Despite his keynote slot at a gun safety rally near Parkland, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg took a back seat on Friday night as three student leaders and the grieving parents of two teenagers killed during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting delivered emotional speeches encouraging the voting public to cast their ballots for “gun sense” candidates willing to enact stronger gun control laws.
Bloomberg, who hosted the event through his Everytown for Gun Safety group, sat in silence as Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old Jaime recounted his daughter’s ordeal.
A bullet through her side would sever the gifted dancer’s spinal chord, Guttenberg said. His hope is that the bullet killed her instantly and that she didn’t suffer.
He then heard about Manuel Oliver’s son, Joaquin, a 17-year-old with a passion for music and sports. Oliver played a video clip of his son, known by his nickname Guac, dancing and singing along to music.
“[It took] six minutes to erase that smile, that dance, that perfect kid, your beautiful daughter, and all the other victims,” Oliver said. “And then we have to deal with this.”
Bloomberg, who is rumored to be considering a 2020 presidential run, was in South Florida for Friday’s event and to campaign with Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. Bloomberg and Everytown have pledged $500,000 to Gillum’s campaign in the past week.
He and Gillum will appear together Saturday night at a Democratic party fundraiser in West Palm Beach before visiting a Jewish center in Pembroke Pines on Sunday.
“I don’t know how anyone follows both of you,” he told the crowd gathered inside the Coral Springs Museum of Art. “This is the most difficult thing I could ever do because nobody is going to have the same feelings that you do.”
He mentioned visiting with survivors of the Las Vegas shooting a few weeks ago, but said the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting has remained top of mind — both because Feb. 14 is his birthday and due to the unprecedented student-led activism that came out of Parkland.
“Every year, I’ve got a reason to think about it,” he said. “I’ll think about you, I’ll try to remember the names or not, but I’ll remember what happened and I’ll remember that we said we were going to do something about it. And hopefully each year we will have come closer to our goal.”
Current Marjory Stoneman Douglas students Sari Kaufman, Casey Sherman and Daniel Tabares also addressed the crowd, highlighting the work they have done locally to support the March for Our Lives and to register voters even if they are not yet old enough to cast ballots themselves.
Kaufman, a 16-year-old junior, wore an “MSD Strong” shirt as she denounced the polarization that has consumed the debate on gun control. She said the activism that emerged from the shooting in Parkland has been like a puzzle, with different groups — some conservative-leaning like that of Parkland father Andrew Pollack and others more liberal — each doing valuable work to end gun violence.
“Even though there are many different organizations, which represent the different pieces and with different views on how to end gun violence, each organization fits into the puzzle,” Kaufman said. “We all have the same underlying goal: of ending gun violence to ensure that no parent, child nor friend has to face the pain and suffering of losing a loved one.”
Sherman, a 17-year-old senior, was the lead student organizer of the March for Our Lives in Parkland. She, too, stressed unity over divisiveness.
“I have come to realize the division that exists in this country and how an issue such as gun violence pits people against each other when it should bring them together,” she said. “People are dying so why are we spending so much time fighting with each other instead of fighting for the lives at stake.”
Tabares, also 17, said he struggled with insecurity before deciding to speak out for gun reform. He didn’t know the value of his voice, he said.
“I’m continuing to learn what courage looks like,” he said. “I have seen it in Fred Guttenberg, Manuel Oliver...and I’ve seen it last week in Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony. I know that there are people who may disagree with us, but the courage of others has inspired me to be courageous myself.”
Oliver and Guttenberg have turned their grief into an organized resistance by starting up advocacy groups on parallel tracks as the student-led March for Our Lives movement.
Their goal, bluntly stated by Oliver, is to crush the “f**king gun lobby” and defeat the National Rifle Association while electing pro-gun reform candidates.
Guttenberg runs Orange Ribbons for Jaime, a foundation that pushes for gun reform and raises money for dance organizations and those that deal with bullying and children with special needs. He has called for an “Orange Wave in November,” which means registering new voters and electing candidates who support gun reform.
“When the new Congress sits, it needs to be clear to the legislators that some were fired because of where they stood on this issue, and new ones were hired because of where they stand on this issue,” he said.
Orange is the color of gun safety in America, and it happened to be Jaime’s favorite color.
He opened his speech by playing an anti-NRA song dedicated to his movement and sent to him by a father who was touched by his message.
“For the love of my daughter, for the love of my son,” the song starts. “I can’t sit on the sidelines no longer, something must be done.”
Along with his wife, Patricia, Manuel Oliver started Change the Ref, a gun reform advocacy group that blends Oliver’s artistic creations with public service messages. Its goal is to reduce the influence of the NRA while empowering young leaders fighting for gun reform. Friday’s event featured a sculpture Oliver designed that depicts a student hiding underneath a school desk.
“I lost my son and my best friend,” he said. “I do blame the gun lobby. I do blame the NRA.”
Oliver, whose family moved to South Florida from Venezuela in 2003 and became naturalized citizens last year, said Nov. 6 will be he and his wife’s first time voting.
“It’s like losing my virginity,” he said. “I’m excited. Can’t wait.”