When Failure is Not an Option
Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.
Fred Guttenberg: Father of Two
“I find myself incapable of looking at myself as anything but a father of two. As a parent, you spend your life reacting to what happens to your children. I am going through life responding to what happened to my daughter. I don't really see myself doing this so much as Fred Guttenberg as much as I do as Jaime's dad. And till the day I die, I will be a father to Jesse and Jaime, and I'll always be reacting to Jesse and Jaime and what happens to them. It's the only way I know how to do this.” - Fred Guttenberg
Fred Guttenberg, gun safety advocate whose daughter Jaime was killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, talks about how the loss of his daughter drives him, what changes must be made to ensure safer gun laws, and what draws Americans to firearms in the first place.
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Fred Guttenberg: I find myself incapable of looking at myself as anything but a father of two. And as a parent, you spend your life reacting to what happens to your children. I am going through life responding to what happened to my daughter. I don't really see myself doing this so much as Fred Guttenberg as much as I do as Jaime's dad. I can’t stop being her dad. Till the day I die, I will be a father to Jesse and Jaime, and I'll always be reacting to Jesse and Jaime and what happens to them. It's the only way I know how to do this.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
This coming Sunday is Father’s Day, when families across the country will celebrate their dads, grandfathers, and other father figures. My guest today, Fred Guttenberg, is a vocal advocate for gun safety - but first and foremost, he is a father, whose daughter Jaime was killed two years ago at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Fred tells me how fatherhood and Jaime’s death both drive him, about what changes he thinks must be made to ensure safer gun laws, and what draws Americans to firearms in the first place.
Fred Guttenberg is an outspoken activist for gun reform and a vocal opponent of the National Rifle Association, which he has described as a terrorist group. Most importantly, he is the father of Jaime Guttenberg who was killed on Valentine's Day of 2018 along with 16 other students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Fred, thanks for coming on the show. Since that horrific day, you have made your mission in life preserving Jaime's memory through activism, holding accountable those who enable such tragedies to occur, educating Americans about the insanity of our gun laws and now instigating the kind of political changes necessary to enact real reform. I want to get to all of that, but I want to take a moment first to ask you about Jaime. Can you tell us a little bit about your daughter? Who was she and why is it so important to you that you make her proud?
FG: At her funeral, I described her as the energy in the room. Jaime was the kid in any room she was in, whether it was here in our house or at the dance studio where she'd dance competitively or in class in school, that everyone around her was always responding to. Often you were just laughing because she was a funny, silly kid and she just kept you smiling and laughing. But she was also a tough kid, she was strongly opinionated, and so if you weren't laughing, you may have been arguing with her, but you were always responding to her. And listen, my girl was a fighter, but she fought for the things that she believed in, she fought for what was right. She fought for other kids who maybe didn't have as easy a time fighting for themselves. It's why she was part of these anti-bullying programs. She volunteered her time for kids with special needs. She went out of her way to make every kid feel like you all had the same rights and possibilities in life as she did. It didn't matter who you were, what was going on. She was beautiful. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life, which was to some extent take after her mom. My wife is a pediatric occupational therapist. She lives her life helping children, and Jaime wanted to be a pediatric physical therapist. In fact, it was her dream to work for a place based here in Palm Beach, Florida called the Paley Institute. They're world renowned, they do surgeries on kids with limb deformities. And it was her dream to work there and help a kid walk for the first time. That's who my daughter was. Just, she knew right from wrong and she believed in fighting for right. The world lost a really important voice the day she was killed.
KH: And in the immediate aftermath, you spoke out. I mean, I'm a dad. I've got a 15 year old daughter, a 10 year old daughter, and a seven year old son. And one of the things I find most striking about your advocacy is the way you have opened yourself to that hurt every day. And I'm not sure exactly how to ask this, so I'll just ask it as a dad who I don't think could ever find the strength to do what you've done. I've always found women to be braver about these sorts of things, and I had a great conversation with Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action about this, about the incredible bravery of moms in this movement, in these moments. You're exceptional in a lot of ways, Fred, but I think chief among them, and you don't get enough credit for this, is being a dad who has found the courage to talk about loss. I left an infant daughter on an operating table once and fell apart and she survived that. I don't know how every day you honor Jaime's memory by reliving that tragedy. Where do you find that courage?
