RACINE — Fred Guttenberg and Manuel Oliver didn’t know each other eight months ago, until after their children were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. Since then they have been advocating for gun violence reforms and against the National Rifle Association.
On Sunday, eight months to the day of the shooting, Guttenberg and Oliver were in Racine to tell their story of suffering and to give their endorsement to Democratic 1st Congressional District nominee Randy Bryce, who is running against Republican Bryan Steil.
Oliver said he prefers to think about Feb. 13, and about watching his 17-year-old son Joaquin play basketball and buy flowers for his girlfriend to give to her on Valentine’s Day.
Oliver, an artist, said Joaquin asked him to do something special with the sunflowers they got for his girlfriend.
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“He said ‘Dad these look beautiful, she’s going to be so happy,’ ” Oliver said, holding back tears. “That (next) morning we got in the car and had a music conversation, just like we had every morning, we talked a lot about music. I left him at school and said ‘I love you, you know that’ and he said ‘I love you too.’ But I said ‘Call me back as soon as you give her the flowers so I know how it went.’ He never called me back.”
Oliver told his story while painting on a canvas meant to look like a brick wall. Oliver and Guttenberg have been traveling around the country to advocate for candidates in favor of gun reform and gun safety legislation.
‘It could’ve been you’
Guttenberg said of his story: “It could be yours.”
“And don’t you for a second think that’s not possible,” Guttenberg said. “My biggest source of never ending guilt for the rest of my life will be that I once thought that way and I didn’t do anything about it until it became my story.”
Guttenberg described Parkland as the “safest community.”
“The community that violence doesn’t happen in, not in my neighborhood — that’s why we live there,” Guttenberg said. “The school that our kids went to was one of the safest in the country, one of the best in the country. It was never going to happen to us, and yet eight months ago today we sent our children to school and it did.”
On a day when he was rushing to get his kids to school on time, Guttenberg says he feels haunted by not being able to remember if he said “I love you.”
Jaime Guttenberg, 14, was shot in the spine and died, and her father told a group of a Bryce supporters he hopes she died instantly.
“Every second of every day, that’s what I live with in my head, wondering about those final seconds, ‘Did my daughter suffer?’ ” Guttenberg said. “It could’ve been you. It could’ve been your spouse, your child, your friend, your cousin, your sibling.”
Guttenberg said in the weeks after the shooting, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “was freaking absent.”
“He ignored Parkland when this happened,” Guttenberg said. “Many other congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle said something, stood up, but Paul Ryan ran away.”
Bryce, Steil comment on guns
Both Oliver and Guttenberg called on politicians to not take campaign money from the NRA and also called on residents to vote for candidates with a strong willingness to pass gun reform legislation.
Bryce, who has been running for the seat since before Ryan announced his withdrawal from the race in April, was present and visibly emotional listening to the two fathers speak.
“When we hear about something like this happening, the first thought is ‘Thank God, it’s not me,’ ” Bryce said. “That’s why it’s so important to listen to these stories. It can be you.”
Bryce is an advocate of mandatory background checks; a ban on semiautomatic weapons, bump stocks; and a 48-hour waiting period on gun purchases.
“Thoughts and prayers haven’t been working, but yet that’s what we’re offered, that’s what we’re told to do to fix this problem,” Bryce said. “It hasn’t helped so far.”
If elected, Bryce said he would not be beholden to the NRA or gun lobby.
“This is the only country where this kind of stuff happens,” Bryce said. “And there’s a reason, and it’s because our elections have turned into auctions. We have groups like the NRA that are pumping millions upon millions of dollars into helping elect people who will help gun manufacturers sell their guns.”
Steil, who has received the endorsement of Ryan along with each county sheriff in the 1st Congressional District, said officials “can defend our Second Amendment rights while making our communities safer by enforcing the laws that are already on the books.”
“For example, just one in 20 Chicago shootings lead to an arrest,” Steil said. “This is painfully low. Responsible gun owners in Wisconsin should not have their constitutional rights abridged due to the actions of those who should not have firearms in the first place.”
Steil said communities can make their neighborhoods safer by “standing with law enforcement and passing sensible legislation.”
“I support the (Trump) administration’s action to ban bump stocks,” Steil said. “Last March, the House passed the STOP School Violence Act in a huge bipartisan vote. This was a step in the right direction. The STOP School Violence Act takes significant steps to curb school violence by enabling law enforcement with more tools and trying to prevent tragedies before they happen.”
“My biggest source of never ending guilt for the rest of my life will be that I once thought that way and I didn’t do anything about it until it became my story.” Fred Guttenberg, father of a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting