Three years after a life-altering tragedy, this activist and author remains dedicated to his cause
At the beginning of his Zoom call with Boca, Fred Guttenberg texted his son, Jesse, to let him know he was on an interview. “I always make sure my kids know they can reach me one way or another,” he said, and then caught himself. “Well, let my son know. It’ll take me forever to not say ‘my kids.’”
Guttenberg sat at his office computer in his Parkland home, behind which hung a framed performance photo of his daughter, Jaime—in Fred’s description “a tough-as-nails 14-year-old dancer with a huge heart”—aloft and ecstatic against a black background. It’s a stirring image to remember her by, unlike the final photograph ever taken of Jaime Guttenberg, on the third floor of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, with a black digital oval placed over her body by law enforcement.
Jaime was the second-to-last victim—but the first identified casualty—of the school shooting that ended the lives of 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018. Since then, Fred Guttenberg has spent most of his waking hours fighting for stricter gun safety measures and criticizing politicians who accept campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. He helped start the Orange Ribbons for Jaime movement, which was embraced everywhere from Parkland to Broadway, where cast members of “Hamilton” and “Lion King” donned the ribbons. His advocacy contributed to the ousters of 17 NRA-backed politicians during the 2018 midterm elections.
In a city that has become defined by its activism on this issue, Guttenberg has wielded one of its loudest megaphones, accruing some 359,000 Twitter followers and traveling to Washington to lobby his cause. He was handcuffed and detained by Capitol Police at the 2020 State of the Union address for letting his emotions get the best of him, and he received a cold shoulder when he introduced himself to Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court Justice’s confirmation hearings. But he’s made allies too: among them Joe Biden, who first called him 10 days after Jaime’s murder.
Guttenberg documents his journey from grief to action in Find the Helpers, his 2020 book combining self-help and memoir, in which he spotlights the people—and animals—that have helped him cope. He discusses this and more in our candid conversation.
This issue will come out in February, when many Americans will celebrate Valentine’s Day. But this day means something very different to Parkland. What is the day like at your house?
The day used to be my wife’s favorite holiday. It used to be a day that we always made a big fuss over. It’s not anymore. It’s a day that we make very private. We go to the cemetery. We spend it with limited family, talking to some friends but in a very quiet way. In the last two years, in the run-up to the day, we were very active in going out, and maybe doing interviews. On Feb. 14 we stay home.
You write about experiencing good days and bad days in terms of your grief. For those who are going through a tough grieving process, how do you recommend overcoming the bad days?
It really gets to the name of the book: Know who your helpers are. Know who the people are that you can reach out to, not necessarily to have someone work at making you feel better, because there are days you just don’t feel like feeling better. But someone who is just going to be there, to talk to you, to hear you out. Also, know the kinds of things that you can do that may be distracting to you. For me, it’s music. On some of my worst days, I get out in my car, just me, nobody else, and I put on Billy Joel. His music has been with me my entire life. I love a lot of music, and a lot of musicians, but he is the guy I listen to when I just want to clear my head.
And I love that you mention your dog as a helper, too.
Listen, four months before Jaime was killed, we got our second puppy. I was not a fan of getting a second dog. We had one perfect dog. But after my brother died [at 50, from pancreatic cancer, four months before Jaime’s passing—Ed.], it was just something my wife and kids wanted. Thank God for that dog, because he saved our life. Our dogs are my kids, they’re with us all the time, and yeah—animals are helpers.
What is it like for you to visit or drive by MSD these days; do you see an A-rated school, or do you see a crime scene?
I see the place where my daughter took her last breath. And I avoid driving by it whenever possible. I go around it. My son is no longer there. I have no desire to maintain a connection to it. In fact, the behavior of that school administration and of the district towards the families has been atrocious. So I do not care to maintain a relationship. They’ve gone out of their way to try to sanitize what happened. They’ve gone out of their way to move on. But you can’t move on from the reality that 17 people died there, and at a minimum, they ought to be doing everything they can to act like New York did after 9-11, and to recognize the horror of that scene. But that scene also could be a place of healing.
Are you saying that perhaps the building could become a memorial, and the students could go to a different school?
The intention is that that’s eventually going to happen. The state attorney has wanted that building to stay up, to be used in the trial. I suspect a new state attorney is probably going to make a different decision on that, which will free that building to come down, and the plan is for a memorial to eventually be built there. What’s amazing to me is how the school right now has wiped the premises free of the names of the 17 who died.
What will you be pushing for in the Biden Administration in terms of gun policies?
