Campaigners determined to keep tragic school shooting top of political agenda

Parents outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 when 17 teachers and students were murdered. Picture: AP /Joel Auerbach

Fred Guttenberg doesn’t think he told his daughter he loved her the last time he saw her alive, writes Joyce Fegan

“My daughter was killed on February 14, in Parkland, Florida. I sent two children to school and only one of them came home,” Fred tells a small crowd in Palm Beach, Florida, which is gearing up for Tuesday’s midterm elections.

His 14-year-old daughter Jamie was one of the 17 students and teachers murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last February, now known simply as the Parkland shooting. It was after this tragedy that US president Donald Trump suggested arming teachers as a solution to gun violence in American schools.

“My daughter was the toughest person I know. When I sent her to school that morning, my daughter being tough, and sometimes difficult, was running late, yet everything had to be perfect and I’m rushing her out the door. ‘You gotta get to school. You gotta get to school.’

“And I honestly don’t think I ever told her I loved her that morning, the very last time, because it wasn’t supposed to be [the last time I saw her],” Fred tells an utterly silent room.

Fred has been travelling the US for several months, calling for tighter gun regulation. He’s in his home state of Florida, backing Democratic mid-term candidate and former adviser to Hillary Clinton, Lauren Baer. His job is to rally Baer’s volunteers, who are about to go out canvassing.

He goes on to describe how his daughter died, because he has seen the CCTV footage of her death. “She was killed by an assault weapon. She was running down the hallway in school, she was one of the kids killed in the hallway, not in the classroom — so it’s on video.

“And she was running for her life. She knew there was an active shooter at her back and she was running.

Fred Guttenberg’s daughter Jamie, 14, was one of those murdered in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Picture: Joyce Fegan

“She was turning into a stairwell, one more second, and she’d be safe, but boom. Single shot. One shot from an AR-15. She fell,” he says.

To this day, and this haunts me, I don’t know if she died instantly. I don’t know if she lay there not able to tell anybody. I don’t know if she felt pain. I don’t know what she felt, if she felt anything at all. What I know is, I don’t have her with me now,” says Fred, to audible sobs.

The room is made up of mostly teenagers and young women. The teenagers are as young as 15, and while they can’t even vote in next Tuesday’s midterm elections, they’re making sure those who can get out and do so.

After the Parkland shooting, student survivors from the school, headed by Emma Gonzalez, formed the March for our Lives movement, which has since morphed into Vote for our Lives. The group has also been touring America encouraging young people to register to vote and to cast their ballot on Tuesday.

Their movement has worked — according to a Harvard University poll, 40% of 18-29-year-olds are expected to turn out to vote next week. This will be historic, as the highest youth vote turnout to date, in any midterms, was in 1986 and 1994, when 21% voted.

Some of the teenagers listening to Fred speak were mobilised by what happened in Parkland. One of them is 15-year-old Emma Ratchford.

Young teen canvassers, from left, Emma Ratchford, Leah Winters, and Katherine Oung.

“I’m too young to be registered but for me the main reason that I really got involved in politics was the shooting this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Democracy always seemed like something that was so far away, so out of reach for me, but now Lauren [Baer] is so close to me, I literally live five minutes away, so coming here it makes me feel like I’m really making a change because it’s something I feel so strongly about,” says Emma.

Her friends Katherine and Leah stand alongside her, but with their own minds and political reasons for being here.

“This is the first year my parents are able to vote because they became citizens so our whole family has become a lot more politically engaged and I, as their kid, wanted to become more informed about the people that were running to represent our district,” explains Katherine.

Leah, on the other hand, is passionate about protecting the environment.

“Growing up in this area, we’re all more environmentally conscious. The environment is deteriorating and politicians aren’t really doing anything about it. That’s my primary reason for getting involved,” she says, adding that there is a “heightened amount of awareness” among her peers this election season.

Earlier in the day, I visited the Parkland school, where it was pick-up time. Cars formed an orderly queue, all covered in some political bumper sticker or other. The cars were driven in unison through the school gates and parked in convoy along a curb within the school compound. Children filed out of the school doors, under strict security, and jumped straight into their parents’ cars.

Sheriff cars can also be seen on the school property that’s on a pristine stretch of road with manicured lawns and tall palm trees. It’s a militaristic operation in an idyllic setting, that should be full of youthful abandonment and giddiness — but there’s none of that.

Nearby is Trump’s southern bolt-hole, his private club, the Mar-a-Lago estate, which he has visited over 120 times since becoming president. Security is tight here too, but not so tight that you can’t get to the door.

I tell the Caribbean porter that I am just curious, to which he replies, “This is the wrong place to be nosy, follow the exit to the left.”

Next Tuesday could see the beginning of Trump’s exit, with US politics moving to the left. If voters make liberal candidates their number one choice, it will pave the way for a “flipping of the House”, where the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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