FG: Well first, I appreciate you saying those things, and moms have been amazing and to that I'll also add our kids, they've been amazing. And I agree, dads in general have not been as loud or as vocal. I've been trying over the past two years to get them to step up because as a dad, what role do we have that is more important than our role as protector? So I'm trying to get dads to step up, but the answer to your question is actually pretty simple. I find myself incapable of looking at myself as anything but a father of two. And I have my son who's here with me every day who I get to hang out with, getting all this new found time during coronavirus, which has been wonderful actually. And I have my daughter, who isn't with me every day, who actually I went to see at the cemetery yesterday, but she's still my daughter. As a parent you spend your life reacting to what happens to your children and responding to what happens to your children. I am going through life responding to what happened to my daughter. The way I do this every day, I don't really see myself doing this so much as Fred Guttenberg as much as I do as Jaime's dad. And people see me every day as Jaime's dad, and that's where the emotional part of it comes from, because I can't stop being her dad. And so people are riding that journey with me through the moments that I share that maybe are heartwarming, but the moments that I share that are the reality of what I go through and my family goes through that are brutal. And till the day I die, I will be a father to Jesse and Jaime, and I'll always be reacting to Jesse and Jaime and what happens to them. It's the only way I know how to do this.
KH: I think everyone who listens to you has learned something about bravery. You articulated that well just now. But there's a part of it that I think most people don't appreciate in that the day to day advocacy that you engage in, which is the vitriol that you have to put up with for fighting for the changes that we need to see so that no other family goes through what yours has gone through. One of the things I've perceived about your reaction to that is that you don't automatically block or shut down-
KH: And I'm somewhat of a newbie on Twitter and the rule of thumb is “block the haters”, but you don't always do that. I mean you punch back, you stand up and you fight back and that's its own kind of bravery. Why have you chosen to be so vocal and not back down?
FG: Because I believe in shedding sunlight on the haters, exposing them. They hide behind this nasty stuff. And listen, there is a difference between just nasty trolls and people who should know better. And so I try to expose them when they don't. And on occasion when I see patterns in the behavior of trolls, that's usually organized from a different place, so I'll expose that as well. I got attacked by the Trump War Room, okay? Not just some random troll, it was the Trump War Room on Twitter. They were responding to a town hall that I did earlier in the week for the Biden campaign with new young voters. And in that town hall, I said that gun shops should not have been considered as essential businesses, and they should be subject to the same sets of rules as other nonessential businesses. And I said Joe Biden would have done it that way. So, the Trump War Room, they snipped the video, which I was glad they did because it showed they lied and they said what I said was that Joe Biden will close down all gun stores. That's basically what, that's what they said in their tweet, but yet they included the video, which showed how their tweet was just a blatant lie. And I think they thought, Trump War Room, they're coming after me, I'm going to hide. No, I retweeted it with my comment calling out the lie and calling out the irrationality of the decision that was made. I live my life not to fight with people, I don't want to, but I live my life to hopefully save lives at this point. Going back to something I said earlier about being a protector as a father, I just, that's the way I see my role. I will never get over the guilt that I have of having not put my voice into this mission on gun violence or gun safety before it was my child, and I didn't. I as a protector was not doing everything I could to protect my kids from gun violence, because my voice wasn't part of it and I lost my daughter. And so now, my voice is part of it, I am not going away. We are going to succeed. We're going to do that by making this a top voting issue in the next election. And that issue is going to help get Joe Biden elected president, and that issue is going to lead to the firing of Mitch McConnell because we will flip the Senate and you will see gun safety passed in this country after this next election.
