Attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan

1981 shooting of US President Ronald Reagan and murder of then White House Press Secretary James Brady

The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan happened on Monday, March 30, 1981, 69 days after becoming President. Ronald Reagan was leaving after a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C..[1] As Reagan left to enter his car, John Hinckley, Jr. fired his gun.

The moments that led to the assassination attempt, 1981

Assassination attempt

The "President's Walk" area where Reagan was shot

At 2:27 pm Eastern Time, Reagan exited the hotel through "President's Walk" and its K Street NW exit toward his waiting limousine. Hinckley waited within the crowd of civilians. While the Secret Service blocked those attending the president's speech, in a "colossal mistake" the agency allowed an unsearched group to stand within feet of him, behind a rope line.

Reagan unexpectedly passed right in front of Hinckley. Believing he would never get a better chance, Hinckley fired a Röhm RG-14 .22 Long Rifle[2] blue steel revolver six times in 1.7 seconds.[3]

Five out of the six shots missed the president.[4] The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. The second bullet hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan.[5][6][7] Hinckley now had a clear shot at the president, but the third bullet overshot him and hit the window of a building across the street.

As Special Agent In Charge Jerry Parr quickly pushed Reagan into the limousine, the fourth bullet hit Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen[5][6] as he spread his body over Reagan to protect him. The fifth bullet hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open side door of the limousine. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine and hit the president in his left underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, stopping nearly 1 inch (25mm) from his heart. Parr's prompt reaction saved Reagan from being hit in the head. Reagan suffered from a punctured lung and heavy internal bleeding. He received medical attention quickly.[8]

After the shooting

Alexander Haig at the press conference during the shooting

The powers of the President were never actually given to anyone else during this time through the presidential line of succession. Secretary of State Alexander Haig caused anger and arguments at a press conference by stating "I am in control here", while Vice President George H. W. Bush returned to Washington D.C. Since the Vice President was not physically present in Washington D.C., Secretary Haig thought that, as Secretary of State, he was to meant to assume command. In reality, according to the US Constitution, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O'Neill was to take over from President Reagan, and Vice President Bush to be in charge. Secretary Haig was angry about his mistake as was Speaker O'Neill.

Hinckley's motivation

The shooter, John Hinckley, Jr.

The shooter was 30-year old John Hinckley. Hinckley said that he wanted to shoot President Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster.[9] He planned the assassination after he saw the movie Taxi Driver and there was a scene similar to the event.[10]

Hinckley decided to copy DeNiro's character in the movie. He began to stalk President Jimmy Carter. He was surprised at how easy it was to get close to the president—only one foot away at one event. He was arrested in October 1980 at Nashville International Airport for illegal possession of firearms. Even though Carter made a campaign stop there, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not connect this arrest to the President and did not tell the United States Secret Service.[11]

He wrote three or four more notes to Foster in early March 1981. Foster gave these notes to her dean, who gave them to the Yale police department. After this, the police wanted to find Hinckley, but failed.[12][13] Hinckley soon moved to Washington, D.C. to carry-out his assassination plan.


Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House in the aftermath of the shooting
James Brady in 2006

Nobody was killed in the attack. Press Secretary James Brady was left paralyzed and permanently disabled. Brady died in August 2014. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was in a psychiatric facility until 2016.

The members of his staff were anxious for the president to appear to be recovering quickly, and the morning after his operation he saw visitors and signed a piece of legislation. Reagan left the hospital on the 13th day. He was able to travel outside of Washington 49 days later.

Before the shooting, Reagan had the lowest approval ratings of any president during his first term in office.[source?] After the shooting, Reagan's approval ratings rose. The assassination attempt boosted his popularity and some may say that it helped him win his re-election campaign in 1984.[dubious ]

Hinckley trial


Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. The defense psychiatric reports had found him to be insane[14] while the prosecution reports declared him legally sane.[15][16]

Following his lawyers' advice, he was not a witness in his own defense.[17] Hinckley was confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.. He was released in 2016.



  1. Nicholas Wapshott (2007). Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage. New York, NY: Sentinel. p. 167. ISBN 978-1-101-21787-0.
  2. Schlager, D.; Johnson, T.; McFall, R. (1996). "Safety of Imaging Exploding Bullets With Ultrasound". Annals of Emergency Medicine. 28 (2): 183–187. doi:10.1016/S0196-0644(96)70060-4. PMID 8759583. Retrieved September 28, 2013.
  3. The President is Shot Archived 2007-01-29 at the Wayback Machine by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved February 27, 2007.
  4. Wilentz, Sean (2008). The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008. New York: HarperCollins. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-06-074480-9.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Feaver, Douglas. "Three men shot at the side of their President", The Washington Post, March 31, 1981.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hunter, Marjorie. "2 in Reagan security detail are wounded outside hotel", New York Times, March 31, 1981.
  7. Fears of Explosive Bullet Force Surgery on Officer, by Charles R. Babcock, The Washington Post, April 3, 1981.
  8. "Remembering the Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan Archived 2019-12-19 at the Wayback Machine". Larry King Live, March 30, 2001.
  9. Caplan, Lincoln (18 January 2011). "The Insanity Defense, Post-Hinckley". New York Retrieved February 12, 2014.
  10. Taxi Driver Archived 2007-02-08 at the Wayback Machine by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved February 27, 2007.
  11. Lyons, Richard D. (April 3, 1981). "F.B.I. Notice On Hinckley Arrest At Issue". The New York Times.
  12. Teen-age Actress Says Notes Sent by Suspect Did Not Hint Violence, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, April 2, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007.
  13. Yale Police Searched For Suspect Weeks Before Reagan Was Shot, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, April 5, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007.
  14. Psychologist Says Hinckley's Tests Similar to Those of the Severely Ill, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, May 21, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  15. John Hinckley's Acts Described as Unreasonable but Not Insane, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, June 11, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  16. Hinckley Able to Abide by Law, Doctor Says, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, June 5, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.
  17. John Hinckley Declines to Take the Stand, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, June 3, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.

Other websites


  Media related to Reagan assassination attempt at Wikimedia Commons