On 17 June 2022, a greying 67-year-old man was released from decades of ongoing supervision by legal and mental health professionals. He promptly shared a celebratory tweet: “After 41 years 2 months and 15 days, FREEDOM AT LAST!!!”
41 years, two months and 15 days earlier, on 30 March 1981, John Hinckley Jr. had poked a .22 calibre revolver through a crowd of people on Florida Walk, Washington DC, and fired six shots at the recently inaugurated US President, Ronald Reagan. Somehow, Hinckley had managed to get within 15 feet of the President, smuggling a loaded gun through two layers of security.
Here’s the story of John Hickley Jr’s attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life.
The assassination attempt
When his moment arrived, the would-be assassin crouched and shot six times in just 1.7 seconds. The first shot hit White House Press Secretary James Brady above his left eye, shattering his brain cavity but passing underneath his brain. DC police officer Thomas Delahanty was struck in the back of the neck by the second round. The impact caused him to fall to the floor, leaving Hinckley with a clear shot at the President, but a fast-acting onlooker, Alfred Antenucci, intervened, hitting the gunman on the head and attempting to wrestle him to the ground.
Hinckley got off a third shot that flashed over the President’s head thanks to the instant reaction of a Special Agent, Jerry Parr, who was already bundling Reagan headfirst towards the Presidential limousine’s open rear door. Another Special Agent, Tim McCarthy, promptly spread himself, forming a human shield between Hinckley and the President. The fourth bullet struck McCarthy in the lower abdomen. A fifth hit the bulletproof glass of the limo door’s window. Hinckley’s sixth and final shot pinged off the side of the limo, again missing his target, but the bullet ricocheted and struck the President in his left underarm.
Hinckley was bundled to the ground and angrily beaten by Antenucci and another citizen as the wounded President was swiftly whisked away.
The round that struck President Reagan broke a rib, punctured a lung and caused serious internal bleeding. It certainly wasn’t a superficial injury, but it could have been far worse – the bullet stopped 25mm short of his heart. Doctors were reportedly impressed by the speed of his recovery and he left the hospital on 11 April, less than two weeks after the shooting.
The other three victims of Hinckley’s assassination attempt also survived but suffered serious injuries. Delahanty was ultimately forced to retire from the police force due to nerve damage while Brady was left with slurred speech and partial paralysis that required the full-time use of a wheelchair.
A misguided soul
Had Hinckley’s assassination attempt been successful (a matter of 25mm), he would undoubtedly be a far more notorious figure today. Indeed, historian and Reagan biographer HW Brands has commented to the Associated Press: “If Hinckley had succeeded in killing Reagan, then he would have been a pivotal historical figure… As it is, he is a misguided soul whom history has already forgotten.”
So what drove the ‘misguided’ 25-year-old Hinckley’s assassination attempt? According to the verdict of his 1982 Washington DC trial, the answer would seem to be insanity. Hinckley was charged with 13 offenses but ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. It was a highly contentious verdict that triggered widespread public outcry; many felt that Hinckley had got off lightly thanks to his legal team’s use of the ‘insanity defense’. Indeed, the verdict was so widely criticised that it led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which altered the rules for consideration of mental illness of defendants in federal criminal court proceedings.
Whether or not he was mentally unwell, it’s not unreasonable to characterise Hinckley as a troubled man. Like Mark David Chapman, who had shot John Lennon a few months earlier, Hinckley was a 25-year-old loner with unhealthy fixations. He had spent New Year’s Eve, three weeks after Chapman killed Lennon, drinking peach brandy alone and ranting into a tape recorder. “I just want to say goodbye to the old year, which was nothing; total misery, total death, John Lennon is dead, the world is over, forget it.”
A dangerous infatuation
Hinckley may have idolised Lennon, but his biggest celebrity obsession was Jodie Foster. The young actress had played a sexually trafficked 12-year-old child, Iris Steensma, in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, which is said to have played a significant part in the development of Hinckley’s delusional motivations. Indeed, the film, in which Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a disturbed taxi driver who plots to assassinate a presidential candidate, was even played for the jury by Hinckley’s defense attorney.
Hinckley developed a deep infatuation for Foster, even moving to New Haven, Connecticut to stalk the young actress when she entered Yale University. Shortly before his attempt to assassinate Reagan, Hinckley wrote to her:
Over the past seven months I’ve left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. … The reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.