How Many People Have Taken a Bullet for the President?

Aug 06, 2014 at 7:12 AM ET

James Brady, who died Monday at the age of 73 in his Delaware home, was an American hero to many. He was White House press secretary to President Ronald Reagan—often regarded as one of the most hawkish presidents in recent history—but Brady was a prominent gun-control activist. He was also a father of two who held multiple government positions in D.C. and in his home state of Illinois.

Brady’s passion for gun control came from personal experience, having been shot in the head during a presidential assassination attempt. He suffered the ill effects of that attack for the rest of his life.

When Reagan emerged from the Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981, Brady was one of a handful of White House staffers at his side. That day Brady became one of a small group of aides to have taken a bullet while strolling with POTUS. He was hit in the head with the first of six bullets because he just happened to be between the shooter and the target, unlike Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who threw himself between James Hinckley and President Reagan, taking a bullet in the chest in the line of duty.

In the 33 years since McCarthy’s daring dive, no one else has taken a bullet for an acting president, largely because no shooter has gotten a gun close enough to a president to take an accurate shot. One would-be assassin managed to kill only himself in 1994 when he crashed a Cessna plane into a tree on the White House grounds.

All of the last four serving presidents have survived plots against their lives, but most of those have been foiled at an early stage before ever getting close (except a 2005 grenade attack on George W. Bush, which happened while he was giving a speech in Tbilisi, Georgia).

A survey of presidential assassinations since 1835, when painter Richard Lawrence failed to kill then-President Andrew Jackson, reveals that only 12 Secret Service agents, police officers, pilots and members of presidential cabinets have been injured or killed while on duty to protect the president. Among them:

  • On Feb. 15, 1933, Gi­useppe Zangara, an Italian bricklayer, wounded four people and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in his attempt to shoot President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was giving a speech in Miami.
  • On Nov. 1, 1950, two activists in support of Puerto Rican independence, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Tor­res­ola, attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman at a home in Washington, D.C., killing White House police officer Leslie Coffelt and wounding a second officer. Coffelt killed the attacker with a shot to the head.
  • On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to shoot President Ronald Reagan at the Hilton, wounding Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty. Press Secretary Brady took a bullet to his head, leaving him partly paralyzed with slurred speech for the rest of his life.

These days, it’s extremely difficult to even come close to killing the president or the people in their inner circle, as the Secret Service carefully monitors potential attacks on the ground and on the Internet. “The technology has come a long way, but usually it comes down to the officer being alert and searching the things they should,” Dan Emmett, an elite Secret Service officer, told Vocativ in November. 

As Emmett explained, while the Secret Service will always keep an eye on the grassy knoll, attacks will likely take more modern forms than ever before. And although the organization’s protective tactics have come a long way, assassinations attempts are still possible. As detailed on the agency’s very own website, “The risks are always there.”