Does Shooting A President Mean We Can Never Get Better? A Look At The John Hinckley Story

John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan, is applying for more privileges to spend more time away from the mental hospital where he current lives. (source: NPR)

During his trial in 1982, Hinckley was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. Many people were not pleased and although this verdict was rare back then, many states reacted by making the bar even higher or abolishing the “insanity defense” altogether.

In my own ignorance, I thought that being declared insane meant a person was always insane. Untreatable. Locked away. I hadn’t realized Hinckley was visiting his mother down the road in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The current terms of Hinckley’s sentence are:

Hinckley [can] to visit his mother for a dozen visits of ten days at a time, rather than six, spend more time outside of the hospital, and even have a driver’s license. Hinckley [is] required to carry a GPS-enabled cell phone to track him whenever he was outside of his parent’s home, and he [is] forbidden to speak to the news media. (source: Wikipedia)

These are more privileges than he had a decade ago. His doctors feel his depression and psychosis have been stable for more than 5 years.

I believe mental illness is an illness, which is mostly out of a person’s control – particularly because it often includes not realizing one is sick. Many people in the throes of their illness do things that, when on medication or with appropriate supports, they not do otherwise. Mental illness is common and often treatable.

I also believe that we serve the time we are supposed to serve. Our justice system, whether correctional or mental intuitions, is supposed to rehabilitate people, not remove them from society indefinitely.

However, there is a line we cross — a point where it does not matter what illness we suffer from, we are a threat and there is no way to prove that we will not threaten again. We put sexual predators in that category because even when they get out, they are placed on a list for life. Mass murders are included. Even alcoholics and addicts pay for their illnesses with jail time.

Does shooting a president count?

Perhaps, the question is: Are the consequences worth it? Of course, we are safer individually if Hinckley stays separated from us. But are we safer as a society? When we chose to believe that people are irredeemable, we all suffer from lack of faith and hope. Are we losing vital members of our society because we believe they cannot get better or their better is not enough? Can’t an alcoholic get sober? A depressive get happy? Plenty of people do not only get better but make other people’s lives better.

By not believing in change, we are trapping ourselves in our mistakes rather than our potentials.

But then again, most people do not shoot someone even at their sickest.  Are they lucky?  Or is that line drawn across their heart?  Can John Hinckley contribute to society even if he is capable of shooting the president?

Our country must be decide whether some of us are our actions or our illnesses and if we are to suffer the consequences of our brain chemistry even once we are better.

John Hinckley is a place to start.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

8 thoughts to “Does Shooting A President Mean We Can Never Get Better? A Look At The John Hinckley Story”

  1. I heard this story on NPR yesterday. At first, I thought…Ok, all of his docs say he’s fine, he deserves more privileges. That’s how the justice system is supposed to work. Then they added another fact to the story. On one occasion during his visit with his mother, he asked her to drop him off to see “Captain America.” When his mother drove off, he went down the road to a Barnes and Noble and read books on President Reagan and the assassination attempt. He then lied to his mother, his doctors, and many others and even said he highly recommends the movie. This was a very recent event — the movie just came out in July. Some other doctors are saying this could be a sign of his narcissism, which is evidently part of his mental illness (I’m not sure how, I’m not a doc) and that in the past even when he was receiving treatment before the assassination attempt, he was able to deceive doctors about how truly ill he was. So, for me the question is, is he REALLY well or is he just pretending? I’m not sure of the answer. Does one bad choice (obsessing in a book store for 2 hours over books about an assassination attempt on a President in which HE was offender, when he was supposed to be seeing a movie and then lying about it — so I guess it’s actually 3 bad choices) mean that he’s still mentally unstable? And, should that one mistake cost him additional privileges? Or was it a mistake at all and a sign of his mental instability, therefore categorizing him as a danger to society? It definitely made me cock my head to the side and say…hmmmmmmm….

    1. That part of the story did concern me although I didn’t quite understand how he didn’t lose privileges for it or why his lawyers would seek more privileges right afterward. Are we missing something?
      I think it plays to the bigger issue with mental illness or even recidivism — how do we know when someone is well? Or well enough? Or rehabilitated? Found the Lord (since that seems a popular one)?

  2. I really don’t know how I feel about this case. I work in a unit of 60 men who are single celled for long, long stretches of time. I have one man who has been housed in a single cell for 16 years. He gets three hours of recreation a week. Are we helping their mental state by housing them like this? I know we aren’t, but I don’t know what the answer is.

    I know 97% of all offenders will be released, but honestly I don’t want some of my men to leave. They would not be safe and the community would not be safe with them in it.

    The problem is that it’s not an exact science, you can have twenty mentally I’ll men that say they are ok to be released and the court agrees with them. 60% of them at least will return to prison or an institution of some sort, but nobody ever knows which ones will make up the 60%. Not a popular thought I know.

    1. Have you seen the documentary on solitary confinement and mental health? I can’t remember its name right now. It was on Netflix Instant. It spoke to some of what you mention.

      I wonder why 60% return. What it is about our society that so many people have to be locked up compared to similar countries? It’s hard to figure out who is a product of themselves and who is a product of bad circumstances.

      1. Almost 60% of inmates in my state have an eighth grade or less reading level. Almost 70% of all defendents with mental illness or developmental disabilities are convicted at trial or convinced by their attorneys to take a plea because they can’t help in their own defense. Some 75-80% of all women are homeless upon release from prison and have lost their children. With very little in the way of programs and training prior to release in maximum security institutions men and women leave prison with no life skills and no means of support. Add to that the fact that everytime we get a new governor in office the way we deal with corrections changes and it’s no wonder they can’t stay out.

        I know we don’t help their mental health by locking them in single cells, we also don’t help their mental health by handing down extreme sentences for possession of drugs.

        The unemployment rate doesn’t help, and how do I convince a man that it’s better to work a job for $7.50 when he knows he can’t support his family, pay his intervention fees, pay for the anger mgmt class he has to take and get off from work early three days a week to meet with his parole officer. There are many, many reasons they go back and so many ways we could help but don’t. Not trying to derail your thread but it is a matter close to my heart.

  3. Maybe I’m too harsh, but I think that some crimes are unforgivable. And while rehabilitation is fine for say a drug abuser (victimless crimes)–assassins, child predators, etc. fall under an entirely different category. I don’t really care if he’s mentally unstable or not. I don’t care if he’s better. I think he should still be punished. Period. I don’t really care if he could be a valuable member of society. Society will be just fine without him and others like him.

  4. I agree in the rehabilitation part and that mental illness can be treated, BUT. YOU SHOT THE PRESIDENT. I’m sorry, I don’t think you get out. Ever. Would we be having this discussion if Reagan had died? IDT so. Frankly, I was surprised in that story by how much freedom he has NOW.

  5. Very thought provoking point. My gut reaction is to say insane is insane & once you are insane you always insane. I believe that medicine just keeps your insanity in check, not cure it.

    BUT your point about losing valuable members of society is very valid.

    I’m glad I’m not the one to make this decision because I wouldn’t be able to.

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