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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Parkland victim’s dad to bring gun safety drive to St. Louis

Fred Guttenberg is shown in a family photo with his daughter Jaime, who was killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14, 2018. Guttenberg, the author of “American Carnage: Shattering the Myths That Fuel Gun Violence,” will speak in St. Louis on Oct. 5.

I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the worst reality for any parent is the loss of a child. It goes against the rules of nature. As parents, we are not supposed to outlive our children and grandchildren.

But as we know, life doesn’t always happen that way. It certainly didn’t happen for Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was one of 17 students and faculty murdered in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 14, 2018. 

Five-and-a-half years have passed since that tragedy, and a day doesn’t go by without Guttenberg thinking about Jaime and his family’s loss. But Guttenberg has become an outspoken, tireless advocate and activist against gun violence. He has spoken at town halls, lobbied lawmakers, marched in rallies, and appeared umpteen times on television.

He also has written two books, the latest of which is “American Carnage: Shattering the Myths That Fuel Gun Violence.” On Oct. 5, he will appear in St. Louis at the Ethical Society to discuss “How We Stop the Shootings,” along with Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor in Kansas City, and the  Rev. Cassandra Gould. 

I spoke with Guttenberg, 57, about his daughter and his family, his latest book, his activism, lessons he has learned and his Judaism, among other topics, in a wide-ranging Q&A. What follows are excerpts, edited for length and clarity.

Before we even get started, how are you and your wife, Jen, and your 22-year-old son Jesse doing today?

Every day is what I call a day in our journey to normal or new normal. We’re five-and-a-half years into this and, for the past bunch of years, I’ve been incredibly public with my grief. I think I finally hit a wall and needed to take this summer off, which I did. 

After my book tour in May, I pretty much backed away from all of this. I knew I was physically tired, but I didn’t know how mentally and emotionally exhausted I was. I needed the break. 

My wife and I went to Greece this summer. It was my first time in Europe, and it was fabulous. 

So knock on wood, when you ask me that question today, my family and I are in a better place.

What has been the most unexpected result of this tragedy? 

Discovering, maybe in a way I never understood before, what it means to be a dad. I did everything with my kids — camping, dance competitions, I was at every hockey game, I was doing homework with them. I was being what I thought was a good dad. 

Other than being a guy who yelled at the television when something upset him, I never put the time into using my voice to ensure that my kids would grow up in a better, safer place. It’s been the focus of my life since the shooting. I wish it was the focus of my life before the shooting.

Why was it important for you to write “American Carnage?”

Because after Jaime was killed, when I started to understand how we got to the place that we are in today, I became acquainted with all of the lies and the myths that got us here. 

When I became acquainted with how ingrained some of these lies are and these myths had become and the people who perpetuated them, I connected with Tom Gabor, my coauthor, and we decided we needed to write a book to take that on, to present data and facts and truths to help people get educated and also help people understand how to talk about this. We needed to reclaim the conversation from a profit-driven lobby that benefits from gun violence.

In the book, you and your coauthor work to debunk 37 myths and misinformation that help to fuel gun violence. Is there one myth that stands out the most to you? 

The very first one (“The Truth about Guns in U.S. History and Culture”), because it sets the table for everything else. As a country, we haven’t always been this way. In fact, the majority of the history of the USA is of a country with gun owners who respected gun safety, including the NRA, which was once a gun safety organization. 

It started to change in 1977 when a guy named Harlon Carter took over. At that time, gun sales were declining in America because hunting was no longer a big sport and there was no longer a draft. Carter redirected the NRA to work with the lobby to increase gun sales. 

As part of that, they started pushing this myth across America that we all need a gun to defend ourselves. They started publishing studies that have been debunked, that are junk science, to suggest in essence that we are a country of good guys and bad guys and that the bad guys have guns so the good guys need guns to defend themselves. They found this whole new way to market weapons.

What do you believe is the bottom line when it comes to gun violence prevention — and how do we get there? 

