Interview: Parkland Dad Fred Guttenberg Talks Gun Violence & 2020
This interview is published on Rantt Media in partnership with The Hardy Report
Who is Fred Guttenberg and why is his campaigning for gun reform?
On February 14th 2018, a shooter opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, killing 17 people and injuring another 17. Those who lost their lives included Fred Guttenberg’s 14-year-old daughter, Jaime. In response to that tragic day, he set up ‘Orange Ribbons for Jaime’ to honor his daughter by supporting programs that were important to her, as well as dedicating the rest of his life to pushing for common-sense gun safety reform.
Having spoken at a Senate hearing on gun violence, challenged the National Rifle Association (NRA), lobbied members of Congress to push gun reform, corresponded with presumptive Democratic Nominee Joe Biden, and filed lawsuits to oppose a Florida law that protects gun sellers from being held liable for mass shootings, Guttenberg has been called “one of the strongest voices for changes to gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting”.
[Editor’s Note: This transcript has been edited, for clarity, from the original interview.]
Edward Hardy: You’ve dedicated your life to fighting against gun violence after what tragically happened at Parkland school and in honor of your daughter, Jaime, you set up ‘Orange Ribbons for Jaime’. Could you tell us a bit about what work you’ve done with that organization?
Fred Guttenberg: We’ve been doing our part to educate across this country and the world about gun violence and what we can do to reduce it. Probably the thing we’re most proud of from ‘Orange Ribbons’ is the scholarship program we set up this year for kids of all abilities. We basically have three buckets. One bucket is for kids who are going to school to help other people. Those kids need to have a background in dance and community service because Jaime did. The second bucket is for kids who are going to go to school and major in dance but they also need to have a background in community service because Jaime did. The third bucket is the kids of all abilities part, kids with documented special needs who are going to go on to a post-high school education.
This year we gave out 14 scholarships, which is what we’ll do every year because Jaime was 14, and we gave out over $50,000 in scholarships this year. ‘Orange Ribbons for Jaime’ is more about Jaime and what mattered to her in life than it is about changing the world of guns. I do that in my name. I also have another entity, ‘Orange Ribbons For Gun Safety’, which is more of the advocacy piece, but my life, ultimately, when I retire from this advocacy work, will always be honoring my daughter.
Hardy: There’s obviously the comedy night for ‘Orange Ribbons for Jaime’, and ‘Get on your Feet’, the second annual danceathon, so tell us a bit about those activities that are coming up this year.
Guttenberg: We’re trying to do events to raise money that brings the community together in a way that seems like Jaime, that feels like Jaime, so we decided to do something different. We created this danceathon across America because Jaime was a dancer and we had a really wonderful night. It was the first time since Jaime was killed where we could get together and celebrate Jaime and smile and laugh and not feel emotional and want to cry. We honored and celebrated my daughter that night for the first time and we raised money in doing it and it’s going to become a yearly signature event.
The comedian Jessica Kirson, who’s based in New York, was following me on Twitter and had reached out at one point. We got to know each other because, on a trip of mine to New York, she invited me to one of her shows. That night, after the show, we were talking and she said she’d love to do a fundraiser for me and committed to finding talent to round out the night. We did it on February 19th, a few days after the two -year remembrance. After going through the trauma of the two-year mark we were able to come together and laugh and smile. That’s something we want to do every year, kind of have a moment where people can come together and keep moving forward.
Two people said to me after Jaime died ‘You don’t move on. You move forward’. Everything we do is a process of trying to move forward. One of them was the Rabbi at her funeral and the other one was Vice President Joe Biden. That’s what we try to do. We keep trying to do things that allow myself, my wife, my son, and our extended family to move forward but the community as well.
Hardy: You mentioned Joe Biden there and how supportive he’s been of the work that you’ve been doing. With him now on the Democratic Party’s ticket, there’s a real moment here to tackle this inaction that we’ve seen since 2018 on gun control, despite all of the work that you’ve been doing, despite the public support out there. Joe Biden could win the presidency, Democrats could retake the Senate and then pass this legislation. What would you really want to see in this moment? What policies would you want to see get into legislation?
Guttenberg: There actually has not been inaction on gun safety. When you look across the country in cities and states, it’s amazing what’s going on. It’s at a federal, national level where there has been inaction from the administration and the Senate. The House is passing legislation under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi and I could not be more pleased and proud of what they’re doing. So, the question is how do we take that now and finish this?
