Few parents who lost children in the Parkland massacre are as recognizable as Fred Guttenberg. A week after the killing of his daughter Jaime, Guttenberg rose to national fame when his criticism of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at a CNN town hall event went viral. In the three months since, he’s made repeated appearances on national television, at rallies across the country, and on Capitol Hill—at the invitation of congressional Democrats—where he’s pleaded with lawmakers for stronger gun control laws.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was also among the 17 people killed in Parkland, has risen to prominence, too—though he’s channeled his efforts in a different direction. The self-described libertarian has generally avoided the gun debate. He doesn’t believe the weapon was the issue in the shooting, and he doesn’t think it should be the focus of the response. Instead, Petty has championed school safety measures that focus on identifying the signs of potential violence and intervening before violent acts occur. His appearances at congressional hearings have come at the request of Republican lawmakers, and he’s used those opportunities to advocate for school violence prevention programs and dismiss the gun control debate as a polarizing nonstarter.
So I was surprised last month, when—at a school safety forum hosted by Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)—Petty introduced me to Guttenberg. Gun control wasn’t on the forum’s agenda, and Guttenberg wasn’t slated to formally participate in the nearly four-hour conversation. But Guttenberg had traveled to Washington as part of a six-family Parkland contingent to support Petty and Max Schachter, who lost his son Alex in the shooting, as they spoke about physical security measures and psychology-based approaches to reduce violence. Guttenberg—a self-described “relentless, in-your-face” type—occasionally weighed in from his seat in the audience; he broke from the prescribed topic only once to raise the issue of guns.
At the end, I caught up with Petty to see how he thought things went. “Well, Fred almost made it a whole afternoon without talking about guns,” he joked. “But seriously, I love the guy.”
In the three months since the shooting, the student leaders of the #NeverAgain movement—Parkland survivors such as Emma González and David Hogg—have become household names. They’ve voiced unanimous support for a five-point platform that includes banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, toughening background check requirements, and funding gun violence research that has long been opposed by the National Rifle Association. There are, of course, outspoken Parkland survivors who oppose gun control, but the two groups haven’t usually found much common ground.
The parents of some of the slain students have taken a different approach. For Petty and Guttenberg, guns are only one of the many factors that led to their daughters’ deaths. So they’ve worked alongside other Parkland parents, including Schachter, on issues they can agree on, such as school safety measures and holding law enforcement officials accountable for their failures. They’ve forged alliances with representatives from both parties for the sake of making political progress.
Petty says he remembers the warning Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave him as media descended on Parkland in the wake of the shooting. “You haven’t done this before,’” the governor said. So Scott, a Republican now running for Senate against Nelson, offered this advice: “Don’t let people get you off your message, regardless of the question. If you want to get anything done, stay on your message.”
But with 17 families who lost loved ones, there was always bound to be more than one message. Schachter, for example, created Safe Schools for Alex, a fund dedicated to developing best practices around emergency protocols and hardened school infrastructure. The parents of Joaquin Oliver, meanwhile, founded Change The Ref, an organization that uses urban art to call attention to mass shootings and the NRA’s influence on American politics.
For Guttenberg, easy access to powerful weaponry was an obvious culprit in his daughter’s death. “My daughter was the 16th person shot,” he told me, explaining how she’d been sprinting to seek refuge in a stairwell when she was shot by the killer’s semi-automatic rifle. “One more second, she makes it. Had this person had another weapon, my daughter would still be alive.” Guttenberg remembers pacing his house in the days after the massacre, cursing the NRA. “I’m going to break that fucking lobby,” he’d say to himself.
Three weeks after his cable news confrontation with Rubio, Guttenberg appeared at a Senate Democratic forum on gun violence, where he compared the NRA’s advertising to terrorist propaganda. “Why are we letting this lobby having anything to do with DC?” he asked.
Earlier this month, speaking over a heckler’s bullhorn at a protest outside of the NRA convention in Dallas, Guttenberg reminded those present that his daughter had been “hunted” at school. He repeated his four demands for “common sense” gun reform: universal background checks, an increase in the minimum age to purchase weapons from 18 to 21, so-called red-flag laws that allow police to confiscate guns from people deemed threatening, and a ban on high-capacity magazines. He established a foundation in his daughter’s honor to support his advocacy work, which he now pursues full time. He spent the last week visiting with the governors of New Jersey and Massachusetts to discuss divesting state pension funds from gun manufacturers.
For Petty, institutional failures, not lax firearms regulations, were to blame for his daughter’s death. “These deaths did not happen for lack of a gun law on the books,” he wrote in recent blog post. “They happened because multiple people in positions of power and responsibility neglected, ignored, or abdicated their responsibilities to keep these children safe.” He made similar statements before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing a month after the shooting, where he testified at the invitation of Republicans. “Americans aren’t interested in surrendering or curtailing their constitutional rights,” he told the panel.
As Petty grieved, he heard the words of a fellow victim’s father, Andrew Pollack, at President Donald Trump’s February 21 listening session on school violence. Pollack asked lawmakers to prioritize other types of safety measures over the bitter gun debate. “I thought, ‘Gosh, that makes a lot of sense,’” Petty recalls. “Everybody’s focused on the guns and the weapons, and here’s a guy that’s saying, ‘Well, there’s something else we could do.’” Since then, Petty’s been working with researchers at the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center and Columbia University to develop a method for detecting potential school violence and preventing it from taking place. He, too, has established a foundation to support his work. He frequently speaks about the issue with Rubio, who has championed it since the shooting.
