WASHINGTON -- A young gunman ambushed President Reagan at close range Monday and fired half-dozen shots -- one of them piercing the president's lung inches from his heart. Doctors removed the bullet in a two-hour operation and said Reagan would recover.
The would-be assassin, identified as John Warnock Hinckley Jr., 25, of Evergreen, Colo., was tackled and pinned to the pavement, whisked away in a squad car and charged with attempted murder. Officials said that last fall during the presidential campaign Hinckley had been arrested for carrying three guns.
The shots outside a Washington hotel, crackling through a dismal rainfall like balloons bursting at a child's birthday party, gravely wounded presidential press secretary James Brady and left a Secret Service agent and a police officer in serious condition.
The shooting stunned the world and a nation whose citizens seem unable to shake the stigma of seemingly mindless murder of public figures.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who buried two assassinated brothers including the last president shot, deplored the incident: 'Violence and hatred are alien to everything this country is about. With our prayers must go our resolution to rid our society of violence and its cause.'
But Reagan himself took the event in stride, joking with bystanders as he walked into the hospital under his own power. At 8:50 p.m. he handed doctors in the recovery room a hand written note paraphrasing W.C. Fields: 'All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.'
Doctors at George Washington University Hospital said the 70-year-old Reagan is an excellent physical specimen with the body of a young man and his survival never was in doubt.
The prognosis for complete recovery is 'excellent,' and Reagan should be able to resume presidential duties Tuesday morning from his hospital bed.
And Vice President George Bush, ordered back to Washington from Texas, said 'I can reassure this nation and a watching world that this nation is functioning fully and normally.'
The stunning murder attempt occurred outside the sprawling Washington Hilton Hotel, one mile from the White House, where Reagan had just delivered a speech to a union convention.
Waving and smiling, Reagan neared the bulletproof presidential limousine when the gunfire crackled. The grin on Reagan's face turned to frozen horror as a Secret Service agent shoved him into the car.
Pandemonium erupted. Bystanders screamed in horror. Guns were drawn in an instant. Hinckley was buried immediately under a mass of agents.
And the bloody bodies of Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty were sprawled on the rainswept pavement.
An attorney for his family said Hinckley had a history of psychiatric care. Federal law enforcement officials said he was arrested in Nashville for carrying firearms near the time both then-President Carter and Reagan were to make campaign appearances in Tennessee.
William Brissey, captain of the Nashville, Tenn., Airport security police, said Hinckley had been arrested Oct. 9 for trying to board an airliner with three handguns and 50 rounds of ammunition in a suitcase.
There was no immediate indication how a person once so detained by authorities could have placed himself -- without detection and carrying a .22 caliber handgun -- 10 feet from Reagan.
Brady's prognosis was grim. Doctors said the bullet had entered his skull over his right eye and passed through his brain, and Dr. Dennis O'Leary said even if the 40-year-old press secretary lives, permanent brain damage is likely.
Reagan, who never lost consciousness, walked into the hospital's emergency room leaning for support on Secret Service agents.
Even with blood seeping from his wound and soaking his shirt, even with his left lung collapsed, even with what doctors later called a 'really mangled' slug lodged inches from his heart, his chin and spirits were high.
'Don't worry,' he reassured worried onlookers.
'Honey, I forgot to duck,' he joked to his wife Nancy, who had rushed to the hospital to be at his side.
And as he was wheeled into the operating room for two hours of 'painful surgery,' Reagan looked up at his doctors and prayed they were 'good Republicans.'
'I think he knew he had been shot,' O'Leary told reporter at a news conference after the two-hour surgery. 'I gather he felt a little light headed, but I gather he was cracking jokes and was in good spirits at the time.'
'He at no time was in any serious danger,' O'Leary said, adding that removing the bullet which entered Reagan's chest and 'ricocheted' off a rib into his lung was 'a relatively simple procedure.'
At that range, and with that sort of wound, it seemed clear Reagan would not have been in as good a position if the gunman has used a higher caliber weapon.
