How Parkland parents and lawmakers built relationships to help prevent school violence

Days after the Parkland shootings just over a year ago, Fred Guttenberg and Marco Rubio met for the first time on national television.

The Republican senator, who introduced pro-gun legislation while gearing up for a 2016 presidential run, was booed by thousands in the CNN townhall audience as the father of Jaime Guttenberg, one of 17 people killed in the nation’s deadliest high school shooting, grilled him.

“Your comments this week, and those of our president, have been pathetically weak,” Guttenberg said, his voice trembling. “Look at me and tell me guns were the factor in the hunting of our kids in this school this week. And, look at me and tell me you accept it, and you will work with us to do something about guns.”

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Rubio said he was supportive of laws that prevent 18- to 21-year-olds from purchasing rifles, though he wasn’t in favor of a ban on assault-style weapons. Further jeers followed when he said the National Rifle Association donates to his campaigns because they buy into his view of the Second Amendment, not the other way around.

But a year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, the Republican officials who were vilified on stage have closer relationships with the families of the victims than two officials who received applause during the television town hall: suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. Those relationships developed away from the cameras, press conferences and viral social media posts, and are largely policy-focused, even as Rubio’s views on guns have remained unchanged despite some of the statements he made on stage that night.

“I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to meet some of them without the town hall,” Rubio said. “I’m glad I went.”

Since the shooting, Rubio said he has met at least two dozen times with five or six of the families and stayed in constant contact with them. But their conversations are very different than the exchange at that early townhall in Broward’s BB&T Center.

“Our meetings are largely about the issues that affect them,” Rubio said. “From time to time the conversation might be about another topic, but in terms of politics, when they come to DC they’re not coming to hang out, they’re coming here to get work done.”

Some of the parents are now so well connected with federal agencies they don’t need lawmakers or their staffs to set up meetings, Rubio said.

Their shared work involves issues where Rubio and the families are in agreement, like increasing funding for school safety and passing nationwide red-flag laws that make it easier for law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous individuals. Other times families come to Washington to support causes, like banning assault rifles, where they actively oppose Rubio.

Rubio, who said a year ago that he was “reconsidering” his position against limiting magazine size, is now not in favor of proposals to limit the amount of rounds that can be fired by a gun without reloading. Fellow Florida Sen. Rick Scott isn’t in favor of limiting magazine size, either.

“I just haven’t seen a workable solution,” Rubio said in an interview this week. “I’ve met with multiple stakeholders and no one can define high capacity in a way that brings people on board. Number two, I don’t think we can pass it.”

Over the past year, federal legislation in response to Parkland has been limited in scope. Two bills, which penalizes federal agencies for not properly reporting to the national background check system and authorizes federal funding for school safety, became law in the months after the shootings. The Trump administration banned devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons, though Congress hasn’t yet passed a law on it.

Unlike Tallahassee, where Gov. Ron DeSantis and a Republican-controlled Legislature have the votes to pass bills, Washington isn’t moving quickly. The Democratic-controlled House is pushing through bills that would expand background checks and limit magazine size, though those measures have virtually no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.

Ryan Petty, the parent of Alaina Petty, one of the students killed at Parkland, said Washington gridlock until at least 2021 gives advocates the space to delve into complicated topics like school safety and discipline practices that are different than the debate on guns.

“I look at the split Congress as a welcome reprieve from Washington meddling in local education issues,” Petty said. “That may shock some other families and some leaders, but I think we should back off for a while. I’m not sure what they could do other than increasing funding that would help address the school safety topic.”

Petty has nothing but praise for the federal elected officials that represent Parkland, including Rubio, Scott and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, an advocate for gun control who introduced a bill to limit magazine size this week. Unlike local police and school officials, Petty used the same word to describe federal lawmakers: accessible.

Rubio said he’s in constant communication with Parkland parents Petty, Max Schacter, Andrew Pollack and Guttenberg. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Guttenberg to the State of the Union speech last week, while Scott invited Pollack. Petty was present at Scott’s swearing-in ceremony in January. Parkland parent Manuel Oliver is a frequent presence on Capitol Hill.

“I certainly think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their pragmatism,” Rubio said. “The families are focused on getting things done, achieving things and bills that can be passed.”

Rubio said he focuses on different topics with different parents. Petty was an important voice on the school safety funding bill. Schacter is focused on school safety standards at the federal level. Guttenberg and Rubio are working on ideas for safe gun-storage laws. Discussions about expanding background checks and banning assault rifles, led by the March For Our Lives organizers, are largely confined to Democrats and gun control advocates.

“You have a list of 10 things, and we may disagree on three or four, but we work on the five or six other things where we agree,” Rubio said. “You don’t have to abandon the other four if you focus on the six, though.”

Democrats are nearly uniformly in favor of stricter gun-control laws while Republicans are nearly uniformly opposed, a marked change from a decade ago when dozens of Democrats in rural areas and Republicans in suburban areas held different views. Most of them are no longer in Congress.

“House Democrats were sent to Congress to address the epidemic of gun violence in our country,” Deutch said at a press conference this week where he introduced his bill to ban high-capacity magazines. “With the memory of those killed in Columbine, Newtown, Las Vegas and Parkland in our hearts, we introduce this bill to make communities safer.”

In Florida, the 2018 election did not usher into office a wave of pro-gun control lawmakers. Scott and DeSantis’ wins in statewide elections outweighed modest gains for Democrats in the state Legislature and the victories of Democrats Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala in two Miami-based congressional seats. Parkland wasn’t the number one issue on voters minds in Florida this year, and the two successful Democratic campaigns spent millions on TV advertisements that were mostly focused on healthcare. As the 2020 Democratic presidential primary begins, various candidates are focusing their messages on taxing the rich or passing a Green New Deal. Guns are a side issue.

“Because it is such a contentious and divisive issue we end up using all of our energy in debating each other over things that quite frankly may or may not actually make schools safer,” Petty said. “I was hopeful that Parkland could represent a change in approach and a focus on things that could bring us together as opposed to the things that divide us.”

Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.