But where Guttenberg and Petty agree, they work together. They, along with 11 other Parkland families, supported the STOP School Violence Act, a bipartisan bill that provides federal funds to strengthen school security infrastructure and train students and staff how to identify safety threats. The two fathers also threw their support behind the package of reforms Florida lawmakers passed in the wake of the tragedy. That legislation included a new three-day waiting period for all gun purchases, an increase in the minimum age for purchasing rifles and shotguns to 21, a red-flag law, and a ban on bump stocks, the gun accessory used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre that makes semi-automatic weapons behave like machine guns.
Those modest gun control measures fell short of what Guttenberg wanted—he called it “minimally acceptable” and “the best that could happen in Florida.” But it went far beyond anything else the state’s politicians have done recently to restrict gun sales, and it represented a serious defeat for the NRA. Despite his distaste for the gun debate, Petty backed these restrictions, noting that the age provision might have prevented the Parkland shooter from buying a gun. And he’s come to the defense of the GOP legislators who, after backing the bill, received harsh reactions from the NRA. “This legislation was based on the very best ideas for protecting our schools,” he says. “Its core gun control provision gives law enforcement another tool to keep firearms out of the hands of those that pose an imminent risk to themselves or others.”
— Ryan Petty (@rpetty) April 2, 2018
The Florida bill also established a school safety commission to investigate the shooting and make recommendations for reform; Petty, Schachter, and Pollack now serve on that body. Guttenberg, who attended the commission’s first meeting, says he’s “100 percent” behind Petty’s school safety efforts. “As Ryan has gotten to know more about me, and I’ve gotten to know more about Ryan, I think we both also realized there’s more commonality than someone may have thought originally,” he says. “For him, the most important fight is school safety. To me, it’s a public safety issue that we need to tackle. But we’re not working against each other. We’re working on different things that ultimately support one another.”
Schachter agrees. “We all support each other,” he says. “There’s so many different areas that need to be focused on. Gun safety is a huge one, as is prevention—we’re all working together to accomplish the same goals.”
— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) April 29, 2018
Petty, meanwhile, says he’ll be joining Guttenberg on the campaign trail, supporting the reelection of Florida lawmakers from both parties who supported the reform measures. When someone on Twitter reached out to Petty to discuss how to “defeat the NRA,” Petty politely connected him with Guttenberg. And Petty is leaving the door open to future gun control initiatives. “There are things Fred is advocating for that I’ll support,” he says. “There will be some gun regulations coming forward that you’ll see the families get behind, that I’ll be supportive of. There will be some things that probably aren’t going to make the NRA happy, but we will get behind them and support them.”
We should go as a group of families to campaign with them.
— Fred Guttenberg (@fred_guttenberg) April 19, 2018
It’s their shared pragmatism that has cemented the alliance. With congressional gridlock on the gun debate, school safety has been one of the only topics that brings lawmakers of both parties in Washington, DC, to the table—a political reality that was on full display at Nelson and Rubio’s joint forum. “The gun issue is very polarizing,” says Petty. “But school safety isn’t.” Guttenberg has even backed off his pressure for an assault weapons ban because, as he told the Guardian in March, he doesn’t think it could gain any traction in the current political environment.
In many respects, their work mirrors a path followed by other parents who faced a similar tragedy. Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden, who lost their sons in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, lobbied hard in DC in 2013 for legislation that would have expanded background checks on gun sales and banned some semi-automatic weapons. When that bill failed in the Senate, Hockley and Barden, too, turned their attention to other types of school safety initiatives, where they felt they could have a more immediate impact. Since Sandy Hook, no significant gun control legislation has passed Congress.
Some Democrats have accused Republicans of using the school safety issue to divert attention away from the gun debate. Gun control advocates agree, noting that these school safety efforts do nothing to address mass murders at movie theaters, churches, or concert venues—let alone the daily shootings that take place in communities across the country.
But the Parkland parents are staying the course, pursuing politically feasible safety measures and coalescing around modest gun restrictions that might gain bipartisan traction. They now keep in touch over Slack, a group messaging app. “We were getting 47 texts an hour,” says Petty. “It would be difficult enough to do with a single fatality, and trying to make change. But when you’ve got 17 families, it’s become a bit of a logistical challenge.”
Aside from their coordinated public appearances and letters supporting legislation—Petty says he writes the letters, while another father edits them—some of the mothers coordinated a Mother’s Day “shop in” at Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods to reward those retailers for their decisions to stop selling assault weapons and raise the minimum age for most gun purchases. Petty notes that they’re also working with the March For Our Lives teens to put together a series of summer activities for the still-grieving Stoneman Douglas students so they don’t lose their support network when school’s out of session.
The parents’ ability to set aside their own differences seems to have set an example for federal lawmakers, with whom they’ve forged some unexpected relationships. Guttenberg has met with Rubio several times since their cable news confrontation. “Rubio probably talks to him more than he talks to me,” Petty notes. Guttenberg says those meetings have at times “picked up where we left off” on CNN, but they’ve also resulted in a consistent exchange. For his part, Petty says he’s been surprised by the interactions he’s had with Democrats like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who Petty says engaged him in a meaningful conversation after the March Senate Judiciary hearing.
Election season may test these bonds. Some of the parents, for example, are thinking about establishing a political action committee to further their work. Guttenberg says he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll join them—he’s already joined forces with Americans for Gun Safety Now, a new group launched by Florida real estate developer Al Hoffman Jr., the Republican megadonor who vowed not to contribute to any candidates who do not support an assault weapons ban.
The parents are fully aware of the difficult balancing act they face. “Can we hold this thing together with the families, or do we sort of split apart?” Petty wonders. “And does that make us less effective?”