Everything I do is all about reducing the gun violence death rate. That’s the goal. Clearly the most obvious way is going to be effective background checks with no loopholes. That has to be passed. The idea that the Senate and administration could not do what the House had already done and finish it is mind-boggling, so that’s number one. And background checks should also be done on ammunition, so we’re working on ‘Jaime’s Law’. It’s been introduced in the House and the Senate, which would extend background checks to ammunition. You have almost 400 million guns on the street. They’re not all in the hands of people who mean you well. And people who are prohibited purchasers of firearms, they’re also by law prohibited from buying ammunition but there’s no requirement for a background check on ammunition. So, you may be in possession of guns illegally. You may have stolen your weapon and you can walk into the store and buy the bullets, so we need to fix that.
We need to do extreme risk protection orders or red flag laws across this. They are saving lives in every state that they’ve been asked to. We need to raise the age to 21. We need to ban high capacity magazines. We need to pass additional funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because you can’t say: ‘There’s nothing we can do about this’ if you won’t even study the problem. Joe Biden is committed to doing something that I think changes this entire dynamic, which is repealing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the federal law that makes it illegal to sue the gun manufacturers.
If you want to change how guns are handled in this country, make people liable for their behavior in spreading this nightmare across our country, call the executives of the retailers and the manufacturers and ask them: ‘What were you thinking? Did you actually ever account for the fact that some of these would be used in crimes? That you kill people? What did you do about it?’. I want these people on the stand and I want them held accountable. If you want to change the reality of gun violence in this country, open up the lawsuits and we’ll get that done.
Hardy: One of the policies that you’ve been really supportive of, but aren’t currently pushing for, is the complete ban of assault-style weapons. Why is Congress and why are Republicans in the Senate refusing to ban assault weapons?
Guttenberg: Two reasons. They’re complete and utter cowards. They’re not leaders. They’re cowards and they are beholden to an organization that utilizes money to create fear that they might be primaried by somebody to the right of them. The NRA has behaved like a terror group. In essence, they have those Republican legislators afraid the NRA could turn around and, rather than using the money to support them, use the money against them. They don’t stand up for anything that could potentially cost them their seat, even if they know it’s not right.
I did not start out calling for a ban on AR-15s after my daughter was killed because people run left and right every time you talk about a ban and they stop talking about all the other stuff that we could do to save lives. What changed me is watching these groups of protesters. In Virginia, where ‘Moms Demand’ were peacefully protesting, they were confronted by protestors covering their faces, and with AR-15s strapped to their shoulder. These people who believe they have a right to an AR-15, also appear to think they have a right to try and intimidate others with their AR-15s. That’s no longer about sport. That is about intimidation and saying ‘If you try to do something that I don’t like, I may use this on you’. Those AR-15 owners have pushed me to a place of believing that those things should be banned and those protestors should never be allowed to carry them in public.
Hardy: Even the NRA recognized the risk of the threat of people carrying guns because, as you pointed out, at the NRA convention in Dallas, when Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to speak, they prohibited guns from being held by conference attendees because they thought they could be a potential threat. How hypocritical is it for these organizations to be out there saying ‘Everyone should have a right to have these guns, there’s no risk’, but then as soon as it’s their conference and their setting, they go ‘Actually, we don’t want these guns here’?
Guttenberg: You have the legislators who think there should be no change, but they’ll never allow one of those protesters in their office with an AR-15 in the Senate buildings. It’s completely hypocritical. It’s nonsensical. The NRA is nothing more than a gun selling organization. That’s all that they are. In fact, they are reaching out to everybody receiving their COVID-19 relief funds from the government and telling them to use those funds, not on food, not on paying your electric, to go out and buy guns. That’s what the NRA is. They are a terror group. They do not care about safety. They don’t care about your safety. They don’t care about the safety of those you love. They care about the gun sellers they represent. Period. Full stop.
Hardy: Following a mass shooting, you see someone say, and you’ve pointed out this issue: ‘The conversation afterwards is always way too polite, way too comfortable, and way too temporary.’ People will say: ‘It’s wrong to politicize this. Why are we talking about this when we should be mourning the loss of these individuals?’ So, the conversation can’t happen on gun violence and the issue around guns. How did you deal with that backlash and what do you say to those individuals who say: ‘We can’t have this conversation now.’?
Guttenberg: The second my daughter was killed, I realized I was already too late. The fact that I didn’t turn up and speak after all the other instances of gun violence is a guilt that I will live with the rest of my life. Every time there’s an instance of gun violence, it is not a time for people to shut up. It is a time for people to scream that we are continuing to allow this to happen. So, how do you deal with it? You ignore those who tell you: ‘You want to sit down and be quiet about this. We need a few weeks to deal.’ Wrong. When we’re putting people in cemeteries, it’s too late, so nobody will ever tell me again when I can or should speak about this.
