On this day in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempts to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in a crowd of onlookers and security personnel–including police and Secret Service officers–outside a Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. When asked about his motive for shooting the president, Hinckley revealed that he was seeking to gain the attention of the actress Jodie Foster.
After growing up in an affluent family in Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, Hinckley moved to Hollywood in 1976. That same year saw the release of Martin Scorsese’s dark drama Taxi Driver. Hinckley watched the film some 15 times and apparently strongly identified with the title character, Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro). A violent loner, Bickle seeks the attention of a socialite by trying to assassinate a political candidate and later becomes obsessed with protecting a child prostitute by shooting her pimp. The screenwriter, Paul Schrader, based the character on Arthur Bremer, who shot the Alabama governor and U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. In his diaries, Bremer expressed that political assassination was a way to escape anonymity and powerlessness.
As was recounted in testimony given at his 1982 trial, Hinckley began–either consciously (according to the prosecution) or unconsciously (according to the defense)–mirroring Bickle. He wore similar clothes, drank the same peach brandy and amassed a collection of firearms. He also became fixated on Jodie Foster, who played the young prostitute in the film. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Hinckley stalked President Jimmy Carter, getting himself arrested in the process when he was caught at the Nashville airport in possession of firearms. After sending him to a psychiatrist, Hinckley’s family cut him off financially. When he read that Foster was attending Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Hinckley traveled there repeatedly, all the while seeking some grand gesture he could make that would earn her attention.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley made his grand gesture, managing to fire six bullets in three seconds at Reagan in the middle of the crowd outside the Washington Hilton. One of the bullets struck Reagan underneath the left arm; it failed to explode on impact, leaving the president seriously injured but alive. Hinckley also shot a police officer and a Secret Service agent and seriously wounded Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady. Upon his arrest, Hinckley reportedly asked the officers if the news would disrupt the Academy Awards ceremony, scheduled for that night. The ceremony was indeed postponed until the following night, only the third time in history that the Oscars had failed to go ahead as scheduled.
At the conclusion of his trial–during which the defense showed Taxi Driver to bolster its case–Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and has remained there ever since. The case led to legislation limiting the insanity plea in several states and, 12 years later, to the signing of the Brady Bill, which required a waiting period and background check on people wishing to purchase a handgun.