KH: I want to ask you about Joe Biden because your support for him isn't just about policy. It's not just about his position on the issue of gun reform, it's deeply personal. He's looked you in the eye in the moment of the deepest grief any father can imagine and he's felt your pain because he's been there. What's he like in a moment like that?
FG: I have a relationship with him that is based around what happened to my family. We went through a truly American problem and because of that he reached out which was shocking to me to be quite honest. The original time that he reached out was maybe 10 days after this happened via a phone call. I think we spent 45 minutes on the phone. And he let me know that he was going to be in Florida a few weeks after that at a fundraiser for his son Beau Biden's foundation. As you know, Beau passed away towards the end of the Obama presidency. And he asked if I wanted to come and if I wanted to bring another one of the Parkland dads, which I did. We went there thinking, like all the other people that are at the fundraisers, there were several hundred people, we'll shake his hand. And that's what I expected, except after he got done greeting people, he motioned to his advisor to bring us back into a private room. And he ended up sitting down with us and just getting deep and personal, wanted to know how we were doing, our families, wanting to talk to us about grief, what we should expect, things that I hadn't even thought about at the time. For example, we all go through grief differently. We experience it differently and it's important for us to know that within our own family. And he shared with us how he and Jill were going through Beau's passing differently. And he wanted us to know that because after incidents like this, families tend to fall apart and he didn't want us to become that statistic. He wanted us to know so that we knew how to work on not falling apart. That's the kind of amazing person this man is. He also spoke to us about how, because we all go through it differently, how he personally went through it, which was to throw himself back into mission and purpose which ultimately became what I've done. What was even further amazing, about 20 minutes in, I looked at him and I said, "Don't you have a room full of people out there waiting to hear you speak?" And he said, "I do, but this is more important." And he sat with us for probably another 20 minutes. I was blown away by the decency, the humanity, the generosity and the concern. And then, you think that's it. But then a year later at the first debate in Miami that the presidential candidates had, I was there. I was actually there as a guest of Eric Swalwell. At the end of the debate, I'm walking on the floor in front of the stage and I see him looking down from the stage after talking to another candidate and I look up and he sees me and he motions me over to the stage. I had not seen him in over a year since the fundraising event that he invited me to. And I go up to the stage and he gets down on a knee and he grabs my hand and all the photographers are grabbing photos of it. But what blew me away is he remembered not just who I was, but he remembered about my wife and my son, and he remembered the things he spoke to me about and he wanted to know how we were doing with that. I am blown away by this person, I just got to say. He is as genuine a humanitarian, as genuine a leader, as decent a person as I could ever imagine having been around. And I am just thankful he is going to be our next president.
KH: Well, he is almost genuine to a fault. I remember a recent interview in which he was asked to speak to those who have experienced loss. And the first thing he said was, I want you to know that you're going to be okay. And then he started to give out his cell number. And I contrast that with the instructions that had to be written in Sharpie for our current president. I don't know if you were at that meeting, but it was with survivors of Parkland and in Sharpie on a cue card was written for president Trump, I hear you, to remind him to listen.
FG: There were two different meetings that he had with Parkland families. The first one I had been invited to, I refused to go. The second one I was not invited to. The first one was when they were launching the Betsy DeVos plan, that was a followup to the Parkland shooting. The reason I refused to go was when that group was announced that was going to put out that plan, it was announced as something that was going to be a deep dive and look at everything that happened in the Parkland shooting until Betsy DeVos came up on stage and said, we're going to look at everything, but we're not going to look at the role of guns. So you can't look at what happened to my daughter and not look at the role of guns. And so I looked at it as a farce from the very first moment and I did not feel the need to go and be a part of a photo op in the White House. And like I said the second time I wasn't invited.
KH: Fred, I'm going to ask you to play historian for a moment or maybe psychologist, we'll see which one works better, because I'm curious about the almost totemic use of firearms in American society as a substitute for freedom. I mean, we've got people converging on the steps of state capitals across the country demanding the freedom to get a haircut to go back to work, but they're doing it by brandishing firearms. That is almost a uniquely American reflex. Why do Americans substitute firearms for freedom in such a reactionary way?