I’m glad you brought up the idea of what I used to say about this conversation because it was always way too comfortable, way too temporary, and way too polite. I refused to make people comfortable when I was talking about what happened to my daughter. There’s no chance I was going to be temporary and I didn’t feel the need to be polite. I wanted to have civil conversation, but I wasn’t letting anyone else off the hook. What happened to my daughter was preventable. What happened to the other 16 was preventable. What happened to all the people before then was preventable and what continues to happen is preventable. We’re no longer letting people off the hook. We are going to get the change done.
Hardy: Mass shootings are really painful for the families affected. They’re painful for anyone in the community and, to add to that pain, you have organizations like the NRA and InfoWars coming out and directly attacking individuals, like yourself, from accusations of politicizing a tragedy to accusing it to being a false flag attack. How much distress have those attacks caused yourself and those around you? Did they sometimes make you think this is too much or do they just motivate you further and you say: ‘If people are going to be like this, I’m just going to fight harder. I’m going to fight stronger.’?
Guttenberg: Listen, I wish it didn’t happen. I wish people didn’t do that. The majority of that stuff honestly comes from paid trolls and bots. Earlier on in this process, I used to involve some people in law enforcement when I felt like people were going over the edge. When they looked into it, it was almost always coming from places that weren’t even in this country. Not everybody though, so when it’s coming from somebody who is in this country or from one of these organizations directly, I don’t run from it, I believe sunlight is the greatest way of exposing people.
If you’re going to do that and you think because you made a comment to me in a thread on Twitter and no one’s going to notice, just know that I will highlight it, I will expose it, I will retweet it for the world to see, because they do it to intimidate and they try to get people to stop. I’m not going anywhere because the mission that I’m on here to bring civility and decency back throughout this process of getting gun safety done isn’t going away.
Hardy: We’ve talked about the potential future in Congress and in the White House. In November, people have a chance to make a change and have their voice heard on issues like this. But Donald Trump has been able to appoint two justices to the Supreme Court, making it a conservative Supreme Court. Does that concern you, that the impact the conservative Supreme Court could have on gun rights and gun control in America?
Guttenberg: What a timely question because there was actually just a ruling by the Supreme Court yesterday on gun issues. Their ruling surprised me in a pleasant way but they’re getting ready to take on more cases, so it scares the daylights out of me. The gun lobby has shown they’re losing the argument legislatively. They’re losing it politically. You can just look at the trends and that’s going to continue after this next election. They’re filing lawsuits like crazy. Everything they don’t like, they file a lawsuit.
Now, the truth is, as far as I’m concerned, keep the NRA filing lawsuits, because ultimately they can’t fund all the lawsuits they’re filing. It’ll just further weaken them, but those cases scare the daylights out of me. When I was at the Kavanaugh hearings and I went up to introduce myself and shake the man’s hand, all I wanted to say to him was: ‘You and your beautiful family live in a community like mine. This could have happened to you. Please remember that when you have a chance to rule on something like this.’ That’s the entirety of what I wanted to say to him. I never got the chance because he turned around. My hope, and I’m counting on it, is that President Biden will also have his chance to appoint justices and we’ll start to get some normalcy back.
Hardy: Over the next four years, it’s likely that whoever is in the White House will have the power to nominate at least one, if not two, Supreme Court justices who will have the power to decide on a myriad of cases. How important is this election? How important is it for people to go out there and vote and make their voice heard on these issues in November?
Guttenberg: People always say: ‘This is the election of our lifetime’ and in a normal election this Supreme Court issue may have been the most important issue. This is not a normal election, but the Supreme Court issue is vitally important because of the role they will play, not only in this issue of gun violence, but in restoring our democracy. In November, the voters in this country are going to show up. They’re going to get out and vote and it’s going to be a resounding victory. We’re going to elect Joe Biden as President and we’re going to flip the Senate and we’re going to hold the House. I’m a believer in divided government as much as anybody. However, in this moment in time, the remnants of what was once the Republican Party, they need to be gone. We can bring in newer versions of that party, but the remnants of what was once a really strong, proud GOP doesn’t exist. They need to be fired.
Hardy: Finally, for any politicians listening out there, what would your closing message to them be looking ahead to November?
Guttenberg: You were voted in to defend America, not to defend your seat. You were voted in to defend our democracy, not to get acquainted with forces that are about protecting somebody who doesn’t believe in our democracy and that’s the current occupant of the White House. So, if you’re on the right side of defending America and defending our democracy, I look forward to welcoming you back after the election. If you’re not on the right side of that, and you refuse to defend America, and you refuse to defend our democracy, as the current occupant of the White House used to say: ‘You’re fired!’
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