The No. 1 reason we wrote the book was to get people informed. People need to know the truth. The NRA’s response to the Sandy Hook shooting was to use the moment to sell more guns. They profited off of Sandy Hook just as they profit off all the other shootings. 

The No. 2 reason is to get people to vote on this issue. The reason President (Joe) Biden was able to sign the Safer Communities Act last year (which, among other things, enhances background checks for gun buyers age 21 and under) was because people voted. That’s the only way we’re going to significantly reduce gun violence, if Americans vote for politicians who believe in ending it. 

As a country we have done a terrible job at voting for far too many years and, because we didn’t vote, we ended up with bad people. We as Americans can end up with good people, people who want to do good things, if we show up and vote. 

Get educated and do not sit home during an election. Vote for things that matter to you. Vote as if your life depends on it, because it might.

How do you remember Jaime and keep her memory alive in the work you do? 

There’s personal and there’s public. On a personal level, I spend a lot of time with Jaime. I go to the cemetery a lot. It’s where I get to be closest to her physically. I reflect on memories, I look at photos, I watch videos. 

I gave a TED Talk a couple of years ago where I said I can’t bring myself to look at Jaime in the past tense, so I look at life now as my relationship with Jamie has changed. It’s no longer about new memories but it’s embracing the ones I have more deeply as well as creating a new future based upon doing something about what happened to her.

Now to the public part of this. Because of what gun violence did to my daughter, I will forever be working as Jaime and Jesse’s dad. My son was also there (at the Parkland school), and he will be forever impacted. The way I remember Jaime on a public level is by fighting every day to do something about gun violence, by writing openly about how I feel and how I’m doing, about memories, about what I missed, about what I had as hopes because I want to share my daughter every single day just as if she were here.

Has Judaism played a part these last 5½ years in helping you deal with your grief and in the work you do to end gun violence? 

My relationship with a higher power is strained. I struggle with the idea. I’m not observant anymore. I’m really removed from the religious part of religion. 

When my daughter was killed four months after my brother died (Dr. Michael Guttenberg died in October 2017 of cancer related to 9/11), I started to struggle with some of the things the rabbis were telling me. I’ve not been able to make peace with that. 

I was raised with Jewish values, with notions around tikkun olam. I do think my background, who I am, my beliefs about society, my desire to help others and make the world a better place, is firmly rooted in the Jewish foundation with which I grew up.

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About the Contributor
Ellen Futterman
Ellen Futterman, Editor-in-Chief
A native of Westbury, New York, Ellen Futterman broke into the world of big city journalism as a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the latter part of the 20th century. Deciding that Tinsel Town was not exciting enough for her, she moved on to that hub of glamour and sophistication, Belleville, Ill., where she became a feature writer, columnist and food editor for the Belleville News-Democrat. A year later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch scooped her up, neither guessing at the full range of her talents, nor the extent of her shoe collection. She went on to work at the Post-Dispatch for 25 years, during which time she covered hard news, education, features, investigative projects, profiles, sports, entertainment, fashion, interiors, business, travel and movies. She won numerous major local and national awards for her reporting on "Women Who Kill" and on a four-part series about teen-age pregnancy, 'Children Having Children.'" Among her many jobs at the newspaper, Ellen was a columnist for three years, Arts and Entertainment Editor, Critic-at-large and Daily Features (Everyday) Editor. She invented two sections from scratch, one of which recently morphed from Get Out, begun in 1995, to GO. In January of 2009, Ellen joined the St. Louis Jewish Light as its editor, where she is responsible for overseeing editorial operations, including managing both staff members and freelancers. Under her tutelage, the Light has won 16 Rockower Awards — considered the Jewish Pulitzer’s — including two personally for Excellence in Commentary for her weekly News & Schmooze column. She also is the communications content editor for the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis. Ellen and her husband, Jeff Burkett, a middle school principal, live in Olivette and have three children. Ellen can be reached at 314-743-3669 or at [email protected].