FG: I'm going to give you one more example of where this happened, which was in Virginia recently. And as everyone knows, Virginians voted in the last election for gun safety and they got gun safety done in Virginia because of that vote. When the gun safety measures were being, the day they were supposed to be voted on, Moms Demand people were going there to peacefully show support, and they were confronted by protestors who showed up with their faces all covered, so you couldn't look them in the eye or you know who you are looking at, with AR-15s strapped around their chest to confront moms who just want to protect their families. And you have these AR-15 wielding protesters trying to intimidate them. Now, they're not tough. If they were tough, they might've shown their face, they're cowards because they hide behind a mask and a gun. I think that's part of the problem. You have people who are such cowards that they think the only thing that gives them strength is that weapon because they can't deal with the reality of life without it. The problem is you've had a business machine that has built up in this country over the past call 20 years that has fed that, that has fed into, to some extent, the insecurity that people feel around maybe not having enough weapons to force sales. Listen, I will tell you the reason that I want to sue the gun manufacturer. The reason I hate this law PLCAA is not because I am looking to go and make a gazillion dollars off the gun manufacturer. It's because I want to put them under oath. Yeah, there's a law PLCAA which makes it illegal for a victim of gun violence to go ahead and sue the gun manufacturers. And if I try and if I lose then they can turn around and sue me for legal fees and loss of income, which they could define as a drop in stock price related to the lawsuit and bankrupt me, which they've done to other families by the way. So it's a screwed up law, but PLCAA, when that law passed, it's one of the many laws that has passed over the last 20 years that has led to this gun culture that we have right now today. The reason why I want to put them under oath, it's like the tobacco lawsuits where once you had those executives under oath and they had to admit, “yeah, we do know our product is addictive and yeah, we do know it's going to kill you”, it changed tobacco forever. Well, I want these guys under oath. I want them to admit they know that their marketing programs are causing our streets to be flooded with weapons and ending up in the hands of people who intend harm and they're putting the value of their profit over the value of public safety. And I want them under oath. I want them to have to admit that they are targeting kids with their marketing. They're trying to make guns sexy and cool with their marketing just like happened with tobacco. There was once a ban on AR-15s as we all know, it ended in 2004, so there were no AR-15s being made back then. The year my daughter was killed, Smith & Wesson alone made over 500,000 of them and they were one of multiple manufacturers. You had millions of these things being sold every year. For what? They're not all being used for sport. They're not all being used for hunting. And the gun manufacturers know this and they're ending up in the hands of people who want to kill. Or as we're now seeing in these protests for people who think that AR-15 gives them the right to intimidate us. So, what's happening is you had these guns flooding our streets, they're feeding egos, they're feeding maybe feelings of inadequacy in a lot of people who show up now at these protests that should just be peaceful, that should not involve AR-15s being strapped on somebody's shoulders, but they do. And so I think it's a lot more than just saying, is there a cultural thing behind it? It has been driven by marketing and by business and we need to put an end to it.
KH: And it's your theory that that marketing is not only intentional, it's aware of aggravating grievance as a way to build demand.
KH: It's aware of feeding that sense of paranoia amongst gun buyers. You talked about feelings of inadequacy, and I know this isn't part of your platform, but I just have to weigh in on the gun-toting protester trope. My wife made a comment to me just the other day looking at some news coverage about how many of those protesters dressed up in camo and body armor were in the military. And I said, none of them, maybe one or 2%, but there's this archetype: the guy with the tactical helmet and the night vision goggles in the middle of the day. I mean, I know the type, they all have a buddy in the Seals, right, who they can't name. They all had an uncle who served in Vietnam. But there is just an obvious intent that my buddies in the military pick up on right away to compensate for something. When you go out and buy a black rifle and carry it in public that ostentatiously, the silent warriors I know don't do that. They're embarrassed by it. And there is something deeply psychological at work. There's a toxic masculinity at work, Shannon and I talked about that. There is this reaction to deeply held grievance, which I think of in historical terms, but you just claimed that this is something that has been activated relatively recently by the lobby, by the industry in order to create a market for these things.
