The day after 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg was shot to death in the stairwell of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Jaime’s father, Fred Guttenberg, found himself at a vigil for the 17 victims gunned down by a disenfranchised student who attended the school. Parkland’s mayor asked Guttenberg to remember his daughter.
As he gave an impromptu eulogy for her, his life’s work came into sharp focus. From that day forward—the day after Valentine’s Day in 2018—Guttenberg has been a vocal, dedicated advocate for gun safety. He has walked the halls of Congress seeking justice for his daughter and others who have died from gun violence. He has been a fixture at rallies and town hall meetings, calling for gun safety.
Guttenberg has written about his mission to reform gun laws in a poignant new memoir called “Find the Helpers: What 9/11 and Parkland Taught Me About Recovery, Purpose, and Hope.” The title is based on the advice that Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, gave his young fans: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
As Guttenberg chronicles in his memoir, he has found many helpers and has been a helper himself. Four months before Jaime was murdered, Guttenberg lost his brother, Michael, a doctor triaging patients at the World Trade Center on 9/11, to cancer that was likely related to his time at Ground Zero. As Guttenberg writes in “Find the Helpers,” “My family has been part of two distinctly American tragedies.”
Guttenberg spoke to JewishBoston over Zoom about his brother, Michael, and daughter, Jaime, and his life’s mission to eradicate gun violence. Behind Guttenberg, a photograph of Jaime dancing in mid-air graced the wall. Guttenberg said the picture became known as “‘the flying leap photo.’ It’s become iconic, and I leave it there because it looks like Jaime’s on my shoulders, and she is. She’s always with me, pushing me forward.”
Guttenberg said that Jaime was an extraordinary helper like her uncle and recalled that his daughter, a committed dancer, was small in stature but big in heart. “Jaime was also born with the tough gene,” he said. “She despised bullies, and it didn’t matter what was happening. If she saw somebody being bullied, no matter how big they were, she put herself in between the bully and the person being bullied.”
A week after Guttenberg spoke at the Parkland vigil, President-Elect Joe Biden, then a private citizen, called him. “There is nobody who gave me advice more meaningful than Joe Biden,” he recalled. “It wasn’t just about mission and purpose; he also explained something to me about grief that to this day, nobody else has told me—no two people grieve the same way. And the reason that’s important is that after terrible moments like this, families come apart as they grieve differently.” Guttenberg pointed out that his wife, Jennifer, and son, Jesse, who survived the Parkland shooting, support his public role as a gun-safety advocate but need to grieve privately.
Soon after Jaime died, Guttenberg was at a town hall meeting when it struck him that everyone was sitting. “We just had gun violence in our community,” he said. “Nobody should be comfortable, and so I stood that night. I couldn’t sit. I didn’t want to be comfortable and I didn’t want to make anyone around me comfortable.” Since then, in what has been his signature stance, Guttenberg has stood in the offices of senators and members of Congress, giving those officials the option of “looking up to me if they sit or looking me in the eye if they stand. No matter what, I stand for my daughter.”
In 2020, Guttenberg was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s guest at the State of the Union. On that night, he said he got into what the late Congressman John Lewis described as “good trouble.” As the Republican side of the aisle cheered for the Second Amendment with no mention of gun violence, Guttenberg said he “lost it.” In response, Guttenberg shouted out, “What about victims of gun violence like my daughter?” The Capitol Police quickly arrested him. “I thought I had upset Speaker Pelosi and was about to apologize when she said, ‘You spoke for America tonight.’”
Guttenberg noted that his ongoing activism is “indicative of Jewish values. I am a Jewish person and have the values of a Jewish person, but my faith in a higher power has been shattered. However, my faith in other people who surround me is stronger than ever.” To that end, Guttenberg and his family founded Orange Ribbons for Jaime. The foundation came together after a picture of Jaime’s dance friends, gathered in her room after her death, crying and wearing ribbons in Jaime’s favorite color, went viral. A month later, Guttenberg discovered that orange was also the color of the gun-safety movement.
Guttenberg pointed out that while Orange Ribbons for Jaime is dedicated to educating about gun violence, the foundation also focuses on anti-bullying programs, education initiatives for kids with special needs, the work of the Humane Society and various dance programs—causes important to Jaime. Guttenberg said the foundation also awards college scholarships to students of all abilities in three categories: students who perform community service and intend to major in dance; students who are majoring in a helping profession and have an interest in dance; and students with special needs who may not attend a traditional four-year college but are pursuing post-high school education.
However, even with his successes, Guttenberg regrets that he did not advocate for gun safety before Jaime’s murder. “I will live with guilt for the rest of my life that my voice was not part of this fight before it was my kid,” he said. “The most important thing that people can do now is to use their voices; be heard, whether it’s on social media or going to town halls. And vote. There is nothing more important than our vote.”