Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan, 1981

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On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley Jr. in Washington, D.C., as they were leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinckley’s motivation for the attack was to impress actress Jodie Foster, who had played the role of a child prostitute in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. After seeing the film, Hinckley had developed an obsession with Foster. He left a long letter in his hotel room on the day he attempted to assassinate Reagan, indicating that he believed that he might be killed in his attempt and professing his love:

“… Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever.

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. 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! By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.

I love you forever,

John Hinckley”

Reagan was struck by a single bullet that broke a rib, punctured a lung, and caused serious internal bleeding, but he recovered quickly. No formal invocation of presidential succession took place, although Secretary of State Alexander Haig stated that he was “in control here” while Vice President George H. W. Bush returned to Washington.

Besides Reagan, White House Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, and police officer Thomas Delahanty were also wounded. All three survived, but Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently disabled; Brady’s death in 2014 was considered homicide because it was ultimately caused by this injury.

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. On July 27, 2016, it was announced he would be released by August 5 to live with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia; he was subsequently released on September 10.

President Ronald Reagan waves to the crowd immediately before being shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

White House Press Secretary James Brady and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan. (Courtesy Reagan Library/Handout via REUTERS)

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