Fred Guttenberg discusses his family’s ongoing suffering after his daughter Jaime’s death.
In February, 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg was killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She left behind parents Fred and Jennifer and older brother Jesse. Seventeen victims died in the shooting and many others had non-fatal injuries. Since then, Fred Guttenberg has immersed himself in anti-gun violence activism. On Saturday, one day following the latest school shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, he talked with U.S. News about how his family is coping. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
It sounds like a busy morning for you.
Unfortunately, [today] was what should have been my daughter’s dance recital. This is the reality of what gun violence does to families. So now we’re here with thousands of people, doing a fundraising event. [The family is launching the Orange Ribbons for Jaime foundation.]
How are you and your family doing now?
Not good. Every day, you get reminded of your loss. This week started with Mother’s Day, except we didn’t have one of our two children. Then you have the three-month reminder. Then you have more shootings. Now we’re [attending] what was supposed to be the recital my daughter spent an entire year working toward – but she’s not there.
Gun violence is brutal and it’s permanent. It’s unpredictable. My heart bleeds for every one of these new victims of this club. What they’re going to go through in the next few weeks and few months is unimaginable. And it shouldn’t happen – it’s preventable. The [Parkland] parents got together last night. If the [Santa Fe] parents need anything, we’re here for them.
I can’t make it sound easy. It’s not.
How have you and other families managed? Do you turn to one another for support?
Most of us didn’t really know each other before. We do now. They’re a wonderful group of people. None of them asked for this, expected this, ever imagined this would happen. When people say this will never happen in my neighborhood … in Parkland, this isn’t anything we ever could have imagined. And we’re proof it can happen anywhere.
Together, we’re all getting by day by day. We’ve all kind of attached ourselves to a purpose. I can just speak for myself. It is my purpose and my mission. It’s what keeps me going every single day. Because without it, all I do is think about my daughter and it just gets very depressing.
Have you turned to counseling?
My wife, my son and I are all doing grief counseling. Most of the other families that I know of are also doing it. I think anyone who goes through this should be doing grief counseling. It’s very hard to get through on your own. You’re going to have to deal with levels of pain and anguish if you don’t seek help.
Beyond depression, are there physical effects like losing sleep?
My whole sleep pattern is disrupted. Earlier on in this whole process, I just couldn’t go to sleep. Now I can, but if anything gets me up, I can’t fall back asleep. Because then, I just start thinking about everything that’s going on and has happened. Sleep is certainly the big one.
[My son] is certainly having a lot of issues with this. Stress-related and not really eating well right now. He had a sister. He had one sibling. He’s an only child now. The first night; I’ll never forget. He came down crying when he realized he’s an only child. He realized he’s never going to be an uncle.
And the reminders that come up. Two weeks ago, it was our dog’s birthday. It was my daughter who always remembered our dog’s birthday and made sure we planned something. We found out because it came up on our Facebook reminder. My wife was just devastated that day. All these little things – you wouldn’t even think about them – but they come up every single day.
What do you hear from other parents?
I talk to a lot of the other parents – we’re connected on Facebook. The March for Our Lives kids: I occasionally interact with their parents and those kids. Everybody here is moving forward. But everyone’s struggling. [The Santa Fe shooting] just kind of brought everybody back to Feb. 14.
As parents, is it anxiety-provoking when your son goes off to school each day?
Terribly. For him. Forget me as parent. Every day he has anxiety about it and we have to deal with that reality. Honestly, after what happened yesterday, I’m not sure of getting him back there the rest of this year.
This could happen anywhere. We’re raising a generation of kids who are going to be afraid to go to school or to go out in public. And we need to deal with it.
What are you advocating for?
I’m all about common sense gun safety. I’m not the guy who runs around saying: You must have an assault-weapons ban. And it’s very purposeful. As soon as you say that, it shuts conversations down.
I want to get things done. I want to get red-flag laws done. I want to get age 21 [purchase laws]. I want to get the background-checks system fixed. I want to get high-capacity magazines and bump stocks banned. You can’t do any of that if you start off with an assault weapons ban.
(Guttenberg is mulling solutions to hold people and companies accountable for gun violence.) So I had this idea of a national victims’ compensation fund that is funded by the gun manufacturers. Every gun they make, they have to pay a large fee to this fund, which will force them to actually maybe behave better and maybe [work] with retailers on safety requirements.
What would you like other parents and readers to understand?
Their vote matters. That they need to vote. They need to be vocal about why they’re voting. They need to say: This is the most important issue to me. Because if they don’t, it could be their school, their community, their kid.