Take Note: Fred Guttenberg, Father Of Parkland Shooting Victim, Fights Gun Violence
Fred Guttenberg’s 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was killed on Valentine's Day in 2008 during a mass shooting at her high school in Parkland, Florida. Guttenberg is now an activist against gun violence. He has started a foundation in his daughter's memory called “Orange Ribbons for Jaime” and has written a book about his ordeal and his mission called “Find the Helpers.” On this edition of Take Note, Guttenberg talks with us about his daughter, his mission, his new book, and some of the many people who have helped him cope.
ALLEN: Fred Guttenberg, welcome to Take Note.
GUTTENBERG: Thank you.
ALLEN: I didn't know until I read your book that when your daughter Jaime was murdered at Parkland, you were already grieving a very recent loss. Can you tell us about your brother?
GUTTENBERG: I'm one of five kids. My brother was a year younger than me. And he's what you would describe as an American hero. He's the person who runs into things that are going on when people like me are running away. And on 911, my brother, who was the deputy medical director of the New York Fire Department at the time, was running into the World Trade Center before the second building even got hit. He was in the World Trade Center when it collapsed. And amazingly, where he and 10 other doctors hid out did not collapse. But they breathed in all that toxic poison. And in 2013, he got the cancer that results from that. And in October of 2017, he died from that cancer. It was just four months before Jaime was killed.
ALLEN: Tell us what you would want us to know about your daughter, Jaime.
GUTTENBERG: She was the energy in the room. You were either laughing because of her, or sometimes yelling because of her. But you were always responding to her. My daughter was just always that spark. She was a beautiful child. She was competitive, she loved to dance, and she just never stopped working at getting better. But as her dad, what makes me most proud is the way she treated others. My daughter hated bullies, and stood up for kids who were being bullied. And she dedicated her time for kids with special needs and wanted actually to be a pediatric physical therapist. Her life was about doing right by others. And in her memory, we are continuing to do that for her.
ALLEN: I hesitate to ask you to relive the details of that Valentine's Day in 2018 when your daughter was murdered, but what to you is most important to tell people about that day.
GUTTENBERG: You know, on Valentine's Day, I sent two children to school. One of them came home and the other one I now visit in a cemetery. What I want people to know is what I remember about the morning when I last saw my children that day: I was busy rushing them out the door. I was busy rushing them to school. I wasn't busy telling them one last time how much I loved them. Because it was a normal day. My advice to every parent who I speak with: you make sure you tell your children every chance you get by looking them in the eye, how much you love them as if it's the last time because you just never know.
ALLEN: As we're speaking now, it has been about three years since that –
ALLEN: Almost. Has your grief changed in any way, three years later?
GUTTENBERG: It has. I'm no less angry over what happened. I'm no less determined to do something because of what happened. But I've gotten to a place where I tell my wife and my son all the time, now: I'm going to be okay. There was a period of time where I wasn't sure about that. But I've kind of decided I have a 20-year-old son, he has whole life ahead of him. And I'm 55. And as I tell him all the time, I plan to be around for another 50 years to watch him grow up and to enjoy every minute of that. It doesn't mean I don't think about my daughter every second. She's a part of me. But so is my son and I'm going to enjoy watching him get old.
ALLEN: What made you decide to write a book?
GUTTENBERG: When we were planning Jaime’s funeral, the funeral director handed me a journal and asked me if I've ever journaled before. And I told him I really hadn't. He goes, “Take this as a gift.” He goes, “Promise me you’ll try. I think it'll be a good thing.”
I was never much of a prolific writer. I became such after Jaime was killed in that I started journaling. And around April of 2018, I said to my wife, “I want to write a book.” That writing for me has been very therapeutic. The original intention of the book was going to be a book about our story: being part of two American tragedies and how the country responded to one tragedy, foreign terrorism one way and the other tragedy, gun violence another way. That was the original intention.
I got done writing and I shared it with somebody who I trust really deeply. And he handed it back to me and he said,” You’re not done writing.” And I said, “What do you mean, I'm not done writing? I’m exhausted. And this is my story. There's nothing more to tell.” And he goes, “But there is. Everywhere in your book, I'm getting these kernels about other people who are important, because I want to know more about that.”
