School Climate & Safety

A Missed Handshake Sparks Controversy for U.S. Supreme Court Pick

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 11, 2018 2 min read
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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing veered into unexpected territory last week when a brief encounter between him and the father of a student killed in a school shooting became the center of internet-fueled controversy.

When a break was called during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings on Sept. 4, Kavanaugh was approached by Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed along with 16 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February.

Guttenberg, an outspoken gun-control advocate in the wake of his daughter’s killing, walked toward Kavanaugh, identified himself, and tried to shake the nominee’s hand. Video shows that Kavanaugh stared at him briefly before he turned and walked away. Kavanaugh did not shake Guttenberg’s hand.

Polarizing Image

Supreme Court nominees are typically closely guarded by security and are moved quickly in and out of these hearings. The White House later shared a video showing what it said was security intervening and escorting Guttenberg away before Kavanaugh could shake his hand.

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It’s possible that Kavanaugh was just being cautious about shaking hands with someone he had not previously met. At the same time, it’s not clear that Guttenberg, who was a guest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was violating protocol in approaching Kavanaugh as the hearing broke for lunch.

Either way, the resulting images quickly gained traction among Kavanaugh’s critics.

“If Kavanaugh won’t even give him a handshake, how can we believe he would give gun-violence victims a fair shake in court?” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a member of the committee, tweeted from her Senate Twitter account.

And gun-control advocates used the incident to link the National Rifle Association’s financial support for President Donald Trump’s election campaign, Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh’s dissent from two other judges on the District of Columbia federal appeals court who ruled in favor of a ban on most semi-automatic rifles and a firearms-registration requirement in the city. (More broadly, conservatives have portrayed him as a defender of Second Amendment rights.)

“THIS is what corruption looks like,” Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down America, said on Twitter.

Not everyone, however, thought that the incident reflected badly on Kavanaugh or that Guttenberg’s attempt to meet him was appropriate.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow Pollack was also killed at Stoneman Douglas, said that Kavanaugh was not responsible for his daughter’s death and should be confirmed by the Senate.

“Stop weaponizing Parkland to advance a dangerous political agenda!” Pollack tweeted.

Guttenberg was not in the hearing room the next day, Sept. 5, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered Kavanaugh the chance to address the encounter with the Parkland father. Kavanaugh did not do so directly, saying, “I base my decisions on the law. But I do so with an awareness of the facts and the real-world consequences. I have not lived in a bubble.”

Guttenberg arrived later in the day and voiced disappointment with Kavanaugh’s statements.

“All he had to do was say—he didn’t have to make it about me—just say to the victims of gun violence, who’ve suffered loss, who want [Kavanaugh] to hear them, is ‘I do,’ ” Guttenberg told Education Week. “He could have said something about me if he wanted, that’s up to him. He said nothing meaningful. And he flubbed it.”

Contributing writer Mark Walsh contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Missed Handshake, Then Controversy

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