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John Hinckley Jr.: The Now-Free Man Who Tried To Assassinate President Ronald Reagan

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President Ronald Reagan Waves To Onlookers Moments Before An Assassination Attempt
The White House/Getty Images

March 30, 1981, should have been just another day for President Ronald Reagan. Just 69 days after his inauguration, the president was giving a speech to about 5,000 members of the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.

At around 2:30 p.m., Reagan left the hotel, waving to supporters as security walked him to his limousine. Waiting in the crowd, however, was John Hinckley Jr., a mentally ill young man with a .22 revolver and an intent to murder.

Hinckley, who was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1955, suffered from emotional problems and was prescribed anti-depressants and tranquilizers. In 1976, Hinckley saw the movie “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a mentally disturbed taxi driver who becomes obsessed with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who volunteers on the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Bickle repulses Betsy when he takes her to a porn theater on a date, and his attempts to apologize are rejected. Distraught by her rejection, Bickle has violent fantasies and begins buying guns. He also starts attending Palantine’s rallies to learn about his security, with the intent of assassinating the candidate. When Bickle finally makes his move, he’s stopped by Secret Service agents as he draws his gun. While all this is going on, Bickle is also attempting to save a child prostitute, played by Jodie Foster.

Hinckley became obsessed with Foster after watching the movie, and even moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to stalk her when she began attending Yale University. He took a Yale writing course and left love letters and poems in her mailbox. He also repeatedly called her and managed to speak with her twice, reportedly telling her he wasn’t a “dangerous person,” according to Hinckley’s biography at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Foster steered clear of the stalker who would one day make history.

In addition to Foster, Hinckley was also obsessed with the idea of assassination. After being rejected by Foster, he began thinking that if he could become a household name by assassinating the president of the United States, he may prove that he was worthy of her “respect and love.”

Reagan was not Hinckley’s first potential target. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was still president, so Hinckley began stalking him on the campaign trail. Hinckley was arrested by airport security in Nashville after they found handguns in his suitcases. The guns were confiscated, and he was fined $62.50.

Hinckley was not deterred. He purchased two new guns but began seeing a psychiatrist in the fall of 1980 after his parents insisted. Hinckley’s parents owned an oil company and were quite wealthy, and his new psychiatrist believed that the best way to help their son overcome what was believed to be emotional immaturity was to cut him off financially.

Hinckley was unable to find work and eventually made his way to Washington, D.C. on March 29, 1981. The next day, he wrote Foster a letter detailing his plan to assassinate Reagan, who was inaugurated at the end of January that year.

“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,” Hinckley wrote. “I’ve got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am doing all of this for your sake!”

On March 30, Hinckley stepped out from a crowd of reporters outside the Hilton Hotel and fired six shots at Reagan and his security team. One bullet ricocheted off of Reagan’s limousine and struck the president under his left arm, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. It was initially thought that Hinckley missed Reagan, until the president began coughing up blood and was taken to the hospital. It was later discovered that the bullet grazed one of the president’s ribs and became lodged in his rib just one inch from his heart. The injury left Reagan with a punctured lung and internal bleeding, resulting in a 12-day hospital stay.

Also injured in the attack were Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and policeman Thomas Delahanty. Brady was hit in the head and became permanently disabled, requiring a wheelchair for the rest of his life and affecting his speech. He died on August 4, 2014, with a medical examiner ruling his death a homicide resulting from Hinckley’s gunshot 33 years earlier.

Delahanty was struck in the back of his neck trying to protect Reagan, while McCarthy was struck in the abdomen. Both men survived and fully recovered.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. One of his attorneys, Greg Craig, went on to become assistant to the President and White House special counsel under Bill Clinton and White House counsel under President Barack Obama. In 2019, he was indicted for lying to federal prosecutors about his work at a private law firm for the former president of Ukraine without registering as a foreign agent.

By 2011, Hinckley was allowed to leave the hospital for several days at a time to visit family in Virginia. In 2012, therapists in Virginia withdrew a plan that would allow Hinckley to leave the hospital and live full-time with his mother. At the time, the Department of Justice said Hinckley hadn’t changed and should remain in the hospital. Four years later, in 2016, Hinckley was released from St. Elizabeth’s to live with his mother and gain more privileges.

In September 2021, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman announced that Hinckley would be fully released without conditions if he continued to show he was “no longer a danger to himself or others,” The Associated Press reported. Hinckley was granted his freedom without any restrictions on June 15, 2022. He immediately attempted to enter the music industry, as he posted videos of himself performing covers and original songs on his YouTube page. At least one venue had originally booked him to perform but has since canceled, citing “threats and hate.”

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