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Remembering Reagan, Reducing Rounds

The assassination attempt on President Reagan inspired his former nurse to become a gun-control advocate—and 30 years later, she’s still fighting the fight

by Elyse Beaudoin on April 6, 2011

Thirty years ago, John Hinckley Jr. shocked the nation with his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley hoped that this act would stand as ‘the greatest love offering in the history of the world’ and fulfill his obsession with actress Jodie Foster. His stated motives confused many, including President Reagan, who asked, “What was this guy’s beef?” The one emotion that held sway over confusion was fear—the fear of losing the president, especially with the memory of the JFK assassination still vivid for many people, and also with John Lennon’s murder just three months earlier.

Robyn Ringler, a Ballston Lake resident and owner of East Line Books, vividly remembers the fear she felt for Reagan on March 30, 1981. At the time, Ringler was working as a nurse at the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., where Reagan was taken after being shot in the lung. He was moved rapidly from the emergency room into surgery and then to intensive care.

“The Secret Service said that intensive care was not secure enough,” Ringler recalled. “That’s when Reagan was sent to my floor. It was the only floor with a bulletproof room, and there was a flat roof outside for a SWAT team.”

Ringler cared for Reagan in the evenings and said that he was in ‘very bad shape’ for the first two nights. He was pale with abnormal vital signs, fever, and shortness of breath.

“[Nancy Reagan] was lovely,” said Ringler. “She was absolutely lovely, but she was tense and worried for her husband’s life.” When Ringler recalled leaving President Reagan on the second night, she said, “I was really worried that I would not see him again.”

Reagan’s health took a turn for the better by the third day, and the First Lady became “much more relaxed.” By the next day, Ringler “knew that he would survive.” For the remainder of President Reagan’s 10-day stay, the hospital staff began to enjoy White House fine dining, including steak, lobster, and chocolates from the king of Morocco. Ringler was given the silk-covered chocolate box to keep.

“I still have it today,” she said. “I also got a beautiful signed thank-you letter.”

The assassination attempt led Ringler and former Press Secretary James Brady to become gun-control advocates. Brady was shot in the head during the shuffle to protect President Reagan and became permanently disabled. Together, Ringler and Brady have been working to pass HR 308, a bill aimed at banning high-capacity ammunition magazines. Some of these clips are capable of shooting 100 bullets before reloading, and Ringler hopes to limit this to 10.

“High-capacity ammunition magazines,” said Ringler, “are designed to make it easy to shoot large numbers of people quickly and efficiently without reloading.”

Much of the concern about high-capacity clips stems from the recent attempt on the life of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz, which killed six people (Giffords is recovering from head injuries). “The shooter in Tucson had shot off 31 rounds in 15 seconds,” said Ringler. “He was tackled to the ground when he stopped to reload.”

On the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s shooting, Robyn Ringler met with James Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady, in Washington, D.C., to lobby for HR 308. “It was so meaningful,” Ringler said. “It was so wonderful to spend the day with someone who had shared this experience.”

Along with lobbying in Washington, Ringler has been working with the local League of Women Voters and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence to encourage Representative Chris Gibson to support HR 308. According to Gibson’s website, he is “an outspoken supporter of the right to bear arms and to protect one’s life, loved ones and property.”

Ringler has made several attempts at contacting Gibson, including multiple phone calls and e-mails. Just this week, Ringler received an e-mail from Gibson’s executive assistant, Kate Better, inviting her to discuss the bill. She hopes that this will be a new step towards “sensible gun legislation.”