Today in 1981, US President Ronald Reagan was shot while on the way to his limousine after giving a speech in Washington, DC less than two miles from the White House. The shooting shocked the nation and made the issues of Presidential succession and the insanity defense front page stories for months to come.
President Reagan had been in office only 69 days on March 30th, 1981. At 1:45PM that Monday afternoon, the President arrived at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. He was there to address a gathering of AFL-CIO representatives who had come to the city for a convention. Forty-five minutes later, Reagan walked out of the hotel's northwest exit and headed for the waiting Presidential limousine. A gunman rushed from a crowd of onlookers towards the President and fired six .22 caliber rounds from his revolver. The President was pushed into the limousine by a team of Secret Service agents as other agents and policemen grabbed the gunman. The entire incident, from the firing of the first bullet to the Presidential limousine pulling tearing away from the curb, had taken less than 10 seconds.
As the limousine sped from the scene, the Secret Service agents with the President checked him for gunshot wounds. None were readily apparent, but when Reagan began coughing up blood, the motorcade headed for George Washington University Hospital. The President walked into the emergency room, but soon fell to one knee and complained of difficulty breathing. By this time, a gunshot wound in Reagan's left armpit had been discovered. He was immediately prepped for surgery.
The President, a former actor who possessed an incredible talent for spontaneity, said to surgeons as he was wheeled into the operating room, “Please tell me you're all Republicans” to which one of the team responded, “Sir, we're all Republicans today.” The surgery lasted three hours and removed a bullet that had grazed one of the President's ribs and lodged in his left lung, a mere inch from his heart. He remained in the hospital for 13 days, but his recovery took much more time. Reagan's personal physician was later quoted as saying that the President's recovery was not complete until October, more than six months after the shooting.
There were five cameramen present at the scene of the assassination attempt, including one from each of the major news networks of the time. Those videos, along with detailed crime scene analysis, soon told the whole story of the shooting. The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. The second hit police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. The third passed over the President and hit the window of a building across the street. The fourth hit Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen. The fifth hit the bullet-proof glass of the window on the open side door of the Presidential limousine. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the side of the limousine and hit the President in his left armpit.
The gunman who fired those shots was apprehended at the scene. He was John Hinckley, Jr., an Oklahoma native who grew up in University Park, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He attended Texas Tech University on a part-time basis during most of the 1970’s, interrupted by a move to Los Angeles in 1975 in the hope of gaining success as a songwriter. It was during this time Hinckley first saw the film Taxi Driver, starring a then 14-year old Jodie Foster. Robert De Niro played the main character in the film who plots to assassinate a Presidential candidate. Hinckley saw the film numerous times and became obsessed with Foster. For months, he tried in vain to contact the actress. After learning that she was attending Yale University, Hinckley moved to New Haven, Connecticut for a short time, during which he sent her numerous poems and messages, often slipping them under her door. He called Foster twice; she told him she was not interested in a relationship. Instead of being deterred, Hinckley tried even harder. In early 1981, Foster turned the notes she had received over to the Dean of Yale, who turned them over to the police. An investigation was launched, but Hinckley was already gone.
Before leaving Yale, Hinckley decided to take new course of action. Since he could not win over Foster in his current social position, he decided that he needed to become a nationally-known figure. He had followed President Carter for some time, apparently inspired, once again, by Taxi Driver. When President Reagan was sworn into office in January, 1981, he became the target of Hinckley’s plan for fame. He bought a bus ticket and arrived in Washington, DC on March 29th, 1981. He saw an article in a local paper discussing the President’s itinerary for the following day. Hinckley took this as a sign that it was time to act. He had with him an R.G. Industries Rohm .22 revolver he had bought at a pawn shop in Dallas, Texas; it cost $47. It contained six Devastator rounds, so named because they were designed to explode on impact. Thankfully, none of the six performed as intended.
Hinckley was charged with 13 offenses and on June 21st, 1982, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The prosecution’s evidence pointed to legal sanity, but the defense produced clear psychiatric reports of Hinckley’s insanity. He was confined at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he is still held today, with occasional off-site visits with his parents.
There was intense public outrage at the outcome of the trial, so much so that a few states completely removed insanity as a defense in a felony crime. There were also restrictions placed on an expert witness’ testimony with regard to a conclusive decision of insanity. In other words, no psychologist or psychiatrist could conclude merely from third-party evidence that a defendant was mentally unstable at the time of the event. In the past 28 years, however, most states have changed the weight of that testimony again.
Another issue brought to light by the assassination attempt was the Presidential line of succession. At the time of the shooting, Vice President George Bush was in Texas. There were only three senior officials at the White House that afternoon: Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and National Security Advisor Richard Allen. At a White House press conference that afternoon, Press Secretary Larry Speakers, when asked who was running the government, responded, “I cannot answer that question at this time.” Secretary Haig went immediately to the Press Room and told the assembled journalists, in part, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the Vice President…if something came up, I would check with him, of course.” Haig was later attacked for that statement, but he claimed later it was not meant to imply he was in charge of the US government at that moment. In reality, he was fifth in the line of succession behind the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and President pro tempere of the Senate. Despite his stated intent, the quote haunted Haig for the rest of his time as Secretary of State. The question of Presidential succession is still a muddy one, since technically the President must give written authorization to the Vice President for him to assume power. In reality, then, the power of the Presidency still resided with Ronald Reagan that afternoon.
As we learned earlier, it was not just the President who was shot that Monday 28 years ago. White House Press Secretary James Brady was hit in the head, an injury that left him partially paralyzed and restricted to a wheelchair. Two of the three major networks initially reported him dead after the shooting, a mistake which caused the ABC anchor, Frank Reynolds, to yell at his off-air staff at the top of his lungs in front of a national audience.
Brady became an ardent supporter of gun control and lobbied for the passing of the Brady Bill, a law which, among other things, introduced a five day waiting period to the purchase of a handgun. Today, he helps lead the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Officer Thomas Delahanty of the Washington, DC Metro Police Department was hit in the neck by one of the Hinckley’s bullets. It ricocheted off his spinal cord, causing permanent nerve damage in his left arm. He was cited for heroism, but was ultimately forced to retire due to his injury. Several years after the shooting, Delahanty tried to sue both Hinckley and the manufacturer of the gun he used. The case was eventually rejected by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Today, Delahanty lives in retirement in suburban Washington.
Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy remains one of only two men in that agency to take a bullet for the President. He was hit in the abdomen, with the bullet lodging in his chest. Surgeons were able to remove the round and McCarthy recovered. He retired from the Secret Service in 1993 after a very successful career. He became Chief of the Orland Park, Illinois Police Department in 1994 and in 1998 ran unsuccessfully for the office of Illinois Secretary of State. He is, as of now, still the Chief of Police in Orland Park.
Ronald Reagan became a two-term President, winning a 49-state landslide in 1984. He retired from public life in 1994 after disclosing that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few months earlier. He died in 2004 at the age of 93. On the entire 25-mile route from Point Mugu Naval Base to Reagan’s internment location at his Presidential Library in Simi Valley, crowds lined both sides of the highway and every overpass.
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