FG: There's always been gun ownership in this country. The level of gun ownership, which by the way is not spread out across the country. It's concentrated in the hands of a few. We have almost 400 million weapons out there now. It's not like everybody's got weapons. So, it's triggering a few to feel they need to go out and create these arsenals. And again, you brought up Shannon, so I want to go back to that Moms Demand thing in Virginia. What is it that makes these people think for one second it's a show of strength to show up with an AR-15 to confront Mom's Demand?
KH: Do you have a theory? Is it just group think?
FG: It's group think. It's also highly organized, okay? You have organizers who are pulling this together, but there's also just, I think there's a level of weakness amongst these people that forces them to think they're fighting for something that they're not fighting for. Listen, go across the country and look at where gun safety laws have been passed, and I'll use Florida as an example. We passed gun safety measures after my daughter was killed, three weeks after in Florida, a very conservative state. There is not a single legal lawful gun owner in the state of Florida who spends one second thinking about the laws that we passed because it has no impact on them. So what are they doing? It is all motivated to create this fake feeling of anxiety and fear that something is going to be happening.
KH: What is that something? Is it the bogeyman of a government takeover? Is it guns being confiscated in the middle of the night? What is this mythical fear?
FG: You just said the bogeyman of a government takeover. Yes, there is definitely a level of mental illness involved in it, because it's based off of a paranoid concept of what could happen in this country. It's also based off of something that the NRA has really created, which is this idea of slippery slope. They have gone out of their way to get gun owners, not all gun owners, a minority because the majority of gun owners actually agree we should have gun safety measures. This is not about the majority of gun owners who are legal, lawful and think, “I can use protection from some bad guys too”. This is about these organized efforts, and they function off of this idea of a slippery slope or that's what they try to convince people of, which is if we do one little thing, we give an inch, they're coming for everything, okay? And it's bogus. We've been on the slippery slope for the past 20 years. It was just sliding in the wrong direction. We've had a loosening of gun laws. We've had an expansion of gun sales. We have had the availability of assault weapons like the AR-15 increased. We've had open carry laws increasing. And with all of that, we've been on a slippery slope that has now led us to over 40,000 gun deaths a year. So, the fact that we want to do something to just put some common sense safety isn't going to lead to anybody in white jackets showing up at anybody's door to remove their weapons. And so, what are these people fighting for? I'm not even sure they know. But as part of these organized efforts, they show up.
KH: You talked about mental illness, the paranoia inherent in these movements. I would add to that the perception of an attack on manhood itself, and I think the connection to school shootings is unavoidable when you frame the psychology of the movement in those terms. Because just about every school shooting that's been studied has been perpetrated by a young male with a grievance and a perceived loss of masculinity. And for some reason picking up a giant weapon and killing people makes them feel like they're regaining that sense of dignity and manhood until the aftermath, of course.
FG: Which is why the Betsy DeVos commission that I mentioned earlier infuriated me because to not talk about what you just highlighted and the role of guns to that person is such a horrible thing to not include. Because here's reality, after my daughter was killed in Florida, we raised the age to 21. What you just highlighted is the reason we did that, because you have these kids in schools who go through highly emotional moments, who are at an age where impulsive behavior, especially amongst the males, is not uncommon. In Florida at the time my daughter was killed, that emotional impulsive male who maybe wasn't in a stable home environment who wasn't getting all the support that they needed, was still able to walk into a store and buy the gun.
FG: Legally. And so, we need to deal with that reality. The other reality we need to deal with it is if they didn't walk into the store to buy it, there's a good chance it was home and it wasn't locked up. So, we need to deal with safe storage. What's crazy about the Betsy DeVos report is it did at a minimum mention the fact that most of these kids can't get these guns on their own, they're being left around unlocked at home, but it didn't say we should do anything about it.