The things I will be asking for is, no. 1, public safety isn’t just about policy. It’s also about the way we talk. It’s about the way we lead. And I’ll be looking forward to that difference in the way a president talks and leads because that will, in and of itself, drive a level of public safety. But on gun safety, I am looking for a comprehensive plan. I’m not looking for a piecemeal approach, where we try to get background checks done here, and when that’s done, we’ll try to get red flag laws done next. I would like a comprehensive vision on what a gun safety plan looks like, and a comprehensive package to pass the House and Senate that will deal with background checks, not only on weapons but ammunition as well. There’s already 400 million weapons on the street, so we need to know who’s buying the bullets.
Red flag laws or extreme risk protection orders, raising the [gun-buying] age to 21, CDC funding, banning high-capacity magazines and banning assault weapons … There’s a whole host that we can do to save lives, and that’s what this is about. It’s about saving lives. It’s not about infringing on any legal, lawful gun owner. But the gun violence death rate has been going up, up, up; we need to start bending that curve.
The issue of gun reform has receded from our politics, because we’ve been putting out other fires. And it’s often the case that politicians only talk about it after there’s been a horrific shooting, at which time the NRA’s defenders often say that it’s too soon to talk about it. When is the ideal time to talk about this?
It’s not when the NRA says. As far as I’m concerned, they are irrelevant to the process of our public safety. They don’t care about our public safety, so I don’t care what they say the right time is. The right time is every minute of every day that too many Americans are dying of gun violence. So that means we should always be talking about it.
What is unique now, with a news cycle that is properly dominated by this pandemic, is the politics of the pandemic and the politics of gun safety are very similar. And the pandemic has led to a gun surge across this country that needs to be dealt with.
There was a lawsuit filed last summer by the New York Attorney General to dissolve the NRA. Do you think it has a chance of actually putting an end to this organization?
It sure does. And what got overlooked that day is that another lawsuit got filed in Washington, D.C. by their attorney general to deal with some other components of laws being broken by the NRA. I’ve always said the majority of NRA members are actually very supportive of gun safety. And the NRA leadership did not represent them. What’s ultimately going to do the NRA in is that they were stealing from their members to fund a very lavish lifestyle for those in charge. And it’s going to be financial, criminal behavior that will do this organization in. I do think this organization is going to suffer some serious setbacks and defeats.
You’ve proven to be such a fighter on this issue. Did you surprise yourself with the fire that you’ve brought to your activism, or did you know that this side of your personality was in you?
I’ve always known I’m a relentless pain in the you-know-what. I guess maybe, when I was in my business, it probably served me well, although it probably bothered people to some extent. In this mission, it is serving me well. What people need to understand is there is a difference in the Fred Guttenberg before February 14, 2018, and after. I’ve lost the capacity for fear. My daughter had fear, running down a hallway, knowing there was an AR-15 at her back. I’ll never have the fear that she had, because I’ve lost the ability to have it.
And so I can’t be stopped now from challenging people who are not doing what we need them to do for our public safety. In the time that we do this interview, somebody’s going to be burying a victim of gun violence. Somebody’s going to find out they were a victim of gun violence; somebody’s going to be planning a funeral for a victim of gun violence. That’s not OK; it’s not normal. And I’m not going to sit down while there are legislators who we count on to do things, and who refuse to do it.
You write briefly about the inspiring student activists from the school, several of whom have become household names. How does your activism dovetail with theirs?
We’re all fighting for the same end goal, which is public safety, and for a different civil leadership. I’m not sure that we all have the same ideas on all the details, but we’re fighting for the same end goal. But these kids are amazing. And we’re not connected in how we go about this; in fact, for the most part, I chose my own unique and direct path. I will connect and coordinate with anybody who wants to do something about this issue.
The trial of Jaime’s murderer has been delayed, like so many things, because of the virus. When it does commence, will you be there?
As often as I can, and that’s hopefully every minute. I’m not expecting the trial to begin, at this point, until 2022, because of the pandemic, because of the actions of the defense to continue causing this thing to move so pathetically slowly while they spend time defending this killer, and not worrying about the families.
What do you hope will be his sentence?
Here’s what I would love. I wish that he didn’t need to be protected now. I wish he could be put into the general prison population now, and I’d love the prisoners to short-circuit the entire process and take care of this now. But assuming that’s not going to happen, I want him to get the death penalty.
Has losing so many close people altered the way you feel about death, about an afterlife, about the soul continuing on?
A few things for me … it’s definitely had an impact on my relationship with God. As I tell people often, I’m not sure we’re on a full-on divorce, but papers have been served. It has changed the way I look at life in the present. I used to be a very long-term thinker. I always used to not only worry about what was going to happen today, but the impact of that five years down the road. I have lost the ability to look long-term. I look day by day now.
As for an afterlife, I’ve never really been sure what happens to us. Listen, I’m always looking for signs from my brother and my daughter. And every once in a while, I feel very confident that I get them. And it gives me hope that somewhere in this universe we are still connected. And at some point we’ll be connected in a more meaningful way again in the future.