Freedom Is Too Good for Hinckley

Thirty years after he shot my father Ronald Reagan, he spends one-third of the year as a (mostly) free man

  • Ron Edmonds / AP

    On March 30, 1981, AP photographer Ron Edmonds made pictures of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan that would earn him the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.

    It's been 30 years since John W. Hinckley Jr. stood outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on a gray, misty day and tried to kill the President of the United States with a .22 caliber that he'd loaded with six Devastator bullets, designed to explode on impact.

    He is 55 now, younger than the four people he shot that day. One of his victims, the main target — my father — died more than six years ago. Three others remain. Former White House press secretary James Brady is 70. The most gravely wounded and the first one shot, he sustained a massive brain injury that left him paralyzed on one side and forever impaired. Timothy McCarthy, now 62, was a Secret Service agent trained to take a bullet for the person he was protecting. That's what he did. He dived across my father and was shot in the abdomen. Thomas Delahanty is 76. On March 30, 1981, he was a District of Columbia police officer. After being struck in the back by one of Hinckley's bullets, he was left with permanent nerve damage and was forced to retire.

    Hinckley was patient that day. At 1:45, he waved as my father stepped out of the limousine and walked into the hotel to deliver a speech. Then he waited. He had a girl in mind whom he wanted to impress. Surely, actress Jodie Foster would notice him if he assassinated the President. At 2:25, when my father walked back outside, Hinckley yelled, "President Reagan! President Reagan!" Then he crouched like a marksman and fired six shots. Four lives were changed in a matter of minutes, none more dramatically than Jim Brady's.

    "But there were other victims too," Sarah Brady tells me now, so many years later but so close to the wound. "Our son Scott was 2 years old then. The first time I took him to the hospital to see his father, Jim wailed — that awful sound he'd started making — and it frightened Scott so much, it was years before he felt comfortable around Jim."

    Jim Brady is now almost completely blind. He has spinal stenosis. Both are secondary conditions resulting from the bullet that tore into his brain 30 years ago. For the past year, he's been screaming in his sleep. Every night. Sarah doesn't know if he's having nightmares about the shooting, but she thinks it's likely.

    Hinckley's days at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast Washington are spent strolling around the grounds, feeding stray cats or going on supervised visits to the beach and bowling alleys. He plays his guitar and sits in the sun reading. He's had a job at the hospital library. He's had numerous girlfriends. The longest relationship was with Leslie deVeau, who was placed in St. Elizabeths in 1982 after she killed her 10-year-old daughter with a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun while the girl slept. She then tried to kill herself but only managed to shoot off her left arm. At one point, in 2008, Hinckley was reportedly involved with several women at once.

    Since 2000, Hinckley has been allowed unsupervised visits off hospital grounds. It began with overnight stays at his parents' house in Williamsburg, Va. Despite the government's objections and its argument that Hinckley still has a "narcissistic need" to impress women — a need that could again lead to violence — U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman has consistently sided with Hinckley's attorney, Barry Levine, and granted more and more freedom to the man who once called his assassination attempt "the greatest love offering in the history of the world."

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