How Powerful Personal Experiences Changed Opinions
Sometimes, an unexpected experience can change the way people see important issues.
Country music singer Caleb Keeter had been an opponent of gun control, he wrote on Twitter. That changed on October 1, when 58 were killed and over 500 injured at a country music festival in Las Vegas where Keeter performed.
“I cannot express how wrong I was,” Keeter tweeted. “We need gun control RIGHT NOW. My biggest regret is that I stubbornly didn’t realize it until my brothers on the road and myself were threatened by it.”
Keeter is not alone. Other people also became strong supporters of gun control after experiencing gun violence.
Others changed their opinions on health care policy after getting sick. And a Republican senator dropped his opposition to same-sex marriage after learning his own son is gay.
Kyle Kondik is a political scientist at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
He said, “It strikes me that a lot of people change their opinions when something affects them personally. Human nature is such that we just may pay more attention to something when we have a closer personal attachment to it.”
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is one such person. He explained that he had opposed same sex marriage because he believed it violated his religion.
That changed, Portman said, after he learned in 2011 that his son, Will, is gay.
Two years later Portman announced his new position on gay marriage. He wrote about it in the Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper based in Columbus, Ohio’s state capital.
“Knowing that my son is gay” let him to look at the issue in a different way -- as “a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.”
Senator Rob Portman (center) at the U.S. Capitol. Senator Rob Portman (center) at the U.S. Capitol.
Sought immigration law changes after daughter’s killing
Jim Steinle became an activist for stronger immigration laws after tragedy struck his family. His daughter Kate was shot and killed in San Francisco, California in 2015. Officials said the gunman was a Mexican who had been deported five times.
Steinle spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee about how Kate died as they walked together in San Francisco.
“Suddenly, a shot rang out, Kate fell, and looked at me and said, ‘Help me dad’ Those are the last words I will ever hear from my daughter,” Jim Steinle said.
Steinle asked that local jails be barred from releasing people sought by federal officials for immigration violations.
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills. One would deny federal money to local governments that do not cooperate with immigration enforcement requests. The other would increase penalties for people legally deported from the United States who try to re-enter the country. The second bill is called “Kate’s Law.”
Both bills require approval by the Senate before they can move forward.
“We feel that if Kate’s Law saves one daughter, one son, a mother or a father, Kate’s death won’t be in vain,” Steinle said.
Jim Steinle, second from left, testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing in 2015. Jim Steinle, second from left, testifies at a Senate Judiciary hearing in 2015.
From Obamacare opponent to supporter
Jeff Jeans, an Arizona businessman, appeared on cnn to discuss how getting cancer changed his opinions about the Affordable Care Act. The bill passed during the presidency of Barack Obama. It helps provide health insurance to Americans.
“When it was passed, I told my wife we would close our business before I complied with this law,” Jeans said. “Then, at 49, I was given six weeks to live with a very curable type of cancer.”
He said that he got insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. “I want to thank President Obama from the bottom of my heart because I would be dead if it weren’t for him,” Jeans said.
Jeans appeared on cnn with House Speaker Paul Ryan. The cnn show included a discussion on Republican efforts to end the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a new health care bill. So far, those efforts have failed.
Not everyone changes their minds
Not everybody who experiences life and death situations changes their opinions.
In June, Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana nearly died, his doctors said, after he was shot during a Republican baseball practice. Using crutches to get around, Scalise returned to the Capitol for the first time in three months on September 28, getting a standing ovation from fellow House members.
Scalise said that the experience “fortified,” or strengthened, his opposition to gun control.
Scalise, a member of the Congressional Republican leadership, said he believes Congress should do little to limit Americans from getting guns. The big majority of people use them for legal reasons -- for hunting and protecting their families, Scalise said.
Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, became stronger supporters of gun control after she was shot in the head and seriously injured. The 2011 shooting happened at a shopping center where Giffords was meeting with the people she represented.
On October 5, less than a week after the mass killings in Las Vegas, she tweeted this, “93 people die every day from gun violence: it doesn't have to be this way. Congress needs to act.”
Carolyn McCarthy, a New York nurse, became a strong supporter of gun control after her husband, Dennis, was killed, and her son, Kevin, was injured when a gunman shot them and other passengers on a Long Island Railroad train. It happened in 1993.
McCarthy brought her gun control efforts to the U.S. Congress, winning a seat in 1996. She decided not to run for re-election in 2014.
Similar experiences, different response
Barry Burden is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He said people do not always change their opinions from an important personal experience.
“Sometimes it actually causes them to change their position, but more often it leads them to put more focus on the issue, becoming a champion of the cause,” Burden said.
I’m Jill Robbins.
And I'm Bruce Alpert.