Hinckley's motivation for the attack was born of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster because of erotomania. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970s, he saw the film Taxi Driver at least 15 times, apparently identifying strongly with Travis Bickle, the lead character portrayed by Robert De Niro. The arc of the story involves Bickle's attempts to protect a 12-year-old child prostitute, played by Foster. Towards the end of the film, Bickle attempts to assassinate a United States Senator who is running for president. Over the following years, Hinckley trailed Foster around the country, going so far as to enroll in a writing course at Yale University in 1980 after reading in People magazine that she was a student there. He wrote numerous letters and notes to her in late 1980. He called her twice and refused to give up when she indicated that she was not interested in him.
Convinced that by becoming a national figure he would be Foster's equal, Hinckley decided to emulate Bickle and 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—but was arrested in October 1980 at Nashville International Airport for illegal possession of firearms; though Carter made a campaign stop there, the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not connect this arrest to the President and did not notify the United States Secret Service. His parents briefly put him under the treatment of a psychiatrist. Subsequently, Hinckley turned his attention to Ronald Reagan whose election, he told his parents, would be good for the country. 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, which sought to track Hinckley down but failed.
On March 21, 1981, Ronald Reagan, the new President of the United States, visited Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. with his wife Nancy for a fundraising event. He recalled, "I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation ... I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to the president to shoot him."
Hinckley arrived in Washington on March 28, by bus and checked into the Park Central Hotel. He noticed Reagan's schedule listed in The Washington Star, and decided it was time to act. Knowing that he might not survive shooting the president, Hinckley wrote but did not mail a letter to Foster about two hours prior to the assassination attempt, saying that he hoped to impress her with the magnitude of his action and that he would "abandon the idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you."
On March 30, Reagan delivered a luncheon address to AFL–CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The hotel was considered the safest in Washington because of its secure, enclosed passageway called "President's Walk", built after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Reagan entered the building through the passageway around 1:45 p.m., waving to a crowd of news media and citizens. While the Secret Service had made him wear a bulletproof vest for some events, Reagan did not wear one for the speech as his only public exposure would be the 30 feet (9 m) between the hotel and his limousine, and the agency did not require vests for its agents that day. No one saw Hinckley behave in an unusual way; witnesses who reported him as "fidgety" and "agitated" apparently confused Hinckley with another person there that the Secret Service was monitoring.
At 2:27 p.m., as Reagan exited the hotel through "President's Walk" and its T Street NW exit toward his waiting limousine, Hinckley waited within the crowd of admirers. While the Secret Service extensively screened those attending the president's speech, in a "colossal mistake" the agency allowed an unscreened group to stand within 15 ft (4.6 m) of him, behind a rope line. Unexpectedly, Reagan passed right in front of Hinckley. Believing he would never get a better chance, Hinckley fired a Röhm RG-14 .22LR blue steel revolver six times in 1.7 seconds, missing the president with all but one shot. The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head and the second hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan. 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 Tim McCarthy in the abdomen as he spread his body over Reagan to make himself a target. 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 the left underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, causing it to partially collapse, and stopping less than an inch (25 mm) from his heart. Parr's prompt reaction had saved Reagan from being hit in the head.
After the shooting, Alfred Antenucci, a Cleveland, Ohio, labor official who stood nearby Hinckley, was the first to respond. He saw the gun and hit Hinckley in the head, pulling the shooter down to the ground. Within two seconds agent Dennis McCarthy (no relation to agent Timothy McCarthy) dove onto Hinckley as others threw him to the ground; intent on protecting Hinckley to avoid what happened to Lee Harvey Oswald, McCarthy had to "strike two citizens" to force them to release him. Agent Robert Wanko (misidentified as "Steve Wanko" in a newspaper report) took an Uzi submachine gun from a briefcase to cover the President's evacuation and to deter a potential group attack.
Hinckley's gun was given to the ATF the day after the shooting to trace its origin. In just 16 minutes, agents found that the gun had been purchased at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas, Texas. It had been loaded with six "Devastator" brand cartridges which contained small aluminum and lead azide explosive charges designed to explode on contact; the bullet that hit Brady was the only one that exploded. On April 2, after learning that the others could explode at any time, volunteer doctors wearing bulletproof vests removed the bullet from Delahanty's neck.
