Editor’s Note: Nationwide background checks, limitations on firearm designs, the type of firearms that can be bought and sold, ammunition capacities and bullet design are all currently hot topics in the United States, and the opposing sides are strongly polarized. Today we look back on an event that occurred 40 years ago – an event that would forever impact the lives of those involved, and on a wider scale, impact anyone with any interest in owning firearms or an equal interest in making it difficult for others to own firearms.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At 2:27 on the afternoon of March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot and wounded the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, in a failed assassination attempt. The incident occurred just seventy days after the Presidential Inauguration and would result in the eventual passage of legislation supported by Reagan, albeit reluctantly.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a law requiring federal background checks for all firearm purchases, was named in honor of Presidential Press Secretary James Brady, who was severely wounded in the attack and left with permanent brain damage and physical disabilities.
On that afternoon, the President gave a luncheon speech to AFL-CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton. It was considered the safest venue in DC, as it had been used over 100 times before for similar functions in the previous decades. Veteran Secret Service agents were intimately familiar with the setting. It also featured an enclosed “President’s Walk”, which was added to the hotel following the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.
The Secret Service had often required the President, and its agents, to wear bulletproof vests; however, March30, 1981 was not one of those days.
Classifying it as a low-risk event because they would only be exposed to the public for thirty feet from the hotel to the waiting limousine. While those attending the luncheon were screened by the Secret Service, the people allowed to stand outside the hotel behind a rope barrier were not…and some would be allowed within fifteen feet of the President and his entourage.
In the crowd on the sidewalk was Hinckley, who had taken a bus to DC and checked into the Park Central Hotel. Suffering from erotomania and obsessed with actress Jodie Foster whom he had seen in Taxi Driver, he was making his way to New Haven, Connecticut in an attempt to gain her attention. As fate would have it, he saw the President’s schedule published in The Washington Star and decided that this was an opportune time to act. He was convinced that thrusting himself into the national spotlight, by any means, would put him on par with Foster, who would then notice him.
As the President stepped from the safety of the hotel’s enclosed space, he waved at admirers as reporters shouted questions. He walked within 20 feet of Hinckley, and the would-be assassin drew a Rohm RG-14 revolver, firing six rounds of .22 long rifle in nine seconds. None of the rounds hit the President directly. The first round hit Brady just above his left eye and entered his brain cavity, and the small explosive charge of the bullet detonated inside his cranial cavity. The second round hit Metro DC police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of the neck, striking his spine and causing him to collapse on top of Brady.
A bystander who saw Hinckley fire the first two rounds, an Ohio labor official by the name of Alfred Antenucci, hit him in the head and began to wrestle him to the ground. At the same time, Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr grabbed the President by the shoulders and dove toward the open rear door of the limo, pushing the Commander in Chief ahead of him.
The third round missed entirely and hit the window of a building across the street. Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy then not only placed himself directly between Parr and the shooter but spread his arms and legs to make himself as large a target as humanly possible. His body stopped the fourth bullet, which is believed would have likely struck either Parr or the President. McCarthy was hit in the abdomen and the projectile’s path, once inside his body, resulted in injuries to his right lung, diaphragm, and liver.
The fifth round hit the bulletproof glass of the open rear door as Reagan and Parr passed behind it on the way into the limo, preventing either of them from being struck.
The sixth and final round ricocheted off of the armored limo’s steel skin, passed between the doorpost and the open door frame, and hit the President in the left underarm. The .22 bullet grazed a rib and lodged in his lung, stopping less than an inch from the heart of the world’s most powerful political leader, which must have been rapidly pounding.
Antenucci and another labor official, Frank J. McNamara, restrained Hinckley and began punching him in the head, to the point of drawing blood. Agent Dennis McCarthy (no relation to Tim McCarthy) wrote in his official report that he had to “strike two citizens” to force them to release the suspect.
Agent Robert Wanko produced an Uzi submachine gun from a briefcase and stood ready to defend any follow-up attacks as the President’s limo speed from the scene.
In less than four minutes, the limo arrived at George Washington University Hospital. A stretcher was not available at the Emergency Department entrance, so “Rawhide”, the code name for Reagan, exited the limo under his own power. With a bullet lodged in his lung less than an inch from his beating heart, he casually walked into the hospital, smiling at onlookers who had no idea that he had been wounded.
Reagan would later recount a personal introspective experience that he had just nine days before the attempt on his life. On March 21st, he and First Lady Nancy Reagan attended a fund-raising event at Ford’s Theater. 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.”
