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Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan

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Every single day changes history in some manner. Every single day creates new history. In a world where many of the things that are crucial to our survival are being depleted day-by-day, history is the one thing that is being created daily. As historians, it is our job to remember those days. Not just days like December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001, days that changed the course of our planet in obvious ways, but all the other days, too, that altered our way of life in more subtle ways. Days such as March 30, 1981.

March 30, 1981 started out as a day like many others of the times. Years after the end of the Vietnam War, America found itself divided once again. Americans were still staggering after the energy crisis of the late 1970's. A stand-off with Iran over 52 American hostages who had been held captive for 444 days had damaged the country's pride. And looming over the entire country, and the world, was the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cold War raged on. Just 69 days earlier, Americans had installed a new president who they hoped would lead the way to a re-unified country and a return to a world without fear. On the morning of March 30, 1981 President Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor and governor of California, was just getting his policies in place and beginning the task that Americans had set out for him. (Rawhide)

Just blocks away, however, a young man named John W. Hinkley Jr. was also looking to make his mark on the world. What would make Hinkley known to the world, though, was his misguided love for a different movie star, his hand in possibly breaking an age-old curse, his incredibly bad aim and his small role in removing the Planet Earth from the brink of nuclear devastation.

On that cool spring morning, Hinkley awoke with no plan to change history running through his mind. He was in love, although the object of his affection had no interest in him whatsoever. Like young men and boys across the globe, John Hinkley had fallen in love with an unattainable girl. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970's, Hinkley became infatuated with the movie "Taxi Driver" and especially with its young star, Jodie Foster, who portrayed a 12 year old prostitute in the film. Hinkley saw the movie at least 15 times, coming to identify with the main character in the movie, Travis Bickle. Bickle protects Foster's young prostitute throughout the movie and, towards the end of the movie, attempts to assassinate a United States Senator who is running for president. With his love for Foster growing in his heart, Hinkley began a campaign to win her affections and began following her across the country. He wrote her letters and called her on the phone twice. When he read in People magazine that she had enrolled in Yale University, he enrolled in a writing course there in order to be close to her. Although Foster made it clear to him that she was not interested, Hinkley would not be deterred and set out to make himself famous to win her over. (Notes)

In October 1980, security officials at Nashville International Airport arrested John Hinkley when they found him in possession of an illegal firearm. Although the arrest was reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI failed to make an important connection: President Jimmy Carter was making a campaign stop in Nashville at the time. The FBI never contacted the Secret Service about Hinkley and, after he was released, his parents put him under the treatment of a psychologist. (Notes)

March 30, 1981 found Hinkley still in pursuit of Foster. His travels had brought him to Washington D.C. where he spent the morning eating breakfast at McDonalds and reading the Washington Star. On page A4, he found a schedule of President Reagan's activities for the day. Hinkley made a decision, it was time to become famous and earn Foster's devotion. Knowing he may not survive to the end of the day, he returned to his room at the Park Central Hotel and penned a final letter to Foster. (Notes)

"There is definitely a possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan," he wrote. "I will admit to you that the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you. I've got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I'm doing all of this for your sake! By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I'm asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your love and respect. I love you forever." (Rawhide)

Leaving the letter in his room instead of dropping it into a mailbox, Hinkley loaded the Rohm RG-14 .22 caliber blue steel revolver that he had purchased at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas, Texas with six "Devastator" bullets. The bullets contained small aluminum and lead explosive charges designed to explode on impact. With the gun in his pocket, Hinkley slipped into the small crowd waiting outside the Washington Hilton, where Reagan was giving a lunch-time speech to members of the AFL-CIO. Reagan entered the hotel a 1:45 p.m. Almost forty-five minutes later, the speech was over and the president, along with a small group of aides and Secret Service protective detail members, prepared to head back to the White House. At 2:27 p.m., Reagan stepped out of the hotel's T Street north-west exit and quickly walked towards his waiting limousine. As always the president is smiling, waving toward a female admirer that is calling his name. At the same moment, John Hinkley is reaching into his pocket, drawing the revolver and forcing his gun hand through the crowd and towards the president. (Rawhide)

Reagan is only steps from the safety of his armored limousine when the first shot rings out. Although Hinkley is only feet away from the president, all six shots that he fires miss their intended target. The first pull of the trigger sends a bullet into the head of White House Press Secretary James Brady. The second bullet strikes District of Columbia Police Officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. The third shot sails over the head of the president and hits a window of the building across the street. Shot number four strikes Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, who had turned to face the gunman in an effort to protect the president, in the abdomen. The fifth hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open side door of the president's limousine. The sixth and final shot strikes the side of the car and ricochets. As the bullet strikes the car, the explosive charge inside of it detonates, sending fragments of the bullet in different directions. One of the fragments strikes the president



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