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The Reagan Assassination Attempt

Ronald Reagan became the ninth U.S. President targeted for a known assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. While would-be assassins each have their own reasons for attempting to kill the Commander-in-Chief, Reagan’s assailant arguably had the oddest motivation. John Hinckley, Jr. wanted to kill Reagan to catch the attention of movie actress Jodie Foster.

Born on May 29, 1955, Hinckley had a seemingly typical American upbringing. He played football in high school and went to college for a time. In the late 1970s, however, his life entered a period of ups and downs. He returned to his parents’ home several times after unsuccessful attempts to strike out on his own. During this time, he also developed a fascination with weapons…and Jodie Foster.

Foster was just 14 years old when she took on the Oscar-nominated role of Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute in the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. Hinckley became enamored with Foster, watching the movie repeatedly. He also began collecting guns, apparently in emulation of Travis, the Robert De Niro character who saves Iris from a continued life of prostitution.

When Foster began attending Yale University in 1980, Hinckley saw his chance to contact her. He moved to New England and enrolled in a writing course at Yale, financed by his parents, to be closer to her. During this time, he wrote Foster numerous letters that he left at her residence. He even succeeded in speaking to her on the phone a couple of times. During these conversations, taped by Hinckley, Foster explained to him that she felt it was dangerous to speak to people she did not know. This apparent dismissal made Hinckley believe extraordinary action would be required to convince Foster of his love for her.

Drawing again on Taxi Driver, Hinckley decided to one-up Travis’s attempted assassination of a presidential candidate by assassinating the sitting President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. He followed Carter and was arrested on weapons charges in Nashville, Tennessee. After his failure to assassinate Carter, Hinckley became depressed and began seeing a psychiatrist.

Soon afterwards, Carter was succeeded by actor and former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Hinckley shifted his focus to assassinating the new President. On March 30, 1981, Hinckley made his move, firing six times at Reagan as the President exited the Washington, D.C. Hilton Hotel. Two of Hinckley’s shots missed completely and one ricocheted and wounded Reagan. The other bullets directly hit police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy and White House Press Secretary James Brady. All would recover, though Brady’s head wound led to permanent partial disablement, including confinement to a wheelchair.

Like Mark David Chapman, killer of John Lennon with whom Hinckley also identified strongly, Hinckley did not flee the scene. He was taken into custody without incident and his trial began in 1982. During the trial, Hinckley’s defense pleaded insanity, citing his increasing involvement in a fantasy world that led him to New York to “rescue” prostitutes and to sign his name to hotel logs as “J. Travis.” Despite strong arguments by the prosecution that Hinckley’s premeditation, including his stalking of Carter, indicated sanity, the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Hinckley was sent to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Mentally Ill.

The year 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Hinckley’s assassination attempt. President Reagan passed away in 2004, after a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Brady has improved over the years but still suffers disabilities related to his shooting. He has also been a leading force in the fight for handgun control, with the Brady Bill implementing federal background checks for gun purchasers, bearing his name. Delahanty sustained permanent nerve damage to his left arm, which forced his retirement from the police force. McCarthy made a full recovery and went on to become Chief of Police in Orland Park, IL.

Hinckley remains a patient at St. Elizabeths. Over the years, he has gained more freedoms, including leaves of up to ten days to visit his mother and permission to obtain a driver’s license. Hospital staff does not supervise these leaves, but the Secret Service monitors Hinckley during his times out and victims and family members are notified as well. The object of his obsession, Jodie Foster, continues to act. She won Oscars for 1988's The Accused and 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.


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