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Moving from Despair to Action, Advocates See Progress

South Florida activists are celebrating the creation of the First White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Parkland's Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter Jaime at the MSD shooting in 2018, said he is glad that gun violence is finally going to be addressed 'as a cabinet-level effort.'

Charles Maxwell | MediaLab@FAU

Oct 13, 2023

When Fred Guttenberg lost his daughter, Jaime, in the Parkland shooting, it was like the world was coming to an end.

Jaime, a dancer and straight-A student, was gunned down in the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Over the past five years, Guttenberg has met with countless news outlets, members of Congress, governors and even President Biden with one goal in mind: to break the gun lobby.

Now, Guttenberg is closer than ever to reaching that goal, thanks to the new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

President Biden and Vice President Harris took the podium in Washington D.C. Sept. 22 to announce the creation of the first White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the next step in their efforts to end the U.S. gun violence epidemic.

“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” said Biden on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “After every mass shooting, we hear a simple message - the same message… Do something,” said Biden in his White House announcement. 

The new office, led by Harris, aims to crack down on gun trafficking and lower gun violence rates by implementing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act nationwide.

Guttenberg has developed a relationship with Biden and his administration, working closely with them on the issue of gun violence for the past few years. As an attendee of Biden’s announcement in Washington on Sept. 22, Guttenberg heard firsthand the plans for a safer future.

“The way gun violence is going to be treated is going to be a cabinet level effort,” said Guttenberg. “It will ensure that every act of gun violence is followed by a federal response so that communities are not forgotten. This new office is going to be creating a FEMA-like response to gun violence.”

Other Floridians impacted by the Parkland shooting and young activists motivated to bring change in its wake are also marking the creation of the new White House office.

“I think it’s a really good step. I’m really excited,” said Raquel Perry, a recent Florida Atlantic University graduate. While at FAU, Perry created and led the school’s chapter of March For Our Lives (MFOL), a student-led organization founded after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. MFOL supports gun control legislation and lobbied the Biden administration to do more to curb gun violence.

“Following persistent advocacy efforts by so many young activists and survivors, it’s exciting that they're using their resources to combat the gun violence epidemic,” Perry added, applauding the students who have been lobbying and marching for change. “[The Office] makes a significant development in the fight against the gun violence epidemic.”

As of Oct. 3, there were 58 school shootings this year, according to a CNN tally that includes information from the Gun Violence Archive, Education Week, and Everytown for Gun Safety. But with a divided Congress unwilling or unable to take up gun legislation, many activists and bereaved parents like Guttenberg have turned to the White House instead. 

The formation of the new office came just weeks after a shooting at the University of North Carolina on Aug. 28, which left one professor dead. 

Steven Coleman, a senior majoring in geography at the University of North Carolina, recalls heading to class that Monday afternoon when his phone rang with a campus safety alert, reporting an armed and dangerous person on campus.

“I was immediately very anxious and went back inside my dorm. It was a very eerie and tense feeling,” said Coleman. “There was a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information being spread on social media that undoubtedly added to the anxiety.”

Following the events on Monday, which included a 190-minute campus lockdown, Coleman remembers a feeling of exhaustion and numbness. “These shootings are clearly an issue,” said Coleman. “It always was a very real and important issue to me… having been through it, it makes it all a bit more real.”

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 28 mass shootings in Florida in 2023. There have been some changes in the state’s gun laws this year, but not in the direction many Floridians hoped for.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 543 earlier this year, allowing Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit, effective July 7. 

Yet, according to a poll from the University of North Florida’s public opinion research lab, 77% of Floridians – a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike – strongly or somewhat opposed the bill. 

Advocates for gun control say making a change in Florida is going to be complicated. One of the more difficult challenges will be enforcing background checks for firearms dealers. The state has many private sellers who don’t have federal firearms licenses, allowing them to forgo background checks before selling a firearm.

Private sellers are frequent vendors at Florida’s gun shows where a valid Florida ID stating that you are 21 years of age is all that is necessary to drive home with a firearm. No background check, no hassle.

Biden’s proposed solution is to broaden the definition of “engaged in the business,” and ensure that all firearms dealers – even so-called private dealers – obtain a federal license.

Guttenberg, the co-author of a new book called American Carnage: Shattering the Myths That Fuel Gun Violence, said in a tweet following the White House signing ceremony that “lives will be saved and communities will be helped.”

“As a parent, I’ve always seen my world as responding to what happens to my children,” said Guttenberg. “This is how I get to respond.” 

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