After the Secret Service first announced "shots fired" over its radio network at 2:27 p.m. Reagan—codename "Rawhide"—was taken away by the agents in the limousine ("Stagecoach"). At first, no one knew that he had been shot, and Parr stated that "Rawhide is OK...we're going to Crown" (the White House), as he preferred its medical facilities to an unsecured hospital.
In great pain from the bullet hitting a rib, Reagan believed that the rib had cracked when Parr pushed him into the limousine. When the agent checked him for gunshot wounds, however, Reagan coughed up bright, frothy blood. Although the president believed that he had cut his lip, Parr believed that the cracked rib had punctured Reagan's lung and ordered the motorcade to divert to nearby George Washington University Hospital, which the Secret Service periodically inspected for use. The limousine arrived there less than four minutes after leaving the hotel, while other agents took Hinckley to a DC jail, and Nancy Reagan ("Rainbow") left the White House for the hospital.
Although Parr had requested a stretcher, none was ready at the hospital, and it did not normally keep a stretcher at the emergency room's entrance. Reagan exited the limousine and insisted on walking. Reagan acted casual and smiled at onlookers as he walked in. While he entered the hospital unassisted, once inside the president complained of difficulty breathing, his knees buckled, and he went down on one knee; Parr and others assisted him into the emergency room. The Physician to the President, Daniel Ruge, arrived with Reagan; believing that the president might have had a heart attack, he insisted that the hospital's trauma team, and not he himself or specialists from elsewhere, operate on him as it would treat any other patient. When a hospital employee asked Reagan aide Michael Deaver for the patient's name and address, only when Deaver stated "1600 Pennsylvania" did the worker realize that the president of the United States was in the emergency room.
The team, led by Joseph Giordano, cut off Reagan's "thousand dollar" custom-made suit to examine him, much to Reagan's anger. Military officers, including the one who carried the nuclear football, unsuccessfully tried to prevent FBI agents from confiscating the suit, Reagan's wallet, and other possessions as evidence; the Gold Codes card was in the wallet, and the FBI did not return it until two days later. The medical personnel found that Reagan's systolic blood pressure was 60 versus the normal 140, indicating that he was in shock, and knew that most 70-year-olds in the president's condition did not survive. Reagan was in excellent physical health, however, and also was shot by the .22 caliber instead of the larger .38 as was first feared. They treated him with intravenous fluids, oxygen, tetanus toxoid, and chest tubes, and surprised Parr—who still believed that he had cracked the president's rib—by finding the entrance gunshot wound. Brady and the wounded agent McCarthy were operated on near the president; when his wife arrived in the emergency room, Reagan remarked to her, "Honey, I forgot to duck", borrowing boxer Jack Dempsey's line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney. While intubated, he scribbled to a nurse, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia", borrowing W. C. Fields' line. Although Reagan came close to death, the team's quick action—and Parr's decision to drive to the hospital instead of the White House—likely saved the president's life, and within 30 minutes Reagan left the emergency room for surgery with normal blood pressure.
The chief of thoracic surgery, Benjamin L. Aaron, decided to perform a thoracotomy lasting 105 minutes because the bleeding persisted. Ultimately, Reagan lost over half of his blood volume in the emergency room and during surgery, which removed the bullet. In the operating room, Reagan removed his oxygen mask to joke, "I hope you are all Republicans." The doctors and nurses laughed, and Giordano, a liberal Democrat, replied, "Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans." Reagan's post-operative course was complicated by fever, which was treated with multiple antibiotics. The surgery was routine enough that they predicted Reagan would be able to leave the hospital in two weeks and return to work at the Oval Office within a month.
