On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was 69 days into his presidency. As he exited the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech, the president was struck by a bullet fired by John Hinckley, Jr. Three others were also shot - Press Secretary James Brady, Washington Police Officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy.
Everyone, including Reagan, survived the ordeal. Now, McCarthy and others reflect about how that day 30 years ago changed their lives and how U.S. presidents are protected.
On the rainy morning of March 30th, 1981, Secret Service Agents Tim McCarthy and Joe Trainor had paperwork to file. But they had both been briefed on protecting President Reagan that day during a visit to a Washington hotel. McCarthy knew one of them would have to put that paperwork off.
"So the shift leader, rather than pointing to one or the other [of us], since we had both been briefed, it’s probably more clichéd, flipped a coin [and said,] 'because one of the two of you have to fill that position'," he said.
Trainor won the toss and McCarthy was assigned to the protective detail. He says he was not excited about getting his new suit wet.
"It was a very new suit, so it wasn’t one of those cheap suits I had. It was a rainy day in Washington in the springtime and the follow-up vehicle at that time was an open Cadillac follow-up car that had a plastic roof that had windows open at all times, of course. So I knew I was going to get wet, so this new suit was going to take a beating. So I wasn’t that anxious to get it all soaked and wet that day," he said.
The rain had begun to subside when the president emerged from the hotel. McCarthy remembers scanning the crowd standing along a rope line a few meters away from President Reagan.
"I had looked back at the president, and all of a sudden, John Hinckley, who was on the left side of the rope line, pushed himself forward and fired six rounds in about 1.5 seconds," he said.
While positioning himself to protect the president, McCarthy was hit. "I was hit in the chest and the bullet went into the lung, liver and diaphragm. And the common picture shows me grabbing my abdomen, but that’s down where the liver was when it went through the liver. That’s where the pain was at the time, but actually I was shot in the chest," he said.
Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr pushed President Reagan into the waiting limousine, which quickly sped away. Once clear of the chaos, it became apparent that the President had also been shot.
By the time the gunfire had ended and officers had wrestled Hinckley to the ground, it became clear that others around the president, including Press Secretary James Brady, had also been shot.
Speaking on Capitol Hill during an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt, Brady’s wife Sarah said she was watching television when she heard the news. "At that moment, I can only tell you, it changed our lives forever in so many ways. Jim was pronounced dead," she said.
Early news reports incorrectly stated that James Brady had died from his wounds. He survived his serious injuries, which left him partially disabled.
Sarah Brady says her family was in disbelief that a would-be assassin could have come so close to the president. "Who could be better protected with the Secret Service all around you? And yet it was a gun in the wrong hands that a background check would have caught," she said.
The assassination attempt turned James Brady into a gun control advocate. And in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Brady Bill gun control legislation into law. It requires federal background checks of firearm purchasers in the United States.
Although a fateful coin toss that wet March day led to more than just a soaked new suit, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy recovered from his wounds. He says the incident changed the way the Secret Service protects the president.
"After that, metal detectors were used to screen anyone who gets near the president. The legacy is that since that time, there has not been another attack on any of our presidents by the historic assassin [i.e., stereotypical assassin], which is the lone gunmen who would simply get close to the president with a handgun and, of course, attempt to assassinate the president," he said.
Ronald Reagan recovered from his wounds and was the only U.S. president to survive being struck by an assassin’s bullet.
McCarthy, who continued to work for the Secret Service through the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, is now the Chief of the Orland Park Police Department in suburban Chicago. He says the bond formed between president and protector that day 30 years ago lasted throughout Mr. Reagan’s lifetime. "The president and Mrs. Reagan were more than grateful, more than thankful and gracious to me and my family from that day on," he said.
John Hinckley, Jr. was found not guilty of trying to kill the president by reason of insanity. He remains in a Washington, D.C. psychiatric facility.