Father of Parkland shooting victim talks to University students
Fred Guttenberg spoke to students about his work as a gun violence prevention activist in a March 24 talk.
Activist Fred Guttenberg gave an impassioned lecture on the dangers of gun violence at an event on March 24 hosted by Brandeis Students Demand Action. Guttenberg’s daughter, Jaime, was among the 17 killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Since his daughter’s death, Guttenberg has been an outspoken advocate for gun control and against gun violence, speaking at events across the country and urging teenagers and young adults to speak out.
Guttenberg began by informing the audience that at the end he would take questions, saying, “There is nothing I won’t answer.” He also noted that the event was taking place on the four-year anniversary of March For Our Lives in Washington D.C., which was organized by students at MSD High School. “I am honored to actually be spending it with young people, with students,” he said, describing the young people in the U.S. as people he “value[s] deeply.”
Guttenberg began his presentation by urging students to find their “happy place,” explaining that he likes to get everybody in a certain kind of mood at the beginning of his talks. He told the audience to close their eyes and relax. After a few moments, Guttenberg broke the silence by slamming his hands down on the podium and yelling, “Boom!” Audience members gasped at the exclamation.
“People always say to me, ‘I can’t imagine how you feel,’” he said. “I have spent the last four years trying to get people to imagine how I feel [and] wanting people to understand that in the greatest moment of your life, things can happen that can change it.” He went on to describe one of those moments in his life — the morning of Feb. 14, 2018, the last time he saw and spoke to his daughter.
His goal that day was to introduce his two children to the “romance of Valentine’s day,” and he had been planning a special day for the family. But that morning, he was rushing his children out the door. It was a chaotic morning — they were running late for school and were arguing, “as was usually the case,” according to Guttenberg. His last words to his children that morning were him telling them they had to go or they would be late. Then, Jaime Guttenberg was shot and killed. “I never expected that boom — that sudden, abrupt end,” he said.
Guttenberg then posed a serious question for the audience to consider “forevermore”: “Who here wants to get shot?” He said that he knew the answer, which was no one. He went on to say that no one wants a loved one to be shot either, and no one wants “that horrible phone call.” No one, he said, wants that “abrupt end.” His goal, he explained, is to have a world where getting shot or a loved one being shot is not everyone’s biggest worry. He urged the audience to become serious about gun violence prevention and to become a bigger part of that movement, telling them that their “lives depend on it.”
Guttenberg then began to speak more about his family. His brother, Michael Guttenberg ’89, was a first responder during and after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Michael Guttenberg, or “BEMCo Mike,” as he was known around the University campus, died of cancer on Oct. 17, 2017 as a result of 9/11. He worked at the site for three days, breathing in toxins that later caused his pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in 2013 and spread to his liver and intestines after a few years of being cancer free. After his death, he was given a “hero’s funeral” by the New York City Fire Department, according to Guttenberg. “My brother was a person who never put himself first,” Guttenberg said. “[He] always, always lived his days to take care of others.”
“Gun violence isn’t only about the people we bury,” he said. “It’s also about the people who survive.”
On Feb. 14, 2018, Guttenberg’s son, Jesse, called him just after 2 p.m. to tell him that there was a shooting at the school. “My son is a jokester, so I did not take him seriously at first,” Guttenberg said. It wasn’t until his son said that he could not find Jaime that Guttenberg realized it was the truth — his son, he said, “wouldn’t mess around about her safety.” Jesse said that the students were being made to run, but he had to turn around because he could not find his sister. Guttenberg told his son he had to get as far away as possible. “[Jesse] said, ‘I have to find Jaime.’ I said, ‘don’t you dare. You keep running,’” Guttenberg said of the phone call. As they were on the phone, his son told him that he was hearing more bullets. “Those were the ones on the third floor that were killing his sister,” Guttenberg said.
“I sent two children to school that day,” Guttenberg said. “Only one of them came home.”
Guttenberg then explained how he became an advocate for gun violence prevention after the shooting. That day, he said, it never occurred to him that what had happened was gun violence. Parkland, he explained, was a place where gun violence did not happen — until it did. Soon after the shooting, he attended a memorial, and the mayor asked him if he wanted to take her speaking slot, and Guttenberg agreed. He did not know what he was going to say, except that he would talk about Jaime. “I got up on the stage and I looked down at the thousands of people carrying their candles … people crying … and for the first time, it really hit me: this was gun violence,” Guttenberg said.
