by Naama Kates
Friday, 17
June 2022
Explainer
15:39

Was John Hinckley Jr. the first incel shooter?

Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin was freed from prison this week
by Naama Kates
John Hinckley Jr. Credit: Bettmann/ Gett

In 1981, John W. Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan by firing at him with a .22 caliber revolver outside of the Hilton in Washington DC. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged the public and led to the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984. After his acquittal, he was committed to a psychiatric facility, where he spent the next several decades of his life. Earlier this month, he was granted full, unconditional release from supervision, which went into effect on Wednesday.

It would be wrong to describe John Hinckley Jr. as an ‘incel shooter’, though he probably was an incel; accounts of his life indicate that he’d never had a girlfriend by age 26. Born to an affluent family, he was a happy kid that inexplicably grew shy and withdrawn as a teenager. He left the family home in Colorado to attend Texas Tech, but dropped out after a year. He would return to school three more times, but it never held his interest. Hinckley envisioned something greater for himself, and in 1976, he set out to California, to pursue a career as a musician (today, he has a YouTube page for videos of his original songs, which he sings and plays on guitar). 

It was in California that Hinckley saw Taxi Driver for the first of over a dozen times. The film consumed him — so much so that Hinckley described his attempt on the president’s life as “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” for the actress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d been infatuated since her turn as a teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver. Hinckley was also obsessed with the film’s title character, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro.

Bickel is unquestionably a salient figure among incels of literature and film (alongside Holden Caulfield and Gregor Samsa). He moves artlessly through life, driven by opposing forces of desire and disgust. The mounting, crushing rejections of daily life fill Bickle with resentment and rage that he unleashes onto the pages of his journal — his manifesto. He shaves his head. He buys his guns. He pantomimes his vengeance into the mirror. Finally, he goes on a killing spree, conceived in his troubled mind as a heroic act of vigilante justice.

In some ways, Hinckley Jr. mirrored Bickle’s trajectory. In the years that followed his move to California, he briefly attempted different jobs in various cities, returning to his parents’ home often. He wrote to them frequently, describing an exciting career and a glamorous girlfriend in great detail. These fabrications were initially ploys for money, but Hinckley began to believe them, retreating further into fantasy. He was often ill and saw several psychiatrists during this time. In 1979, while living off-campus in Texas, Hinckley began hoarding guns, like Travis Bickle, and spending time at the firing range. He was fusing his fragile identity to that of the fictional character. 

The following year, after reading that Jodie Foster would be attending Yale Drama School, Hinckley decided to move to Connecticut, to “rescue” her from the streets. Incredibly, he managed to get Foster’s phone number, and they had two brief conversations that led nowhere. At this point, Hinckley became convinced that the way to Foster’s heart would be the assassination of the United States President.

In many ways, Hinckley’s journey is almost identical to that of someone like Elliot Rodger or even Uvalde shooter Salvador Ramos, who was also seemingly trying to impress a teenage girl with his heinous attack. Twenty-five years ahead, he embodied the archetype of the modern “active shooter” — lonely, sexually frustrated and desperate for attention. He was also floridly psychotic. 

John Hinckley Jr. was not an ‘active shooter.’ He did not indiscriminately fire at strangers with a cold mental tally of his kill count. But ultimately, like Ramos, he was a copycat. If Travis Bickle’s finale looked more like Columbine, wouldn’t Hinckley have followed his lead?

Fortunately, it didn’t. And today John Hinckley Jr. is free. Maybe he’ll finally release an album.

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lisa.babyford.irwin5
lisa.babyford.irwin5
10 days ago

It’s ridiculous that the insanity defence law was changed because people were angry at the court’s verdict. Either you have a fair law or you don’t.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
11 days ago

Interesting. Ironically enough, I’d exspect that if Hinkley had been exposed to modern Incel forums, he’d probabably not have commited the shooting. As he might have been cured of his “blue pill” delusion there is someone for everyone, and saw his plan to gain Foster’s affection would be unlikely to succeed. (I believe no poster on the main incel forum has ever commited a shooting or other major act of violence.)

I just listened to one Hinckley’s songs on Youtube and he seems quite childlike and sweet. It’s a credit to the US that he’s turned out like that after being through psychosis and then apparently decades of depression. The US justice system clearly sometimes more compassionate than it’s sometimes pictured.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
10 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Sometimes? Perhaps seldom would be more accurate?

Laney R Sexton
Laney R Sexton
8 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Elliott Roger was extremely active on incel forums. To this day there are incel forums praising him.

Also, Hinckley’s family was wealthy, that will get you better treatment in mental hospitals here in the US. It’s more complicated than it seems.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
7 days ago
Reply to  Laney R Sexton

Thank for the info about Hinckley. I don’t believe that’s true about ER. He may have made many misogynistic online posts, but I understand these were mostly to body building sites, and an anti ‘pickup artist’ forum. While many incels are anti pickup artist – feminists & even old school chivalous chads can be too. (Pickup artists have some reprehensible ideas, like ‘negging’ where they deliberatly try to break down a woman’s confidence.)

Patience Easy
Patience Easy
11 days ago

Wouldn’t Hinkley be considered as a terrorist for trying to kill the American president, an overtly political act?

Grace Goodman
Grace Goodman
10 days ago
Reply to  Patience Easy

Good point. Here is a quote from an article in the Guardian from 2003 about how the law was changed: “1982…That was the year John Hinckley – a 26-year-old Beatles fan from a well-to-do Dallas family – was sensationally found not guilty by reason of insanity of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, even though his gun, loaded with Devastator bullets for maximum impact, came within inches of ending the President’s life. The verdict caused a furore. Although Hinckley’s lawyers persuaded a jury he had been psychotic at the time of the shooting – believing, in his delusion, that by killing Reagan he would win the admiration of actress Jodie Foster – the majority of Americans thought otherwise and within months Congress had rewritten US insanity laws so as to ensure that future Hinckleys could never escape imprisonment again.”


Jim Quirk
Jim Quirk
9 days ago

When teens drop out of school, wouldn’t it be worthwhile for the education department maintain some form of a relationship with the student and family and perhaps keep them from feeling isolated from society? Would that have made a difference in Uvalde?

Last edited 9 days ago by chiefshamus
D Goo
D Goo
8 days ago

There is no such thing as an incel. There are men too frightened of rejection to try. They blame the women they want for it. The use of the term abuses women. As for the first? Uh… I think you’d need to go back a few thousand years.