Ronald Reagan had been president for seventy days when he spoke before 3,500 members of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Workers Union at Washington D.C.'s Hilton Hotel on 30 March 1981, urging the audience to support his economic recovery plan. Afterwards, Reagan exited the hotel by the VIP entrance facing T Street, accompanied by a Secret Service detail, press secretary James Brady, and assistant chief of staff Michael Deaver. It was a warm, breezy, overcast afternoon. A black Lincoln limousine awaited him in a circular drive fifteen feet from the hotel's steel double doors, while polive stood guard at a rope barrier behind which stood reporters, cameramen and onlookers. In the crowd lurked 25-year-old John W. Hinckley, Jr., and in Hinckley's pocket was a .22 caliber Rohm RG-14 revolver loaded with Devastator bullets that were designed to explode on impact. As the president drew near the limousine, raising his left arm to wave at the reporters calling out to him, Hinckley brandished the pistol and in two seconds fired six rounds at Reagan from a distance of approximately fifteen feet.
Brady, who had turned towards the reporters at the rope, was struck in the forehead above the left eye. Police officer Thomas Delahanty received a minor neck wound. Stationed at the limousine, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy turned to place his body between the president and the shooter and was hit in the chest, the bullet passing through lung, diaphragm and liver. A fourth bullet ricocheted off a side panel of the Lincoln and struck Reagan, entering his body below the raised arm, glancing off a rib into the lower left lung. Jerry Parr, chief of the presidential protection detail, shoved Reagan into the limousine, which sped off as Secret Service agents and police officers wrestled Hinckley to the pavement.
When the president complained of difficulty breathing and began coughing up blood, Agent Parr directed the limousine to George Washington University Hospital, only minutes away. Reagan walked into the hospital without assistance -- only to collapse once inside. He was rushed into an emergency unit. There it was discovered, for the first time, that he had been shot; Reagan had initially assumed that he'd cracked a rib when Agent Parr propelled him into the limousine. The trauma team administered oxygen and began blood transfusions through several arterial lines, trying to stabilize the president's dangerously low systolic pressure. A pair of tubes were inserted to relieve pressure on the pleural cavity. But Reagan continued to lose blood at an alarming rate -- 1200cc per hour. (In all, he lost half his total blood supply.) An emergency thoracotomy was performed in Operating Room 2 to remove the bullet lodged deeply in lung tissue. Reagan's condition stabilized following the two-hour operation.
News of the shooting traumatized the country. People wondered if this was just one more in a string of national disasters signifying the inevitable decline of American exceptionalism and the inexorable unraveling of American society. There had been the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; there had been the Watergate disgrace, the Vietnam debacle, the OPEC oil crisis, the Iranian hostage situation, and the Great Inflation of the Seventies. Would it never end? But Reagan's quick recovery -- all the more remarkable for the fact that he was a 70-year-old man -- seemed to symbolize a renewal of American invincibility. His job approval rating rose to 73 percent as his courage and humor earned him the admiration of all. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he lightheartedly told his wife Nancy, hoping to ease her anxiety, and said "Please tell me you are all Republicans!" to the doctors as he was wheeled into the operating room. "Does Nancy know about us?" he joked with a recovery room nurse who watched over him all night. Also encouraging was the miraculous survival of James Brady; surgeons had to perform a craniotomy on the popular press secretary, removing 20 percent of his right frontal lobe, resulting in loss of control on the left side of the body. Within weeks Brady was sitting up in his hospital bed, wisecracking with doctors and visitors. Agent McCarthy and Officer Delahanty recovered from their wounds.
The effective manner in which the White House handled the crisis and the president's subsequent 12-day hospital stay brought attention to the talents of the "Troika," the president's three closest aides -- counselor Edwin Meese III, chief of staff James A Baker III, and deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver. With reassuring calm and confidence, Vice-President George Bush ably substituted for Reagan at official functions. But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig bore the brunt of considerable criticism. Concerned that the media might get the impression that the White House was in disarray the afternoon of the shooting, Haig barged into a nationally-televised press briefing to assure the nation that "I am in control, here." Perspiring, his voice shaky, Haig did not appear in control at all, and gave many Americans cause to worry about the continuity of stable leadership during those first few critical hours. William Safire opined in the pages of the New York Times that Haig was the only White House official who "choked up." Haig's volatile, outspoken and at times arrogant personality had already antagonized others in the administration. Fifteen months later he would be replaced as secretary of state by the thoughtful and phlegmatic George Shultz, and some pointed to his performance in the White House press room that day as the beginning of the end for Haig.
John Hinckley was an Oklahoma-born loner who came from a wealthy family, growing up in the upper-class Dallas, Texas neighborhood of Highland Park. His father was a self-made man successful in the oil business, while his older brother Scott became vice-president of their father's firm. According to some, Hinckley's emotional problems stemmed from his failure to live up to his family's and his own expectations. Unable to hold down a job, he drifted around the country, dabbling in neo-Nazism and becoming obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, who starred in the filmTaxi Driver. The movie's title character plots to kill a presidential candidate to impress a young prostitute played by Foster. In a bizarre attempt to make life imitate art, Hinckley decided to kill a president to impress the actress. In October 1980 he was arrested at Nashville Airport when three handguns were found in his luggage; that same day President Jimmy Carter was making a campaign appearance in Nashville. Hinckley was fined $62.50 and released.
Wandering from Dallas to Denver to New Haven, Connecticut -- where Jodie Foster was attending classes at Yale, and where on at least one occasion Hinckley stalked her on campus -- the would-be-assassin arrived in Washington D.C. on March 29 after a three-day bus ride from Los Angeles. He checked into the Park Central Hotel, right across 18th Street from the headquarters of the Secret Service. In a last letter to Foster he wrote: I'm asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me a chance, with this historical deed, to gain your love and respect. Finding the president's schedule published in a newspaper, Hinckley took a taxi to the Washington Hilton the following day and attempted to end Reagan's life. A Washington D.C. jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity; judged criminally insane, he was confined to the maximum-security ward at St. Elizabeth's, a psychiatric hospital, with the right to petition the court every six months for a hearing to determine his fitness for release back into society. In subsequent years several petitions were made. In 1987, Hinckley applied for leave to visit his family at Easter, but a judge-ordered search of his room revealed that he was still obsessed with Foster and had exchanged letters with serial killer Ted Bundy; his application was denied. In 1997, after a four-day evidentiary hearing, a judge concluded that Hinckley was still a danger to himself and others. The St. Elizabeth's review board refused to support his release, and Hinckley lost an appeal the following year.
The assassination attempt spurred renewed calls for gun control in the United States. James Brady and his wife Sarah lobbied tirelessly for stronger gun laws, and in 1993 the "Brady Bill," requiring a waiting period and background checks on handgun purchases, was signed into law. The shooting of the president also provoked plaintive hand-wringing about the ubiquity of violence in American society.