Reagan's chief political aide Lyn Nofziger quoted Reagan telling Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev.:
'Don't worry about me, I'll make it.'
And when the president saw his top White House aides at the hospital he cracked:
'Who's minding the store?'
George Bush was minding the store. And, while Bush was en route back to Washington from a trip to Texas, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told a news conference, 'As of now, I am in control here at the White House.'
McCarthy, 32, the wounded Secret Service agent, was shot in the back -- the bullet also lodging in his lung. He was in serious condition.
Delahanty, the 45-year-old district police officer shot in the neck, threw a flying tackle at Hinckley despite his grave wound. Delahanty was in serious condition at Washington Hospital Center.
The presidential limousine, a veritable fortress on wheels, had bullet dents and a windshield cracked and pockmarked -- but not penetrated -- as testimony to the assassination attempt.
Eight hours after the shooting, there were words of slight encouragement on Brady's condition.
Nofziger said doctors had completed more than five hours of surgery, and that 'The prognosis is certainly better at this moment than it was earlier this afternoon.'
'His vital signs are stable. His pupillary reflexes -- that's the reflexes of his pupils in his eyes -- are normal. Dr. (Arthur) Kobrine feels that there may be some impairment, but he doesn't know how much at this time, nor will he be able to know for quite some time.'
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Bush would sit in for Reagan Tuesday at meetings with the Cabinet and congressional leaders.
Asked if Reagan had delegated presidential authority to Bush, Speakes replied:
'There has been no cause for that. There is, for your information, an automatic assumption of command authority which requires that no steps be taken.'
A young man outside the hotel says he never will forget the look on Reagan's face when the shooting started.
'You could see the feeling on his eyes. Reagan was in a state of shock ... of fear. It will be etched on my eyes forever.'
At the hospital, witness Willis King said Reagan arrived 'holding his left chest with his arm.'
'There was blood on his shirt. His coat was open and I could see the blood ... it was running down his shirt,' King said.
Inside the emergency room, third-year medical student Franklin Edwards of Salt Lake City said Reagan was unruffled.
But then, he added, the resident 'felt a little dizzy' and was asked to lie on a stretcher.
Reagan, he said, responded to all orders without hesitation. Attendants sliced off his clothing with surgical scissors. When they saw blood pouring from the wound, a tube was inserted in his chest.
The president was administered about 2- quarts of blood.
Although there was little they could do, the Cabinet gathered at the White House and assured reporters government functions were operating without interruption.
Haig said he had called foreign capitals to tell them of the shooting and to assure them of Reagan's recovery and that the assassination attempt was not linked to any international conspiracy. He said thee was no special alert for the U.S. military.
Just last week H. Stuart Knight, the director of the Secret Service, said in an interview that major steps had been taken to increase security for the president since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But he said a president is most vulnerable when in public -- especially when his appearance is announced in advance.
Reagan appeared frequently in public during his sucessful 1980 campaign and has not curtailed his public appearances in the first 70 days of his presidency.
There were no significant security threats during the campaign, and the only time he received a scare was on the first day of 1976 campaign when a man who pointed a toy gun at him in an audience in Florida was arrested.
Monday's attempt on Reagan's life reopened ugly scars that never seem to heal in a nation whose recent past is a scorecard of violence and death of its famous and its vulnerable.
John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 -- all fell to assassin's bullets.
Gov. George Wallace, permanently crippled in 1972; civil rights leader James Meredith in 1966; Vernon Jordan, head of the National Urban League in 1980 -- all survivors of assassination attempts.
In all, five of the 40 American presidents have been shot while in office -- Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Kennedy and Reagan. Only Reagan survived.
Theodore Roosevelt was shot and wounded after he left office. In 1975, two unsuccessful attempts were made within 27 days on the life of Gerald Ford.
From Plains, Ga., Jimmy Carter wished his successor 'a speedy recovery.'
And in New York, former President Richard Nixon's daughter Tricia Cox said her father is praying for Reagan.
'My family's prayers are with the president and his family and for all the wounded and their families and we hope that they will all live to see a brighter day,' she said.