And so I went back, over the next six months, and I started rewriting my book. And when I started thinking about all these other people, it hit me that I have these amazing people in my life, my helpers, who have carried me. I never thought of my life that way. And all of a sudden, I was now thinking about my life, and how other people get me through every minute of every day, and how lucky I am because of that. And so as I'm rewriting this book, and really telling more of all those other stories, other things were happening in the news. And so the delay became important, like the presidential election cycle. I now was able to write about it, like going to the State of the Union and being removed. That happened during the writing delay. Or getting that last phone call from President Biden on February 14, last year, which I was then able to write about because of the delay. So the delay ended up giving me opportunities to help more of the story. But it also caught me to rethink everything about my life. I don't do this by myself. I have very fortunately, other people who are a part of this with me.
ALLEN: I want to ask you about a lot of those stories. But let me get to the moment that you found your voice. You write in the book, that you found your voice, not on the day Jaime was murdered, but at the vigil you attended afterward? Why was that such an important moment?
GUTTENBERG: You know, after she was murdered, it's like the next 24 hours -- there's things I remember about that 24 hours that are so ingrained in me, it's like they happened a second ago. But there is a lot about that 24 hours, that is a blur. It didn't register with me what was really going on. My daughter died, but I was like I couldn't comprehend the big picture yet. And I went to this vigil. And the mayor, when I got there, she saw me, she asked me if I wanted to speak. And I just said, you know, sure. No, I didn't know what the right answer would be. I just said, “Sure.”
And I went up on the stage, I looked out and there's thousands of people with candles, and they're crying. And it hit me for the first time that this was gun violence, and what it did to my family and what it did to my community. And I'm looking out there. And for the first time, I'm becoming clear. And I remember going out there and just telling people about the morning where I didn't tell my kids I love them as the very last thing. And describing feeling broken. And at the end of it saying I don't know what I'm going to do next.
And I drove home from there. And I walked in my house, and I just looked at my friends and my family that were at the house. I said I got to break that (vulgarity) gun lobby. That's what I decided that night. I didn't know how I didn't know what it meant. But I knew that was going to be something I was setting out to do. And the next few days, we're planning a funeral burying my daughter receiving people at the house until the end of that first week when we went to the CNN Town Hall. And I started really using my voice that night. I haven't shut up since and I don't intend to.
ALLEN: What was the CNN Town Hall like?
GUTTENBERG: Surreal. I just remember going there and looking and seeing everybody sitting down. And I wasn't able to sit. I was just too revved up. And I also didn't want to sit because after all these other prior incidents of gun violence, I always thought people got way too comfortable talking about it, which is why it was so temporary these conversations. And so I decided I didn't need to make people feel comfortable around me and I stood there the entire night. And I remember watching people like Marco Rubio and Dana louche and just getting angrier and angrier, because I saw on that stage, the joining of the gun lobby and the elected person who delivers their message. And I knew that night that I had to break that grip.
ALLEN: Since then you visited many members of Congress in Washington, and you write that you don't sit down for those visits either. How have they have they gone?
GUTTENBERG: You know, most stand up and talk to me, eyeball to eyeball. Like I said, I don't have a need to make people feel comfortable with talking to them about what happened to my daughter. For those who have not been to one of these meetings in a representative or senator's office, typically you have a nice comfy couch and a coffee table and a few comfy chairs and everybody sits down and they get relaxed and you tell your story and why you're there. And everybody leaves smiling. That is not the way I felt like having to be. I felt like making those elected people feel what I feel, to understand and to be determined to join me in doing something about it. And so I stand.
ALLEN: Tell me about the gesture you used with the congressman who is sitting on his desk.
GUTTENBERG: It was actually on my very first visit to Washington DC. And one of the representatives, he sat on the corner of his desk, so he could sort of stay eyeball to eyeball with me. He was also quite a bit taller than me, so he was probably eyeball to eyeball even though he was sitting on the corner. And he's listening. But I felt like I wasn't getting his attention, like going in one ear and out the other. And so I'm describing how my daughter was shot, one single shot severed her spinal cord. And as I'm describing it, I slammed his desk with my open palm, and it made it very loud, dramatic noise that he wasn't expecting. And he just jumped. And I got his attention after that, and I decided that day that whenever I describe what happens happened to my daughter, I'm not going to refrain from doing that ever again. That's going to be part of how I talk about I want them to feel that suddenness the brutality of it.
