There have been a slew of attempted presidential assassinations throughout American history, and while the four successful ones have always rocked the country to its core — Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy — even failed attempts sear themselves into the national consciousness. It's a reminder of just how perilous and touch and go this whole commander-in-chief thing is, even though it's been 35 years since the last time a sitting president was wounded in an attempt on their life. And if you've ever wondered what happened to attempted Reagan assassin John Hinckley, who critically wounded the 40th president just months into his first term, you might be surprised what he's up to.
Of course, in a more general sense, you might be surprised that he's up to anything at all — trying to kill a president is the sort of action that could get you fast-tracked for the death penalty, but that's not what happened. Hinckley, now 60 years old, approached and fired upon the freshly elected President Ronald Reagan outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of March 30, 1981, though mercifully, he failed to kill anybody. Reagan was badly wounded by a bullet to his chest, however, and his press secretary James Brady (later the namesake of the Brady Bill) was shot in the head. He never fully recovered, and died in 2014 from complications related to the injury.
Hinckley was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity, a case that was buoyed by his widely reported obsession with actor Jodie Foster, whose attention he'd hoped to get by killing Reagan. He was subsequently sent to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., for psychiatric care, and remained there for decades.
But that's not where the story ends: In recent years, he's been granted an increasing amount of freedom and autonomy. Back in 1999, Hinckley was first approved for supervised departures from St. Elizabeth's, and in 2000 he was even cleared for unsupervised visits too, before a copy of a book about Foster was discovered in his room. Given his past history of violent obsession with the star actor/director, he was prohibited from possessing any materials about her, and the book's discovery resulted in his outside trips being curtailed.
Now, however, he's climbed all the way back. As of 2013, mental health authorities have permitted Hinckley to take up to eight trips per year to stay with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia, amid a fierce debate about the state of his mental health. Some zealous law and order advocates were (and continue to be) outraged that Hinckley is allowed out at all. Even the initial 1982 court decision that found him insane, thus keeping him out of prison, drew furious condemnation at the time, and spurred laws that weakened the insanity defense. In March, on the 35th anniversary of the shooting, conservative website The Daily Caller reported disdainfully on the opulence of his mother's residence, where he stays when outside.
That all said, it seems as though things are going better and better for the attempted assassin. In April, Hinckley's attorney Barry Levine told Quartz that his client has recovered fully from the mental illnesses that led to him shooting Reagan. Specifically, he said Hinckley has "been found by the court to be in full and stable remission for decades," called him "harmless," and blamed the reluctance to release him on the political gravity of his crime.
The likelihood of danger is remote in the extreme. This is an easy one in some respects. Yet the political fallout of the crime is so great that these experiments in freedom, which the court has continued to allow, have been very incremental and slow.
While it's far too soon to say whether Hinckley will actually be granted his freedom in the months or years to come, you can bet it'll be headlining and very hotly debated news if he is. As Timothy Phelps of the Los Angeles Times noted last year, if Hinckley is indeed released, he'd become the first person to gain their freedom after shooting an American president.