News Column

Lasting Change 30 Years After Reagan Shooting

March 30, 2011

By William M. Welch

Today is the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, when a deranged young man with a gun forever altered how the nation protects its presidents and handles the criminally insane.

John Hinckley was 25, a college dropout desperate to make a name for himself, when he fired .22-caliber bullets from a revolver, intending to kill President Reagan as he exited a Washington, D.C., hotel on a gray spring afternoon, March 30, 1981.

He failed to kill the president, who recovered from a grave bullet wound to the chest and went on to serve two full terms in office.

Hinckley wounded three others, leaving Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, with a devastating gunshot wound to the head that to this day keeps him in a wheelchair. Also injured: a Secret Service agent and a police officer.

The debate over gun control, including the threat posed by guns in the hands of the mentally ill, remains a relevant and unsettled issue three decades later.

Brady became a leader in the push for stricter gun laws, along with his wife, Sarah. In 1993, President Clinton signed into law the "Brady Bill" named in his honor. It required a waiting period and background check on handgun purchases through licensed dealers.

The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in January revived memories of the Reagan assassination attempt. Like Brady, Giffords survived and is recovering from a grievous bullet wound to the head. And, as in the case three decades ago, her accused assailant was a lone young man with a gun and a background of mental instability.

Secret Service twice as big

The attempt on Reagan's life, on his 70th day in the White House, led to lasting changes in the way the Secret Service protects presidents.

Edwin Donovan, special agent and spokesman for the service, said it conducted a thorough re-examination of security procedures after Reagan was shot. Although the Secret Service does not discuss specific tactics, Donovan said the events led to significant changes.

For one, the Secret Service was expanded and today has more than twice as many agents. In 1981, the Secret Service had 1,550 special agents, as they're known. Today there are 3,500.

Presidents don't enter and leave buildings in the same way Reagan did that day: through a portico in full view of the public to a waiting car. Now arrivals and departures of the president at event sites are closed to the public.

"Quite obviously, they weren't at that time," Donovan says.

In an attempt to keep guns away from the president, the Secret Service began using metal detectors, called magnetometers, to screen people and search for weapons at presidential appearances, Donovan says.

"They weren't used as extensively at that time as they are today," he says. "Nowadays we secure thousands of sites for the president and vice president each year. We put millions of people through magnetometers at the White House and every venue the president and vice president travel to."

Donovan also says the agency incorporates far more technology into its countermeasures for protecting the president against threats.

"We spend more money and devote more assets to our protective mission than ever before in our history," he says.

Fast action by the Secret Service got Reagan securely into the car before even the president realized he had been shot, and he was whisked away to George Washington University Hospital. Reagan was even able to joke with the doctors who saved his life. A deflected bullet had entered his chest below his left arm and lodged close to his heart.

Hinckley, from a wealthy oil-business family, fired six shots from a revolver after after blending in with photographers and reporters and drawing within 15 to 20 feet of the president. After a trial in June 1982, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution in Washington, D.C., where he remains a resident. He is released periodically for family visits.

Agents 'performed flawlessly'

In a 2002 book, Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmatic Agency, author Philip Melanson recounts how internal reviews uncovered shortcomings in agency procedures that were brought to light by the assassination attempt.

"John W. Hinckley, the man who had nearly killed the president and whose actions set off a firestorm of questions about the service's protective performance, turned out to be a deeply disturbed young man with fantasies of a love affair with actress Jodie Foster," Melanson wrote.

"The third unsuccessful presidential assassination attempt in six years, Hinckley's attempt compelled the Secret Service to examine every aspect of its March 30, 1981, performance. The agency had constantly implored the genial Reagan not to pause and chat with the press during his exits. ...

"In the aftermath of the shooting, agents tightened security. The president exited events through parking garages instead of out on the street, and the press was kept at much greater distance, which meant fewer opportunities to ask questions of him. Decoy limousines were used on subsequent trips to the Hilton to confuse bystanders as to where the president would exit," he wrote.

Among other changes, the book noted, Reagan began wearing a bulletproof overcoat, and details of the president's daily itinerary were no longer made public.

Agency review showed that the agents who were protecting the president "performed flawlessly" in removing him from the scene within 10 seconds of the shooting, Melanson wrote.

The jury's verdict for Hinckley brought public outcry over the insanity defense and prompted hearings in Congress that led to a 1984 law limiting use of the defense in federal cases. Many states adopted similar changes, according to a report by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

"During the three years following the Hinckley acquittal," the report said, "Congress and half of the states enacted changes in the insanity defense, all limiting use of the defense."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2011

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