Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. president Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., after giving a speech at a Construction Trades Council luncheon on March 30, 1981.

Summary of Event

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to the Construction Trades Council at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. On his way into the hotel, he passed a mentally unstable twenty-five-year-old man named John Hinckley, Jr., who had positioned himself within the throngs of reporters and photographers present. Hinckley was there to shoot Reagan so that he could gain notoriety in order to impress actor Jodie Foster. Foster, Jodie Hinckley had been infatuated with Foster since he saw her in the film Taxi Driver (1976) and had written her letters explaining that he was going to do something that would draw her attention to him. The Construction Trades Council meeting ended shortly after 2:00 p.m. Reagan exited the hotel through the same side entrance he had entered prior to his speech. It was perhaps a thirty-foot walk from the side entrance to the waiting presidential limousine. Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Assassinations and attempts;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] [kw]Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan (Mar. 30, 1981) [kw]Assassinate President Reagan, Hinckley Attempts to (Mar. 30, 1981) [kw]President Reagan, Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate (Mar. 30, 1981) [kw]Reagan, Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President (Mar. 30, 1981) Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Assassinations and attempts;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] [g]North America;Mar. 30, 1981: Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan[04460] [g]United States;Mar. 30, 1981: Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan[04460] [c]Crime and scandal;Mar. 30, 1981: Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan[04460] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;assassination attempt Hinckley, John, Jr. Parr, Jerry Brady, James S. McCarthy, Timothy

Chaos outside the Washington Hilton Hotel after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delehanty (front) lies on the ground after being wounded. James S. Brady (face down beside Delehanty) was also shot.

(NARA)

At 2:27 p.m., Reagan was almost to his limousine when he heard what sounded like two firecrackers exploding. He turned to Jerry Parr, the lead Secret Service agent on the presidential detail, and asked what the sound was. The answer to Reagan’s question quickly rang out in four more shots. Parr smothered Reagan’s body with his own, shoving the president into the limousine and diving on top of him. Hinckley had fired a total of six shots.

As the presidential limousine sped off toward the White House, Reagan felt sharp pains in his left side. He did not worry about the pain, as both he and Parr assumed it was an injury that had resulted from Parr diving on top of him. The truth, however, was that Reagan had been hit by a .22-caliber bullet that had ricocheted off the limousine door frame, pierced Reagan between the ribs, passed through his left lung, and lodged one inch from his heart. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, who had leaped in front of the president to stop a bullet, D.C. policeman Thomas Delehanty, Delehanty, Thomas and Reagan’s press secretary James S. Brady had also been shot by Hinckley. While none of these men had been mortally wounded, Brady had been seriously wounded by a shot to his head.

In the limousine, Reagan began coughing up blood that contained air bubbles, and Parr quickly rerouted the vehicle to George Washington University Hospital. While Parr still did not know that Reagan had been shot, the frothiness of Reagan’s blood made him suspect that one of the president’s lungs had been damaged. When the limousine arrived at the hospital, Reagan got out under his own power, walked through the emergency room doors, then collapsed into the arms of nurses, doctors, and Secret Service agents, his pain now complemented by his seeming inability to breathe. He was placed on a gurney, X-rayed, and initially diagnosed with a heart attack, but this diagnosis could not withstand the fact that Reagan’s lungs were filling with blood. A second set of X rays revealed that Reagan had indeed been shot, and he was rushed into surgery.

On the operating table, Reagan looked up and made what would be remembered as one of many quips when he said to the surgeons, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” A surgeon fittingly replied, “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.” When Reagan’s wife, Nancy, arrived at the hospital and came to his side, Reagan looked at her and said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

When reporters carried stories of Reagan’s humor beyond the hospital walls, concerned minds were eased and the president was endeared to many Americans. However, the George Washington medical staff and those closest to Reagan did not lose sight of the gravity of his situation. He was a seventy-year-old man with a bullet wound in his side, blood in his lungs, and fluctuating body temperature. Moreover, all these problems were magnified by a postsurgery staph infection that brought Reagan to the brink of death.

As America and the world looked on, Reagan recovered from his injuries. In less than two weeks, the fevers had subsided, his breathing had grown stronger, and the infections had been beaten. His doctors released him on April 11, 1981. While Reagan walked toward the limousine that waited for him outside the hospital, a reporter shouted, “What are you going to do when you get home?” In classic Reagan fashion he responded, “Sit down.”

On June 21, 1982, Hinckley was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to a mental hospital.

Significance

The attempted assassination of Reagan caused the Secret Service to revamp methods of moving protectees from buildings to vehicles and vice versa. Also, the incident endeared the president to many Americans, although he had not been tremendously popular before the attempt on his life. This endearment would help vault Reagan into the history books in the greatest electoral college landslide victory in American history in 1984.

Perhaps most significant was the legislative outcome of the assassination attempt. After a slow and painful recovery, James Brady and his wife, Sarah, pushed for and succeeded in securing the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993) which became law in 1993 and went into effect on March 1, 1994. The central components of the act were a mandatory background check for all who wished to purchase handguns, as well as a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. Hence, after an individual passed a background check and paid for a handgun, he or she would have to wait five days before being able to pick the gun up from the store. James and Sarah Brady Brady, Sarah believed that this waiting time could serve as a cooling-off period and perhaps lessen the incidence of the very type of crime that had nearly cost Brady and President Reagan their lives. Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Assassinations and attempts;Ronald Reagan[Reagan]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noonan, Peggy. When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. An insightful book about the Reagan years written by Reagan’s speechwriter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reagan, Ronald. An American Life: The Autobiography. New York: Pocket Books, 1990. Offers readers a glimpse into Reagan’s thoughts on national and international events during his eight years as president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, Ralph E., and Ralph A. Weber, eds. Dear Americans: Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Provides the full range of Reagan’s letters to Americans and people around the world.

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U.S. Gun Control Legislation Takes Effect

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