“I said that night, without having any evidence to make a statement like this, but it turns out I was right: ‘This time, gun violence touched the wrong dad and the wrong community,’” Guttenberg said of his speech at the memorial. “And I set out on a mission that night … to break the f—ing gun lobby.” He is not going to quit, he said, until he does. To do so, he said that he needs young people to use their voices and their power. “I need you,” he said to the audience.
Guttenberg then talked about the “amazing support” he has received over the last four years. John Kasich, who was the Republican governor of Ohio from 2011 to 2019, shocked Guttenberg “to no end.” Because many Republicans support gun rights and are opposed to strict gun reform, Kasich’s support made that much more of a difference. He showed, Guttenberg said, that solving gun violence did not have to be a partisan issue. “Bullets don’t know what party you belong to when they hit you,” Guttenberg said.
Kasich was not the only politician that provided support to Guttenberg. Roughly a week after Jaime was killed, Guttenberg received a phone call from an unknown number. Because he did not know who was calling, he did not pick up. It was only after receiving a voicemail from that number that Guttenberg learned that it was Joe Biden who had called him. In the message, Biden said that he would call him back at 6 p.m., but if Guttenberg did not want to talk, he would understand. When he called again, Guttenberg picked up, and they spoke for over an hour. On the call, Biden wanted to know more about his children and his wife, and he asked how the family was doing so early on after the shooting. “When he asked me that question, I knew he was asking me as a person who truly understands what it’s like to lose people you love,” Guttenberg said.
Three weeks after the phone call, Guttenberg met Biden in person at an event in Florida for the Beau Biden Foundation along with more parents of other Parkland victims. He expected to only have a minute to say hello, but the parents were brought to a private room and spoke with Biden for almost 45 minutes. During that meeting, Biden gave what Guttenberg considers to be the “single most important advice” he has ever received about grief. “He went on to tell me, ‘We don’t all grieve the same way,’” Guttenberg said. Biden told him that the majority of marriages break up after a tragedy such as losing a child — 92% — to prepare him. He told Guttenberg that it is important to find ways to support each other despite grieving differently, and it ended up saving Guttenberg’s family. While Guttenberg has been very vocal and public ever since the shooting, his wife and son “wanted no part of that,” and without Biden’s advice, Guttenberg thinks that he would not have been able to understand that.
Guttenberg told the audience that “we all go through things in life,” but that nothing he has been through has ever come close to his experience as a grieving parent. He said that he has “been from the lowest possible moments that a human being can go through,” but that he has learned that there is always a way forward. “There is always a way to make that next step, and there’s always people to help you when you feel like you’re too weak to do it on your own,” Guttenberg said.
Guttenberg was asked how young people can fight a “system that won’t listen.” In response, he told the student that the way to fight is to vote. “The system is listening,” he said. It is where people don’t vote that “the system not listening succeeds.” Four years ago, when Jaime was killed, there were 300 million weapons on the streets of America. Today, there are over 400 million. Guttenberg said gun violence cannot be eradicated completely, but he believes that much more can be done to prevent it than is being done currently. Guttenberg was adamant that anyone who believes that their vote does not matter is wrong.
Another student asked why Guttenberg did not consider running for office. Guttenberg had been asked by a congressman he was friends with to run in the past, but he never had a desire to. He explained that he does not want a lifetime of campaigning and fundraising, and that he does not want to moderate his voice. Doing what he is currently doing, he is able to hold people accountable and say what he believes needs to be said. “I got pretty good access without being elected to anything,” he said.
Another question posed was what Guttenberg believes can be done to help communities that are consistently victims of gun violence. In response, Guttenberg said that one thing he focuses on is providing food to these communities. In the first week after Jaime’s death, he said that he did not know how he and his family ate that week. When everything just stops, it is hard to remember to take care of yourself, so Guttenberg said that in a few weeks, he and his wife are announcing a partnership with José Andrés, a famous chef, in which they will strive to feed victims of gun violence across the country. “Whatever communities [or] individuals — doesn’t matter where — are affected by gun violence, we are going to be there,” he said.