A crowd of 1300 attended a town hall meeting with U.S. Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA) and Ted Deutch (D-FL) in addition to featured speaker Fred Guttenberg at T.C. Williams High School on March 7. Guttenberg lost his daughter Jaime in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. this past February.
The event was hosted by Alexandria Public Schools’ Department of Communication in conjunction with the congressional staffs of Beyer and Deutch.
“When we see the students in Parkland, we see our classmates, we see our friends and we see ourselves. As students it is critical to speak out for gun reform because those gun reforms might save our lives,” said Jay Falk who introduced the speakers alongside Hannah Miller.
“I want to thank you on behalf of the community I represent,” said Deutch whose congressional district included Parkland. “The response from people around the country has been remarkable and it’s been remarkable in part because of interaction between people like you and the incredible student survivors who have taken the lead in changing this discussion in a profound way. Who have simply pointed out what all of us know which is number one weapons of war do not belong in our communities.”
In his headlining speech, Guttenberg spoke with a measured sense of ferocity as he recounted the events leading up to his daughter Jaime’s death and spoke of his new resolve to prevent such an event from happening again.
“Every time one of these incidents happens, the conversation afterwards is way too polite, way too comfortable and way too temporary. I will always be respectful, [but] I have no need to be polite. I want to make people uncomfortable when we talk about it and I’m not going away. This will never be temporary,” Guttenberg said to much applause.
“My daughter was just murdered, or as some in the the pro gun community liked to say – guns are for hunting – my daughter was hunted at school,” said Guttenberg. He then described his daughter’s last moments “running down an active shooter until ‘boom’ — a single shot to her back severed her spinal cord.”
Guttenberg directed most of his anger for the gun lobby and resolved to break them.
“Anyone who has a legislator who won’t vote for your safety, you need to fire them,” he said.
“I happen to believe in the second amendment, just not the bastardized version presented by the gun lobby and the lawmakers who follow it,” said Guttenberg. “Unfortunately this bastardized version has led to these weapons of war being widely available and as a result, my daughter has been murdered. She had rights as well, as well as a right to life and a right to believe in the second amendment.”
The open floor session was illustrative of just how much advocacy had already been organized in response to gun violence including a sea of red in the crowd from the t-shirt-donning Moms Demand Action advocacy group that started the day after the Sandy Hook Massacre. Additionally, representatives from The Northern Virginia Chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Family Foundation, Women Against Violence Epidemic and several self-organized student groups made their voice heard at the microphone.
“I’ve witnessed so many shootings come and go with no real change. Though this time seems different, I want my elected officials to dedicate themselves to this moment, especially engaging with young people like me,” said high school student Barrett Fife of Alexandria who asked the legislators about concrete actions. Fife, 17, co-founded a group called DMV Students Demand Action in recent weeks.
The school-age students attending represented a wide age range with some even coming from elementary schools. Naomi Walder from George Mason Elementary in Alexandria said her school was planning a walk out. Not all students reported success in their plans in activism. Two students from McLean High School spoke of administrators blocking their plans to stage a walk-out and rally.
Another notable speaker was Kate Ranta, who holds the rare distinction of having been a shooting victim in Parkland before the mass shooting this past February.
In 2012, she and her father had been shot twice by an ex-husband (both survived) while her 4-year-old son witnessed the encounter.
“The irony is that had I stayed in Parkland, my son would have been attending the elementary school right down the street from Douglas,” said Ranta who currently resides in Alexandria.
“I’d like to thank Fred Guttenberg for his immediate bravery and advocacy to stop gun violence all while mourning his beautiful daughter,” she said. “And I’m here to tell you that I’ve been in this fight for 5 years, I stand with you and I’m not going away either… I’ve been in it for five years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Ranta co-founded Women Against Violence Epidemic and used her speaking time to declare her intention to run for office in Alexandria. Like many others, Ranta was full of praise for Beyer for his work on the gun safety issue.
Gutenberg expressed confidence in the power of adolescents to keep the movement alive. Despite expressing a desire to limit questions at the post-town-hall press conference due to the exhaustion of his travel schedule, he granted a final question to the T.C. Williams video news crew and enthusiastically gave them his support.
“I’m more optimistic than I ever was,“ said Guttenberg. “I always thought these kids live on their cell phone, but these kids use their cell phone as a weapon. They are driving a message that the rest of the country is listening to.”