The gun Hinckley used was given to the ATF the day following the incident, and was traced to Rocky’s Pawn Shop in Dallas, Texas. The purchase was made on October 13, 1980. Hinckley lied on the purchase application, using a false home address and an outdated Texas driver’s license to support the invalid address. He had also been arrested four days earlier at the Metropolitan Airport in Nashville, Tennessee after attempting to board an American Airlines flight for New York with three handguns and some loose ammunition in his bag. Oddly enough, then-President Jimmy Carter was in Nashville and traveling to New York on the same day, though it is not known what, if any, plans Hinkley had that may or may not have involved the President. Hinckley had also been treated for psychiatric care prior to the purchase at Rocky’s, a fact that the gun dealer obviously had no knowledge of.
The six .22 caliber cartridges used were the “Devastator” brand, which had small explosive charges of aluminum and lead azide designed to detonate on impact integrated into the bullet. The round that struck Brady was the only one of the six that functioned as intended. Concern for the bullet lodged in Delahanty’s neck led to a surgery performed by medical staff in bulletproof vests who had volunteered for the assignment.
The President returned to a limited work schedule in less than a month, and on April 28th, just twenty-nine days after the attempt on his life, he spoke to the joint houses of Congress concerning the business of the American people.
Thomas Delahanty recovered but was forced to retire from the Metropolitan Police Department due to disability related to left arm nerve damage that he was left with following the shooting. Timothy McCarthy fully recovered and returned to work.
Jerry Parr was hailed as a hero and received Congressional commendations for his actions. In his autobiography, he would refer to March 30, 1981 as both the best and the worst day of his life. He believed that God had directed his entire life’s journey to enable him to be in the place and moment that allowed him to protect the President’s life. He retired from the Secret Service four years later and became a pastor, dying at the age of 85 from congestive heart failure.
James Brady survived the attack and was left with slurred speech and partial paralysis that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He died on August 4, 2014 at the age of 73, thirty-three years after the day that changed his life forever.
During those three decades, Brady and his wife, Sarah became leading advocates of gun control. Sarah Brady was adamant that the assassination attempt would never had occurred if a background check had been performed on Hinkley during his transaction with the Dallas pawn shop. After years of work, their efforts resulted in the enactment of The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act on November 30, 1993, twelve years after the shooting that could have easily taken Brady’s life.
Commonly referred to as the Brady Act or Brady Bill, it was an Act of the United States Congress that mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a five-day waiting period on all purchases. Originally introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by then Representative Charles E. Schumer in March 1991, the bill failed to make it to the House floor for a vote. Nevertheless, that same month, on the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt, the President spoke on the issue.
Just months before the attempt on his life, then President-Elect Reagan reacted to the shooting death of John Lennon, expressing his opposition to increased handgun control. He even reiterated his position after his own shooting, but on March 30, 1991, he publicly stated his position on the Brady Bill.
“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.
Schumer reintroduced the bill on February 22, 1993 and the final version was passed on November 11, 1993. President Bill Clinton signed it into law on November 30, 1993 and it became effective on February 28, 1994.
The National Rifle Association strongly opposed the legislation from its earliest mention in 1987 and spent millions of dollars in doing so. Although the NRA was unsuccessful in stopping the bill, it did manage to get one very important, and now often forgotten, concession. The final version of the bill allowed that the five-day waiting period for handgun sales would be replaced in five years by an instant computerized background check that would eliminate any waiting period.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System that resulted from the hard-won concession gained by the NRA was implemented in November 1988. NICS statistics released by the FBI through February 2021 indicate that 380,459,962 inquiries have been processed in the twenty-two years since its inception. It is believed that over three million people have been denied a purchase permit or refused the purchase of a handgun. Over one-third of these denials were based on prior felony convictions.
This is not intended to be a left/right, pro-gun/anti-gun article. The purpose of this article is to tell the story of why and how background checks became a way of life in the United States.
According to recent statistics, fifty-seven percent of gun owners are under the age of fifty…meaning that most of them were not yet born when the assassination attempt occurred, and if alive, they were nine or younger and likely do not recall or did not understand the details and implications of the main event and the resulting actions.
There have been many, many other events that have had the potential to change history as it relates to firearm ownership in the United States, but arguably none have equaled the impact of the events that occurred in our nation’s capital on March 30, 1981.