A few days before the shooting, Vice President George H. W. Bush received the assignment of running crisis management in case of emergency despite Secretary of State Alexander Haig's objection. When the White House learned of the assassination attempt, however, Bush was over Texas aboard Air Force Two, which did not have secure voice communications, and his discussions with the White House were intercepted and given to the press. The vice president was notified in Fort Worth, Texas of the shooting within eight minutes, but relying on the initial reports that Reagan was unharmed his plane flew to Austin for a speech. After learning that the president was wounded, Air Force Two refueled in Austin before returning to Washington in what its pilot described as the fastest speed in the plane's history.
White House Counsel Fred Fielding immediately prepared for a transfer of presidential powers under the 25th Amendment, and Chief of Staff James A. Baker and Counselor to the President Edwin Meese went to Reagan's hospital still believing that the president was unharmed. Within five minutes of the shooting, members of the Cabinet began gathering in the White House Situation Room. Haig, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and National Security Advisor Richard Allen, discussed various issues, including the location of the nuclear football, the apparent presence of more than the usual number of Soviet submarines unusually close off the Atlantic coast, a possible Soviet invasion of Poland against the Solidarity movement, and the presidential line of succession. Although normally no tape recorders are allowed in the Situation Room these meetings were recorded with the participants' knowledge by Allen, and the tapes have since been made public.
The group obtained a duplicate nuclear football and Gold Codes card, and kept it in the situation room. (Reagan's football was still with the officer at the hospital, and Bush also had a card and football.) The participants discussed whether to raise the military's alert status, and the importance of doing so without changing the DEFCON level, although the number of Soviet submarines proved to be normal. Upon learning that Reagan was in surgery, Haig declared, "the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here." However, Haig made an inaccurate statement. As the sitting Secretary of State, he was fourth behind Vice President Bush, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, and President pro tempore of the Senate Strom Thurmond in the line of succession and, under 3 U.S.C. § 19, those in front of him would have had to resign their positions to become acting president. Although others in the room knew that Haig's statement was constitutionally incorrect, they did not object at the time to avoid a confrontation.
At the same time, a press conference was underway in the White House. CBS reporter Lesley Stahl asked deputy press secretary Larry Speakes who was running the government, to which Speakes responded, "I cannot answer that question at this time." Upon hearing Speakes' remark, Haig scribbled out a note which was passed to Speakes, ordering him to leave the dais immediately. Moments later, Haig himself entered the briefing room, where he made the following controversial statement:
Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
Those in the situation room reportedly laughed when they heard him say "I am in control here". He later said,
I wasn't talking about transition. I was talking about the executive branch, who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not "Who is in line should the President die?"
Although Haig stated in the briefing room that "There are absolutely no alert measures that are necessary at this time or contemplated", while he spoke Weinberger raised the military's alert level. After Haig returned to the Situation Room, he objected to Weinberger doing so as it made him appear a liar. Weinberger and others accused Haig of exceeding his authority with his "I am in control" statement, while Haig defended himself by advising the others to "read the Constitution", saying that his comments did not involve "succession" and that he knew the "pecking order".
"Despite brief flare-ups and distractions," Allen recalled, "the crisis management team in the Situation Room worked well together. The congressional leadership was kept informed, and governments around the world were notified and reassured." Reagan's surgery ended at 6:20 p.m., although he did not regain consciousness until 7:30 p.m., so could not invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to make Bush acting president. The vice president arrived at the White House at 7:00 p.m., and did not invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. He stated on national television at 8:20 p.m.:
I can reassure this nation and a watching world that the American government is functioning fully and effectively. We've had full and complete communications throughout the day.
The assassination attempt was captured on video by several cameras, including those belonging to the Big Three television networks; ABC began airing footage at 2:42 p.m. All three networks erroneously reported that Brady had died. While the Cable News Network (CNN) did not have a camera of its own at the shooting it was able to use NBC's pool feed, and by staying on the story for 48 hours, the network, less than a year old, built a reputation for thoroughness. Shocked Americans gathered around television sets in homes and shopping centers. Some cited the alleged Curse of Tippecanoe, and others recalled the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Newspapers printed extra editions and used gigantic headlines; the United States Senate adjourned, interrupting debate of Reagan's economic proposals; and churches held prayer services.