ALLEN: What kind of gun legislation would you like to see,
GUTTENBERG: Number one is we got to do background checks. We’ve got to do it. But on weapons is not enough. Because with 400 million weapons on the streets, you have plenty of bad people with bad intentions who are already in possession of a weapon. And they can walk into any store and buy the bullets because there's no requirement for a background check on bullets. I want to extend background checks to ammunition.
I want to repeal PLCAA, which is the federal law that prevents people like me from suing gun manufacturers for liability. I think if we can start suing these manufacturers, you will see a dramatic change in the way guns are handled in this country, similar to the way we changed our mindset on tobacco.
We need to treat gun violence as a public health issue. Forty thousand people a year die. We have even more than that, who get injured every year. And the cost to our health system, economically, and in so many other ways is astronomical. So this country needs to start talking about this as a public health issue. And putting the resources behind solving that issue.
We need to raise the age for purchase to 21. We need to ban high capacity magazines. I can tell you, I want to ban assault weapons. When Jaime was killed the first year, I did not call for that. However, watching this past year, people show up to rallies and government buildings with their AR-15’s to intimidate and possibly use. We need to get a handle on that.
ALLEN: You were invited to speak to Democrats in Congress by Nancy Pelosi. And that was I think in 2018.
ALLEN: How did that go?
GUTTENBERG: It was late August of 2018. I was asked to come speak to the minority caucus -- at the time they were the minority caucus. And you know, when you do that, you have to prepare your speech in advance, because they have to have an idea as to what you're going to say. And I was sitting with Congressman Ted Deutsch, who was kind of hosting me. And I said to him, “Do you mind if I go a little rogue?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I don't want to read from my speech.” And he just said, “Go do your thing.”
And so I did. I wanted to talk to them all about 3D-printed home weapons, which we're about to be shared online. Now those of us who work in this area of gun violence, all knew that this was coming, but nobody there did because they weren't paying attention. And I told them my story, reading from my speech. But then I said, I need to address you all very personally. And I told them all that they were failing the country, I said you're failing, because you're also focused on the latest Trump tweet that you're not paying attention to what you need to be paying attention to. And that's when I got into the whole issue of 3D weapons.
So all of a sudden you saw Congress get all in on this. And it was – what is her name from Massachusetts. She's now the assistant speaker -- Rep. Katherine Clark, she pulled me aside and she said, “Have you ever thought about litigation on this?” I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “Talking to some of the attorney generals?”
And I reached out to Governor Phil Murphy who I had become, you know, really just deeply fond of in New Jersey, and he got his attorney general on it. And Senator Blumenthal I met with later in the day he got the Connecticut attorney general on it. And before you know it, these attorney generals were filing lawsuits, and we put a stop to it. And that was the most amazing day because I went off my script to basically berate everybody. And something happened as a result. It's one of those moments that I'm very proud of.
ALLEN: Another interaction with Congress came at the State of the Union where Nancy Pelosi invited you twice. Actually, how did those visits go?
GUTTENBERG: You know, at thefirst one, nothing happened. I went home after it so angry at the occupant of the White House, and what he was saying, basically blaming gun violence of people coming from over the southern border. But I as a dad knew my daughter was killed by a teenage American male.
So what came out of that was I wrote an op ed, that just I stayed up that night I just wrote. That's how I get through things sometimes: I just write.
The second time that I went, which was the last State of the Union, he again started with this nonsense about the southern wall, and that being the cause of all gun violence. It made me angry because he was repeating the same lie. But I didn't do anything until later in his speech. When he started ranting, “I will defend your second amendment rights, which are under attack all over the place.” And he's saying by people like me. Now, that still didn't get me out of my seat until I saw every republican jump up hooting and hollering and clapping. And I just jumped out of my seat. I said, “What about victims of gun violence like my daughter?” That's all I said. And those nine words had me in handcuffs, far faster than anybody who raided our Capitol on January 6, and yes, I was handcuffed and I was detained. And thankfully, Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Ted Deutsch intervened and eventually I was released.
ALLEN: You know, it must have been incredibly frustrating for you that the FBI apparently had some intelligence about the Parkland shooter previous to his crime.
GUTTENBERG: Oh, frustrating is an understatement.
