Remember John Hinckley Jr: A Triumph for Psychiatry, But a Failure for Gun Safety


Have we learned anything from history regarding gun safety?

John Hinckley Jr and Gun Safety

From the Ronald Regan Library Archives


Perhaps you caught the news yesterday: One of the most well-known patients with a psychiatric disorder, John Hinckley Jr, was given unconditional release from custody after 41 years. In 1981, he attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan to gain the attention of actress Jodie Foster; he wounded the president and shot 3 others. He was found not guilty by reasons of insanity, and spent most of his 41 years in custody in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital. In 2016, he was given a conditional release from the hospital. Shortly thereafter, on November 4, 2016, I wrote “Hinckley Haunted the House of Psychiatry” for Psychiatric TimesTM.

Ronald Reagan assassination attempt

from US Secret Service

When James Brady, an injured victim, died in 2014, the medical examiner determined his death was a result of the injuries from the 1981 incident and called his death a homicide. (No charges were filed, however.) Hinckley had used a handgun that entered the country through a loophole in the federal act that was passed after the 1968 firearms killing of Bobby Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr and prohibited the importation of “Saturday Night Specials.”

Over many years, Hinckley seemed to improve gradually with treatment and confinement. By 2018, psychiatric assessments found no evidence of mental illness or danger. Whether that meant mental illness still existed, but in remission or that there was no mental illness anymore was unclear. Reagan’s son and others disagreed, feeling that he was still at risk.

Hinckley lived with his mother until she died about a year ago at the age of 95. He plays music, does artwork, and sells books.

Hinckley and his case brought up questions about the insanity defense, assessing risk for violence, and diagnostic reliability. Some answers for these questions have emerged. What has not improved—but instead worsened—is gun safety. In that sense, Hinckley still haunts us.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. To create a better world, he is an advocate for treating mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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