Hinckley asked the arresting officers whether that night's Academy Awards ceremony would be postponed because of the shooting, and it was; the ceremony—for which former actor Reagan had taped a message—occurred the next evening. Because the president survived surgery with a good prognosis, the NCAA championship basketball game that day was not postponed, although the audience of 18,000 in Philadelphia held a moment of silence before the game. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined following the shooting before the New York Stock Exchange closed early, but the index rose the next day as Reagan recovered. Beyond having to postpone its Academy Awards broadcast, ABC temporarily renamed the lead character of The Greatest American Hero (which had debuted less than two weeks before) from "Ralph Hinkley" to "Hanley", and NBC postponed a forthcoming episode of Walking Tall titled "Hit Man".
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. Initially, he worked two hours a day in the White House's residential quarters, with meetings held there instead of the Oval Office. Reagan did not lead a Cabinet meeting until day 26, did not leave Washington until day 49, and did not hold a press conference until day 79. Ruge, the Physician to the President, thought recovery was not complete until October. Reagan's plans for the month after the shooting were canceled, including a visit to the Mission Control Center at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in April 1981 during STS-1, the first flight of the Space Shuttle. Vice President Bush instead called the orbiting astronauts during their mission. Reagan would visit Mission Control during STS-2 that November.
The attempt had great influence on Reagan's popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%. Reagan believed that God had spared his life so that he might go on to fulfill a greater purpose and, although not a Catholic, meetings with Mother Teresa, Cardinal Terence Cooke, and fellow shooting survivor Pope John Paul II reinforced his belief. Agent Parr came to believe that God had directed his life to save Reagan, and became a pastor.
Reagan returned to the Oval Office on April 25, receiving a standing ovation from staff and Cabinet members; referring to their teamwork in his absence, he insisted, "I should be applauding you." His first public appearance was an April 28 speech before the joint houses of Congress to introduce his planned spending cuts, a campaign promise. He received "two thunderous standing ovations", which the New York Times deemed "a salute to his good health" as well as his programs, which the president introduced using a medical recovery theme. Reagan installed a gym in the White House and began regularly exercising there, gaining so much muscle that he had to buy new suits. The shooting caused Nancy Reagan to be afraid for her husband's safety, however. She asked him to not run for reelection in 1984, and, because of her fears, began consulting astrologer Joan Quigley.
The two law enforcement officers recovered from their wounds, although Delahanty was forced to retire because of his injuries. The attack seriously wounded the President's Press Secretary, James Brady, who sustained a serious head wound and became permanently disabled. Brady remained as Press Secretary for the remainder of Reagan's administration, but this was primarily a titular role. Later, Brady and his wife Sarah became leading advocates of gun control and other actions to reduce the amount of gun violence in the United States. They also became active in the lobbying organization Handgun Control, Inc.—which would eventually be renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence—and founded the non-profit Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in 1993 as a result of their work. Brady died on August 4, 2014, in Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 73. His death was ruled a homicide, a consequence of this shooting.
The shooting of Reagan widened a debate on gun control in the U.S. that the death of John Lennon in December 1980 had started. Reagan expressed opposition to increased handgun control following Lennon's death and re-iterated his opposition after his own shooting. However, in a speech at an event marking the assassination attempt's 10th anniversary, Reagan endorsed the Brady Act:
"Anniversary" is a word we usually associate with happy events that we like to remember: birthdays, weddings, the first job. March 30, however, marks an anniversary I would just as soon forget, but cannot... four lives were changed forever, and all by a Saturday-night special – a cheaply made .22 caliber pistol – purchased in a Dallas pawnshop by a young man with a history of mental disturbance. This nightmare might never have happened if legislation that is before Congress now – the Brady bill – had been law back in 1981… If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land. And there would be a lot fewer families facing anniversaries such as the Bradys, Delahantys, McCarthys and Reagans face every March 30.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. The defense psychiatric reports had found him to be insane while the prosecution reports declared him legally sane. Following his lawyers' advice, he declined to take the stand in his own defense. Hinckley was confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. full-time until 2006, at which point he began a program of spending gradually more time at his mother's home. On September 10, 2016, Hinckley was permitted to permanently leave the hospital to live with his mother full-time, under court supervision and with mandatory psychiatric treatment. After his trial, he wrote that the shooting was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world", and did not then indicate regrets.