ALLEN: Yes. AndDonald Trump, in a tweet, said, and I quote, “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter, this is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.”
GUTTENBERG: That tweet came out the morning I buried my daughter. And that tweet was a lie. The first part of the tweet wasn't, but when he made it about himself and the Russia investigation, it became a lie. It was a low-level call center failure. I read that tweet, I got so enraged.
This is how the day I'm burying, my daughter started. And I'm like pacing, and my wife is asking me to calm down, and I couldn’t. So I did what I always do: I sat down, I started to write, and I rewrote the ending of my eulogy for my daughter because of that tweet. And in the ending of my eulogy, I let the president know how angry I was. And I let the president know he has no permission to politicize my daughter's death, or to bring her murder into the Russia investigation. But he does have my permission to reach out to me if he wants to do anything meaningful about addressing gun violence. I was enraged, this man made my daughter's murder about him, with a lie.
ALLEN: The actual failure of the FBI was in a local call center where they didn't forward the information.
GUTTENBERG: Yeah. And we have a very active lawsuit on right now against them. But at a call center level, they failed to take the information and transmitted as per protocols. They failed to follow up on it internally at the FBI or send it to local law enforcement. And the crazy thing is, they had very specific, very direct intelligence about what was going to happen. They had the most specific intelligence. They had a specific witness saying this is going to happen. And they did nothing. They didn't even warn the school to be prepared. So it was a terrible failure. There are certain protocols that dictate what they are supposed to do, and they weren't followed.
ALLEN: Your book is called “Find the Helpers.” And one of the high-profile helpers you've had is now the president of the United States, Joe Biden, tell me about him.
GUTTENBERG: He called me approximately, I'llsay, 10 days after Jaime was killed. And, you know, I was getting all sorts of crazy phone calls. So I didn't pick them up because I didn't recognize the phone numbers.
But he left a message and he said, “Listen.” He goes, “I'm sure you get a lot of phone calls. But this is Joe Biden, you may want to speak to me, maybe you don't, but if you do, I'm going to call you back at six o'clock tonight. So if you want to talk, look for my number, I'll call you from the same phone number.”
And he called back just like he said, and we spent about 45 minutes on the phone and had an amazing conversation. He asked a lot about my daughter, about my son, about my wife, and about me. He also talked to me about his family and about grief. And what I remember is him asking me what my plan was. And I just told him, “I'm really not sure other than to tell you, I want to break that (vulgarity) gun lobby.” And he laughed, and he said, “We both do.”
And that's when he started talking to me about this phrase that has lived with me ever since: “mission and purpose.” And mission and purpose has been my guiding light since my daughter was killed. At the end of the conversation. He invited me to meet with him privately. He was going to be in Florida A few weeks later, he said, “Bring one of the other Parkland parents,” and it was a Beau Biden foundation event.
We get there, and there’s like 300 people in this home waiting to hear him speak. He shakes a bunch of hands. He says hello, and I'm with this other Parkland dad, and we figured well just get to shake his hand. It'll be really nice. He brings us to a private room. But he's got 300 people waiting to hear him speak. He asks us to sit down, he starts talking to us. And 20 minutes later I said to him, “You have 300 people out there waiting to hear you speak, don't you need to go?”
And he just said without any concern, “This is more important.” And he continued talking to us. He said things to us that night that have been the most helpful, meaningful things about going through grief that nobody else has talked to me about. And it had to do with our relationships with our loved ones. He said we all grieve differently. And when he talked to me about what that meant, and how important it would be for my family to know we all grieve differently. But we have to find ways to grieve together and to support one another. It saved me. Because I'm going through this so publicly, and so out there. And my wife and son need privacy. If he didn't say that to me, I would have felt what's wrong with us? You know,I'll never
ever be able to say just how deeply I feel about this person, this man, this amazing man, because of what he meant to my family.
ALLEN: Tell me about the debate.
GUTTENBERG: (laughs) I was there as a guest of Eric Swalwell. At the time, I had not endorsed anybody. But Eric Swalwell had endorsed making gun violence his core message. And so I was doing anything I could to help him because of my belief that gun violence needed to be elevated. So I was at the debate. I was sitting with his wife.
