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School massacre polarizes grieving dads




Jaime, 14, spent her free time dancing and volunteering with special needs children. Meadow, 18, was a girly girl who loved the outdoors.

At a young age, the two South Florida Jewish teens already had a clear idea of what they wanted to do with their lives. Jaime wanted to be a pediatric physical therapist, and hoped to work at the Paley Institute, a world-renowned orthopaedic centre in West Palm Beach. Meadow was planning to study law at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

Both girls were at school on February 14, when a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and started shooting. The gunman, Nicolas Cruz, killed 17 people, including Jaime and Meadow.

That bloody day forever changed the lives of their families, and the Parkland community.Some of the student survivors founded a movement to advocate for gun control. Jaime and Meadow’s fathers have become prominent activists, each amassing tens of thousands of followers on Twitter.

But as similar as their daughters appeared to have been, the two fathers’ messages are opposite in many ways.

Fred Guttenberg, Jaime’s father, supports gun reform and is urging people to vote Democratic in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Meanwhile, Andrew Pollack, Meadow’s dad, is a supporter of President Donald Trump, and says that those urging gun control distract from his goal of making schools safer.

From anger to activism

News of the Pittsburgh massacre two weeks ago that left 11 people dead brought Fred Guttenberg back to the aftermath of the February day when his life was shattered.

“I’m horrified to see a repeat of what happened after my daughter was murdered, which is elected leaders who are silent or won’t address the reality, which is that this was a gun issue,” he said.

Guttenberg, a 52-year-old businessman, hasn’t worked since the shooting. Instead he spends his days fighting for gun reform as a way to keep alive his daughter’s memory. In the past weeks, he has travelled throughout the country to attend and speak at rallies for politicians ahead of the midterm elections.

“In this particular election, I am firm in telling everybody to vote straight-line Democrat, only because we need oversight,” he said. “We need somebody who will hold the president accountable because this is not the Republican Party that many of the Republicans I respect used to belong to.”

Despite his endorsements, Guttenberg is not comfortable describing himself as a Democrat. He said he is planning to register as an independent after the midterms (he would not disclose his current party registration). He has met with Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016, and said he would endorse the politician if he were up for re-election. Although Kasich has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, he has proposed various gun policy changes.

“I’ve been supporting anyone who supports gun safety,” Guttenberg said. “For the most part, unfortunately, that comes from one party, with a few exceptions.” He supports a range of policies, including raising the age limit to 21, passing legislation to allow law enforcement to take away weapons from certified domestic abusers, and those spreading hate online, and improving background checks on guns and ammunition sales.

“None of them are anything along the lines of overturning the Second Amendment, or taking away the guns of lawful gun owners,” he said. Guttenberg dismisses arguments — including by Trump — that armed guards would have prevented shootings such as the one in Pittsburgh.

“Remember, the entity that pushes that argument is the gun lobby,” he said. “If the solution involves more gun sales, that’s wonderful for them.”

It’s easy to blame the gun

Politics also did not play as big role in Andrew Pollack’s life prior to February. He voted for the first time in 2016. A passionate supporter of Israel, he was energised by Trump’s promise to repeal the Iran nuclear deal. Still, the real-estate manager didn’t spend too much time fretting over politics.

“I’ve never been a political guy,” he told JTA last week.

Then, his daughter was shot nine times in the hallway of her school. Her body was found in a way that suggested she shielded another student from the gunfire. Both were dead.

Pollack, 52, recalls turning on the television after the shooting, and hearing talking heads speaking about gun control. He felt as if the media were diverting attention from what had actually led to his daughter’s killing, and started researching school safety policies in Broward County.

“As I started looking into it, I started seeing these policies that are in place in Broward that created this whole nightmare,” he said. One of those policies was diversion programmes, which are intended to allow first-time offenders or individuals with a minor criminal history complete rehabilitation programmes rather than be convicted and have criminal records. The Parkland gunman, Cruz, participated in such a programme in 2013, when it was introduced by the county’s school district.

“It sounds like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but the way they did it, it led up to creating a massacre,” he said. “He committed multiple crimes, where if he would have been arrested for it, he never would have been able to buy a rifle, he would have had a record.”

Cruz was referred to the programme after damaging a sink in a school bathroom. He threatened multiple times to harm himself and others, and was expelled multiple times from school. But it is not clear that anything he did constituted a crime. The safety commission at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High dismissed claims that the diversion programme he had attended failed him.

Pollack also questions why Cruz was let onto campus on February 14, in spite of having made threats to blow up the school.

“All those people that are in Parkland are talking about gun control, but they’re OK with all the administrators that didn’t have this kid arrested for trespassing at the school after he already threatened to shoot the school up,” he said.

Pollack considers gun-reform campaigns to be “a deflection” that “takes away from actually what we should be doing as a country – making our schools safer”.

He supported a Florida bill that put armed guards in every school in the state, provided increased funding for mental healthcare, and raised the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.

He also founded Americans for Children’s Lives and School Safety, a group that supports parents seeking to improve security measures at their children’s schools.

Joined and separated by grief

In the Florida governor’s race, the two men are endorsing opposing candidates. Guttenberg supports Democrat Andrew Gillum, and has called his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis “a Trump puppet”.

Pollack, meanwhile, says that DeSantis, a former US congressman, is “the most pro-Israel politician that I’ve ever met”.

Looking at the two fathers, one can’t help but wonder if they symbolise something larger. National tragedies tend to be moments of unity, pushing people to overlook their differences in common mourning, at least for the moment.

But in recent years, the opposite seems true. Each shooting leads to more finger-pointing and cries that the other side is using it for political gains. There seem to be two Americas, each one viewing current events through such a thick lens that it is unable even to comprehend what the other side is seeing.

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