the same day Carter visited the city. Following Reagan’s victory the following month, Hinckley made the recently elected president his new target. On a postcard of Reagan’s inauguration that he addressed to Foster, Hinckley wrote, “One day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy.”

“Honey, I forgot to duck,” a wounded President Reagan told his wife from his hospital bed. 

Reagan insisted on walking through the emergency doors to the George Washington University Hospital himself, collapsing once inside. When First Lady Nancy Reagan arrived at the hospital, the president’s first words to his wife were “Honey, I forgot to duck.” His also quipped with his doctors, “I hope you are all Republicans.” While the president’s humor in a life-threatening situation earned him goodwill in the assassination’s aftermath, the event itself was the culmination of a twisted plot by a would-be assassin.

Hinckley had laid out his plan to kill Reagan in a letter to Foster on March 30, 1981, detailing his intention to kill Reagan. “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,” he wrote. “By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me.”

President Reagan waves, then looks up before being shoved into his limousine by Secret Service agents after being shot outside a hotel in Washington.

President Reagan waves, then looks up before being shoved into his limousine by Secret Service agents after being shot outside a hotel in Washington.

He executed his plan later that afternoon. No more than 15 feet away from Reagan, Hinckley raised his .22 revolver and fired six bullets in three seconds. Reagan was exiting the Washington Hilton after speaking to AFL-CIO representatives and waving to reporters and well-wishers as he made the short walk with his aides through the drizzle to the presidential limousine. The first shot struck press secretary James Brady in the head, leaving him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and District of Columbia policeman Thomas Delahanty were wounded by subsequent bullets.

The final bullet fired by Hinckley ricocheted off the armored Lincoln Continental and struck Reagan underneath his left arm as Secret Service agents threw him into the limousine. The bullet lodged in the president’s left lung, missing his heart by only an inch.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Before the start of his federal trial on thirteen counts, including attempting to assassinate the president, Hinckley twice failed to commit suicide, once by a Tylenol overdose and the second time by hanging himself with an article of clothing. During the eight-week trial, the jury heard from psychiatrists, Hinckley’s parents, excerpts from his diary and videotaped testimony from Foster. While government psychiatrists concluded that Hinckley was legally sane, psychiatrists called by the defense argued that Hinckley suffered from schizophrenia and that “Taxi Driver” drove him to carry out the shooting.

Details of Reagan's gun shot wound after the assassination attempt.

Details of Reagan's gun shot wound after the assassination attempt.

On June 21, 1982, the jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, a decision that provoked public outrage. An ABC News poll taken the day after the verdict found that 76 percent of Americans thought “justice was not done.” As a result of the verdict, Congress and many states passed legislation that restricted the use of the insanity defense.

Originally confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital, Hinckley was eventually allowed unsupervised visits with his parents.

Following the trial, Hinckley was confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., a public psychiatric facility for individuals with serious mental illnesses. “My actions of March 30, 1981, have given special meaning to my life and no amount of imprisonment or hospitalization can tarnish my historical deed,” he wrote to the New York Times after the trial. “The shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel was the greatest love offering in the history of the world. I sacrificed myself and committed the ultimate crime in hopes of winning the heart of a girl.” In 1983 he again attempted suicide by overdosing on antidepressant medication.

Hinckley’s parents sold their Colorado home and moved close to Washington, D.C., where they attended weekly therapy sessions with their son. With Hinckley’s attorney arguing that his mental illness was in remission, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled in 1999 that he could leave the hospital on supervised daytime visits. Four years later, Hinckley was permitted unsupervised daytime visits with his parents.

A photo of John Hinckley taken in front of the White House, 1981.

A photo of John Hinckley taken in front of the White House, 1981.

Over the objections of prosecutors, a federal judge in 2005 permitted Hinckley to make unsupervised three-night visits to his parents’ home in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the following decade, the judge permitted Hinckley increasingly longer unsupervised visits and authorized him to obtain a driver’s license.

Today, John Hinckley Jr. lives with his mother.

After a federal judge granted him “full-time convalescent leave,” the 61-year-old Hinckley left St. Elizabeths Hospital in September 2016 to live full-time with his nonagenarian mother in a 2,500-square-foot home overlooking a golf course inside a Williamsburg, Virginia, gated community. As a provision of his release, Hinckley was ordered to obtain a job or volunteer work, continue psychiatric treatment, attend group therapy sessions and have no contact with Foster, the Reagan family, senior government officials or the media. He was also required to carry a GPS-equipped cell phone, and the Secret Service was permitted access to his phone and any of his online and e-mail accounts.

Hinckley escaped murder charges, but his case permanently altered the use of the "insanity" defense.

Following James Brady’s death in 2014, the Virginia medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the result of lingering effects from Hinckley’s gunshot. However, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia chose not to pursue murder charges.

John Hinckley Jr.’s case pushed the insanity defense into the national spotlight, making tighter rules. To this day, the ruling continues to affect criminal cases where the assailant has a mental illness.

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