And in the second half of the debate, you know, they change moderators. They switched to Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow. I was really frustrated. We’re about three quarters of the way through the debate and not a single word about gun violence. There’s commercial break. I get up out of my seat, and I start marching over towards Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow to start yelling at them to ask questions about gun violence. I guess I didn't know you're not supposed to do that.
And I get maybe five feet and all of a sudden there's like arms all around me from behind, pulling me back (laughter). Fortunately, Congressman Swalwell saw it. He walked over, he's like, “What's going on?” I said, “I wanted to tell him to ask questions about gun violence. And I guess I wasn't supposed to walk that way.”
And he just said, “Fred's with me.” And he looked at his wife, Brittany, and he laughed, he goes, “Take care of him. Make sure he doesn't get up out of that seat.” (laughter) And I just -- Listen, I want to solve this problem. I want to lower the gun violence death rate, I want to start saving lives. And I'll do whatever I have to do to make sure we get on that path.
ALLEN: I want to ask you about the orange ribbon movement. I see that beautiful picture behind you on the wall in our zoom chat here. And it's Jaime dancing, and she's leaping through the air with material flowing from her and it's just looks surreal and beautiful. And you incorporated that in the logo of the orange ribbon movement. Tell me about that.
GUTTENBERG: Orange was Jaime’s favorite color. And the night she was killed all of -- what I call her dance sisters -- they got together at the dance studio, and they started making these fabric orange ribbons. The next day they came to our house wearing the orange ribbons and they brought a whole basket of these ribbons for my family. And we all started wearing the ribbons. While they were at my house, they were take they went up to Jamie's room had a very emotional gathering up there. They were taking pictures and posting of themselves in Jamie's room and wearing the ribbons.
It went viral. And first, within the dance world and dance competitions they were dedicating the rest of their season to Jaime. But then Broadway picked it up: “The Lion King” and “Hamilton,” and they started dedicating to Jaime.
At Jaime’s funeral, I spoke about this orange ribbons movement, which really at the time for me was people honoring my daughter with the color orange. Until a few weeks later. I was in a Home Depot, and somebody asked me what the orange ribbon was for. And when I told them, they said, “Do you know that's the color of the gun safety movement?”
And I had no idea. That was the first time I learned that. And it was a coincidence that I couldn't ignore. So that was the day I decided we would start “Orange Ribbons for Jaime.” And Orange Rbbons for Jaime is a foundation that honors all of the things that mattered to my daughter in life, but also educates on why her life was cut short. So we educate on gun safety. But we do things to support anti-bullying programs, dance programs, kids with special needs, the thing that I am most proud of, and I think will become the legacy of my daughter is the scholarship program that we've started for kids going to college. And it's for kids of all abilities. So it's for kids who are going on to your traditional four year education. But you know, kids with special needs don't always do that. They go on to other forms of post high school education. We have a scholarship for them, too. So it's the kids-of-all-abilities scholarship,
ALLEN: In these days of COVID-19. A lot of families now are grieving the loss of loved ones, even multiple loved ones. I wonder if you have advice or any words for our listeners who might be grieving right now.
GUTTENBERG: I do. Listen, and this is -- I talk about this now, often. We're going to be a 500,000 dead soon. And you know, Listen, my daughter died alone. So I understand what families are feeling when their loved ones are dying alone because of COVID.
And my advice to them is this - and it's why it's so important, this concept of helpers: always know who your helpers are. Don't go through it alone. Don't try to tough it out. Let people be there for you. I think Americans often have a hard time letting others be there for them. I was one of those guys. And the crazy thing is while I was one of those guys who had a hard time letting people be there for me, when I look back, they always were there for me. I just didn't see it. let people be there for you.
But also important to this country, because of what we're going through: if you're in a position where you can be a helper to someone else: someone you know, maybe someone you don't know, but you're able to do it, whether it's providing some kind of a financial assistance or a phone call to say, “Hey, I'm here for you,” whatever it takes, be that helper. This is the time that we as a country need each other. And if we can all commit to being decent and civil towards one another and there for one another, we will get through this. We will get each other through this, but we're not going to do it alone.
ALLEN: Fred Guttenberg, thankyou so much for taking the time to talk to us.
GUTTENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.
You can learn more about Fred Guttenberg’s foundation at https://orangeribbonsforjaime.org/
For information about his new book, “Find the Helpers” visit https://fredguttenberg.com/