In the short time since his daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, one dad has devoted himself to change
Fred Guttenberg was at the midpoint of a 15-hour day of advocacy in Washington, and he was refusing to sit down. “No one should feel comfortable talking about the death of my kid,” he told a long line of Senate Democrats. He was standing behind the chair that had been provided for him.
Three weeks before, his daughter Jaime had been shot to death in her high school hallway. The 14-year-old had been running away from the shooter, her father said, when a bullet severed her spinal cord.
Afterwards, Guttenberg had looked his Republican senator in the eye and told him that his response to the Parkland shooting, and the response of the president of the United States, had been “pathetically weak”. His daughter and her classmates had been hunted in their own school, and politicians needed to admit that guns were the problem and ban military-style assault weapons.
Now, the 52-year-old father was standing in a basement room in the Capitol, where Democrats were hosting an informal hearing for survivors of gun violence. Congressional Republicans had refused to hold a formal hearing.
To Guttenberg’s left were a mother whose daughter had been shot and survived the Virginia Tech massacre more than a decade before, and a mother whose six-year-old son was murdered at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. At the time, Barack Obama had embraced Francine Wheeler, promising that this time, after the deaths of 20 small children, the reaction would be different. “It wasn’t different,” Wheeler said.
Florida senator Bill Nelson spoke into his microphone to introduce Fred Guttenberg. “Fred is standing,” he said, “because Fred cannot talk about this sitting down.”
Guttenberg’s older son, Jesse, is more quiet. Jaime had been the loud one, the feisty one, the silly one, the one who never stopped talking because she had so much to say. She was constantly on the phone with her mother. “If my daughter’s shoelace got untied, she would call my wife to tell her about it,” Guttenberg said.
When the shooting happened, Jaime’s older brother called his father even as he was running away, worried that he could not find his sister. “Keep running,” his father told him. The two parents started texting and calling Jaime. No response. At first they guessed she might have dropped her phone. But then, as all the other kids found ways to reach their parents, they heard nothing. They drove to the hospital. She wasn’t there.
Driving home Guttenberg got a call from one of his best friends, a Coral Springs Swat officer, who had been one of the first responders inside the school. His friend told him that they should meet at the Marriott Hotel, where students had been bussed to meet their friends and family.
Guttenberg told his friend said he did not want to wait for news. “I can hear it in your voice,” Guttenberg told him. “And he broke down crying. He found my daughter. He was the one.”
His wife was driving in a separate car behind him, and she could tell, just from what she could see of his demeanor in his rearview mirror, that something had changed. She called him on the phone: “You know something.” He wanted to wait to tell her. She would not wait. They pulled over to the side of the road.
“That’s how my wife found out,” Guttenberg said. “At the side of the road.”
“Imagine every worst possibility in your life,” he said, “and that’s what it felt like.”
People grieve very differently. Guttenberg’s wife, who is intensely private, now has to deal not just with losing her child, but to losing her in a particularly horrific and public way. Some parents are like this. Others are like Guttenberg, turning outward, finding their best solace in relentless and articulate rage.
In the wake of so many American mass killings, there have been a series of parents like him: the ones who come out swinging, the ones who seem impossibly strong in the early days of grief. “How can they do it?” people wonder.
A week after his daughter’s murder, Guttenberg confronted his senator on live television without a pause or hesitation. In Washington, he is polite to senators, to staffers, to the people who tell him how brave he is, to the people who tell him they are praying for his family. He seems genuinely grateful for the support. It is important to remember that all of this is a coping mechanism.
“The only time I don’t think about my daughter and just want to cry, to be honest, is when I’m busy doing this,” Guttenberg said. “At least I feel like I’m doing something to honor her memory.”
He was in a back hallway in the Capitol basement, hastily eating a sandwich that a congressional staffer had given him before it was time to testify. Guttenberg would go on to tell the story of his daughter’s murder three different times in less than six hours, choking up most often as he explained that, in the ordinary chaos of sending her off to school on the last day of her life, he could not remember if he had actually told Jaime that he loved her.
He would do most of this on his feet: standing at the hearing, standing for hours that night in front of a packed high school auditorium in Alexandria, Virginia, as a long line of adults and children, some as young as 10 and 11, shared their anger and their fear and their plans for staging walkouts on 14 March to protest about inaction on school shootings. Two Democratic congressman flanked Guttenberg. They had sat, briefly, on the stools provided them, and then stood, because he was standing.
“Three weeks ago, I was just Jesse and Jaime’s dad,” he told the audience of hundreds. “I don’t sit when I discuss this.”
“Every time one of these incidents happens, the conversation afterwards is always way too polite, way too comfortable and way too temporary.”
Pressure on politicians will reach a crescendo later this month when the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas lead the March For Our Lives in Washington on 24 March. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend and more than 500 events will be staged across the US and around the world demanding measures to end gun violence and mass shootings.
The activism from his daughter’s Stoneman Douglas classmates, and from kids all over the country, gives Guttenberg hope. Some of the students at TC Williams high school in Virginia were wearing and hanging out orange ribbons, like the one Guttenberg himself wore, a symbol of gun violence prevention, and Jaime’s favorite color.
Earlier in the day, he had spent an hour with Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican whose support of assault weapons he had excoriated on television. He did not think Rubio’s views were changing, but he respected that Rubio had taken the time to meet with him face-to-face.
Guttenberg carries around a screenshot of the latest ad from National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch, where she warned the NRA’s opponents, some of them by name, “Your time is running out.”
“If this was put out by a terrorist organization, we would be raising the terror threat level in this country. Why are we letting this lobby having anything to do with DC? I don’t understand it,” Guttenberg told Democratic senators at Wednesday’s hearing, his voice breaking with frustration.
Before the hearing, in the hallway outside the conference room, Guttenberg had been even blunter. “All our legislators who stand with the NRA, they’re standing with a terrorist group,” he said.
Loesch has defended the ad as simply a promo for her new NRA TV show. She wrote on Twitter that it was “unproductive” to call millions of NRA members “terrorists” because “their choice of protecting their families is different from yours”.
While he wants to ban assault weapons like the rifle used to kill his daughter, a ban is not actually Guttenberg’s top priority at the moment. “I don’t think it will ever happen in this environment,” he said. “As much as I would like to see that, I’m interested in taking steps to start dealing with the safety issue in a pragmatic way.”
His current priorities are these: raising the age to buy guns – the shooter, who was 19, had been to buy a military-style rifle before he was legally allowed to have a beer; adding a waiting period before gun sales; ensuring a “truly effective” background check system for gun sales, with no loopholes; banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and bump stocks.
He says guns should be treated more like cars, with mandatory licensing, registration and insurance – a policy that even Democrats like Obama had treated as too extreme to pursue.
Guttenberg said that was ridiculous. “Anyone who says there’s no support for gun legislation that’s as minimal as that should be fired. That’s what I think.”
He is not putting much faith in national politicians’ ability to stand up to the NRA. But corporate America has been “heroic”, with some major corporations ending special discounts for NRA members, and others voluntarily announcing they would raise the age for buying certain guns or resolving to stop selling assault-style rifles.
As Guttenberg spoke to Senate Democrats, Florida’s legislature was in the process of passing its first serious gun control legislation in decades. It was “the bare minimum legislation”, he said, raising age limits for buying guns, creating a waiting period, and banning bump stocks, but the fact that any legislation passed in Florida, a pro-gun state, was a blow to the NRA’s “aura of strength” .
The financial industry is next, Guttenberg hopes. He wanted to see all investment funds “divest themselves of these gun manufacturers and of companies that have relationships with the NRA”.
This is his strategy: “Keep the pressure on the money.”