The not-guilty verdict led to widespread dismay, and, as a result, the U.S. Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense. The old Model Penal Code test was replaced by a test that shifts the burden of proof regarding a defendant's sanity from the prosecution to the defendant. Three states have abolished the defense altogether.
Jodie Foster was hounded relentlessly by the media in early 1981 because she was Hinckley's target of obsession. Since then, Foster has only commented on Hinckley on three occasions: a press conference a few days after the attack, an article she wrote in 1982, and during an interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes II in 1999; she has otherwise ended or canceled several interviews after the event was mentioned or if the interviewer was going to bring up Hinckley.
The "President's Walk", the unenclosed outer door from which Reagan had left the hotel shortly before being shot, was altered subsequent to the assassination attempt. The open canopy above the door was removed and a brick drive-through enclosure was constructed to allow the president to move directly from the door of his car into the hotel without public access.
During the 2010-2011 renovation done in preparation for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, installed a sound and photo diorama depicting the assassination attempt, and visitors are warned of startling gunshot effects.
Following James Brady's death on August 4, 2014, the District of Columbia Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide stemming from wounds caused by the Hinckley assassination attempt. This ruling raised the possibility that Hinckley could face additional future murder charges. However, prosecutors declined to do so for two reasons. First, a jury had already declared Hinckley insane at the time of the shooting and the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy would preclude overturning this ruling on account of Brady's death. Second, in 1981 Washington, D.C. still had the common law "year and a day" rule in place. Although the year and a day rule had been abolished in the district prior to 2014, the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto law would preclude the upgrading of charges for deaths resulting today from acts committed while the rule was in effect (and, for that matter, would also prohibit the government from challenging Hinkley's successful insanity defense based on the current federal law).
Two of the other servicemen shot during the assassination attempt recovered are still living. Thomas Delahanty recovered but suffered nerve damage, ending his career on the police force. He still resides in the Washington area. Timothy McCarthy recovered fully and received the NCAA Award of Valor in 1982 for his protection of President Reagan. Since 1994, he has served as the chief of police of Orland Park, Illinois. Jerry Parr received Congressional commendations for his actions during the assassination attempt, and was named as one of four "Top Cops" in the U.S. by Parade Magazine in 1981. Parr died in 2015 from heart failure.
The assassination attempt footage was shown in the 1982 movie Fighting Back in the film's opening credits newsroom scene as part of a documentary on violence since 1963 and was portrayed in the 2001 TV movie The Day Reagan Was Shot. James Brady's recovery was dramatized in the 1991 made-for-television film Without Warning: The James Brady Story starring Beau Bridges. The Reagan assassination was also a key plot point in the American Dad episode "The Best Christmas Story Never Told", where Stan Smith changes the cast of Taxi Driver, making Hinckley lose motivation to kill Reagan, and making America fall into the hands of the communists. After fixing the timeline, Stan learns that because he only shot Reagan there is no longer a Brady Bill in his time.
The attempt was also the key plot point in a 2013 episode of The Americans, a FX drama about KGB spies in the United States during the 1980s. An interactive fiction work named 1981 has also been made in this plot. News footage of the event was also featured in the 1994 film Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks.
Hinckley is also a character in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, which tells the story of various men and women who have attempted or succeeded to assassinate the president of the United States.
The band Devo based a song, "I Desire", on their 1982 album Oh, No! It's Devo from the writings of John Hinckley, published in the media at the time. Hinckley received songwriting credit on the album.
The film Perfect Blue alludes to the assassination attempt through characters comparing the protagonist to Jodie Foster as she acts in a TV drama resembling Silence of the Lambs. Throughout the film a stalker murders producers for the TV drama in attempt to win the attention and appreciation of the protagonist.
The TV Series The Greatest American Hero had as its principal character a teacher with the surname of Hinkley. After the assassination attempt, the character's name was changed to Hanley.