KH: What do you say to members of the NRA today, members of an organization that today is more responsible than any other organization for blocking the kinds of laws that might have prevented what happened to your daughter like red flag laws or safe storage trigger lock laws, who have this nostalgic notion of an NRA that was founded on the premise of promoting gun safety and marksmanship and has turned into the beast it is today? What would you say to current members?
FG: Well, the majority of current members agree with a lot of what I say. So, I would tell them, “fire the leadership of this group, they don't represent you. And their decision making is putting you at risk or maybe putting the life of someone you love at risk, because they're not doing what they should do to mitigate against gun violence”. Listen, my theory is - and I know a lot of legal lawful gun owners, my best friend actually is in law enforcement. We go out when he's not working all the time. He's always got his weapon. I don't have a problem with him having his weapon. He's a legal, lawful gun owner. So gun safety has no impact on legal, lawful people. And so to the members of the NRA who want to have that conversation, they should be at the forefront of the gun safety movement because they should want to separate out potential killers from everyone else just the way I do, because they don't want this to fall on them. I would say the NRA as a group which really is out there to support gun sales, if what you really want to do is sell more guns, but to law abiding citizens to the good guys, like you say, then you should be working with me on gun safety. But because you don't, this problem is getting worse and worse by the day.
KH: We did invite NRA leadership to come on the show and speaking of courage and cowardice, they did not. We do end every show, Fred, with the same question, which is what's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?
FG: I would say the night after my daughter died, when I was just feeling completely broken, honestly, I just, I was a wreck. There was a vigil here in Parkland, thousands of people, and I decided to go to that because I just felt like I needed to be with my community. They went through this too. And while there, the mayor asked me if I wanted to speak, and I didn't really know what I was going to say or what I was going to do, but I said, “yeah”, and I went up and I just left my heart on that stage. It set me on this trajectory that I've been on since. I think picking myself up to say what I said that night when I truly was feeling broken, when I really didn't know all the details yet of what happened to my daughter, while I was still trying to deal with the reality that my family is never going to be the family of four that we once were. I think, maybe going up there that night. The week later when I confronted Marco Rubio, that's not it. Getting thrown out of the State of the Union just for saying nine words, that wasn't it. It was the day after.
KH: Well, thank you Fred, for finding the courage to do that. And thank you for coming on Burn the Boats.
FG: Thank you for having me.
KH: Thanks again to Fred for joining me. Learn more about his organization, Orange Ribbons for Jaime, at orangeribbonsforjaime.org. You can also find Fred on Twitter at @fred_guttenberg. Fred said that the bravest thing he has ever done was to stand up and speak to his community the day after Jaime’s death. In lieu of taking audience submissions this week, I wanted to play the audio from that speech. Here’s Fred at the Parkland vigil on February 15th, 2018:
FG: This is - makes no sense. This is impossible. My girl, my 14 year old baby. And for those of you who know my Jaime, she was the life of the party, she was the energy in the room. She made people laugh and, yes, sometimes she made us cry. But she was always known, she always made her presence felt. I sent her to school yesterday. She was supposed to be safe. My job is to protect my children and I sent my kid to school. In the morning, sometimes things get so crazy, she runs out behind and she’s like “gotta go, Dad, bye” and I don’t always get to say “I love you”. I don’t remember if I said that to Jaime yesterday morning. Parents, love your kids, hold your kids, kiss your kids. And don’t ever ever miss the chance to tell them how much you love them. I love all of you. *applause*
KH: Next time on Burn the Boats, I’m talking to Sarah Longwell, publisher of the Bulwark and co-founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law, about being a staunchly “Never Trump” Republican and about what the future of her party looks like. She talks about standing up against an establishment she had committed her career to and trying to improve it from within. We want to hear from you. Tell us about a time when you tried to make something better from the inside out.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.