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Opinion | Meta Wagner

A crash course in empathy

Congressman Mike Turner, Republican of Ohio, whose distrcit includes Dayton, has reversed his position on gun control. Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty Images

Mass shooters aren’t the only ones in this country tragically lacking in empathy. How about those members of Congress who have refused to pass sweeping gun control legislation? They’ve been more consumed with saving their seats than saving lives. That is, perhaps, until their own lives are touched by gun violence.

Take Republican Representative Mike Turner of Ohio, whose congressional district includes Dayton, the site of one of two horrific mass shootings last weekend. He should be commended for his newfound stance on gun control, which includes stopping the sale of assault weapons to civilians, limiting the size of magazines, and enacting red-flag laws.


But what can possibly explain Turner’s sudden enlightenment after he’d achieved a 93 percent rating from the NRA and voted in February against a bill on background checks?

Was it the fact that there have been more mass shootings than days so far this year? Or that 70 percent of the American people support a ban on assault weapons? Or that he’s had a crisis of conscience?

No. The congressman’s turnaround occurred because his daughter and a family friend were at a bar across the street from where the Dayton shooting began.

“My daughter & friend fled into #OregonDistrict & contacted me at 2am. As they ran home, I followed their progress & prayed for them & our community,” Turner tweeted.

In other words, when a mass shooting affected his daughter and his friend, it finally mattered to him.

I empathize with the heart-pounding fear Turner must have felt between the time he heard from his daughter and when she arrived home. I felt it, too, when there’d been a killing on the Wesleyan University campus in the spring of 2012, and my son was among the thousands of students in lockdown.


But I don’t just empathize with Turner because I’d been in a similar situation or because I’m a parent who loves my child more than anything. I feel for him because I’m human and so is he. That’s the normal reaction for most people.

And yet it seems to take a personal crucible for some politicians and pundits to find their inner Mother Theresa.

Would former vice president Dick Cheney have favored same-sex marriage if not for his daughter, Mary? “Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with,” Cheney told an audience in 2004. “With respect to the question of relationships . . . people ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh once insisted, “If people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” It wasn’t until he was outed in the National Enquirer in 2003, spent his third stint in rehab, and was arrested on drug charges that he adopted the “liberal” language of personal insights and self-empowerment. (He also avoided being “sent up” by striking a deal with the prosecutor.)

Politicians, if you need a crash course in empathy, here it is: Your daughter doesn’t have to be ripped out of your arms for you to imagine the terror and despair you would feel if she was. Your water doesn’t have to be poisoned for you to imagine how worried you’d be that your son might have brain damage or that you might develop kidney disease if it was. And your family members don’t have to be terrorized by a mass shooting for you to imagine the trauma they’d suffer in that moment and for the rest of their lives.


To Representative Turner, I say, better late than never on gun control. But to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and all other legislators who have yet to demonstrate they care more about people than they do about the NRA’s approval and patronage, I say, any later than today is too late.

Meta Wagner is author of “What’s Your Creative Type?” and an adjunct professor at Emerson College. Follow her on Twitter @meta_wagner1.