Supreme Court nominee’s Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing veered into unexpected territory Tuesday, and the father of a student killed in a school shooting was at the center of a controversy that spread quickly on the internet.
Democrats might seize on the moment as a big political win ahead of November’s mid-term elections, regardless of whether the Senate confirms Kavanaugh as the newest Supreme Court associate justice.
When a break was called during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings, 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, who’s become an outspoken gun-control advocate in the wake of his daughter’s murder, identified himself and tried to shake Kavanaugh’s hand. Kavanaugh stared at him briefly before he turned and walked away, and did not shake Guttenberg’s hand.
It’s not clear exactly what happened in that moment. But the resulting images quickly gained traction among Kavanaugh’s critics.
As a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Kavanaugh dissented when two other judges ruled in favor of a ban on most semi-automatic rifles and a firearms-registration requirement in D.C. More broadly, conservatives have portrayed him as a defender of Second Amendment rights.
Here’s a video clip of the moment Guttenberg tried to meet Kavanaugh, via NBC News.
Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland victim, Jaime, tries to shakes hands with Brett Kavanaugh: “My daughter was murdered at Parkland.”
White House says an “unidentified individual approached” Kavanaugh, but “before the judge was able to shake his hand, security had intervened.” pic.twitter.com/IerpDMOW0h
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 4, 2018
And after the incident, Guttenberg claimed that by declining to shake his hand, Kavanaugh “did not want to deal with the reality of gun violence.”
However, the White House quickly responded to the burgeoning drama by showing a video of security quickly intervening to escort Guttenberg away from Kavanaugh.
— Raj Shah (@RajShah45) September 4, 2018
‘This Is What Corruption Looks Like’
Guttenberg was at the hearing as a guest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee. However, Guttenberg subsequently denied that Feinstein put him up to trying to shake Kavanagh’s hand, according to Mother Jones reporter Kara Voght—he said he did it on his own.
Supreme Court nominees are typically closely guarded by security and are moved quickly in and out of these hearings. 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 was violating any kind of protocol, given how close he was to Kavanaugh as the hearing broke for lunch.
Democrats and gun-control advocates quickly pounced on the moment. For example, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2020, addressed the moment with back-to-back tweets and said it showed Kavanaugh would deny justice to those who’ve suffered from gun violence.
If Kavanaugh won’t even give him a handshake, how can we believe he would give gun violence victims a fair shake in court? https://t.co/OiDP6lB1Ez
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 4, 2018
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a nationwide gun-control advocacy group, also used Guttenberg’s failed handshake to attack the National Rifle Association for supporting President Donald Trump. And Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down, said of the NRA’s support of Trump, and Trump’s subsequent nomination of Kavanaugh, “THIS is what corruption looks like.”
And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said “no one should turn their back” on Guttenberg.
Barring some startling development, the GOP-controlled Senate is on track to confirm Kavanaugh. Yet Democrats have been searching for weeks for ways to make Kavanaugh’s nomination politically sticky for Republicans. And unlike the opening statements and the prepared remarks from Kavanaugh and the senators, as well as complaints about process, Guttenberg’s failed attempt to shake Kavanaugh’s hand could be a visually compelling moment that resonates outside the Beltway.
In fact, you might see images from that moment in a truckload of Democrats’ midterm election ads.
For example, the moment appears tailor-made for March For Our Lives, the student-led gun-control group that’s registering people to vote ahead of the 2018 midterms. Here’s what one of the group’s chief organizers, Emma Gonzalez, said about the incident:
Fred Guttenberg is one of the most wonderful people I know. Mr. Kavanaugh, 4 year olds have better manners than you. https://t.co/jUWBTn4Noa
— Emma González (@Emma4Change) September 4, 2018
However, many could look at the moment quite differently. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow Pollack was also murdered at Stoneman Douglas, decried Guttenberg’s move:
Judge Kavanaugh was not responsible for the Parkland school shooting that killed my daughter. @RobertwRuncie, FBI, and Sheriff Israel are.
Judge Kavanaugh is a decent man and should be confirmed.
Stop weaponizing Parkland to advance a dangerous political agenda!
— Andrew Pollack (@AndrewPollackFL) September 4, 2018
Gun Cases Looming?
Guttenberg’s moment in the spotlight Tuesday also showed that the legal landscape for gun control, and by extension debates over school safety, are still very much in the spotlight.
For example, there’s been speculation that if Kavanaugh is confirmed and replaces Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, the justices could agree to hear challenges to bans on semi-automatic rifles and on carrying firearms in public.
In his dissent from the D.C. Circuit ruling, which grew out of the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, Kavanaugh wrote, “A ban on a class of arms is not an ‘incidental’ regulation. It is equivalent to a ban on a category of speech. As I read the relevant Supreme Court precedents, the D.C. ban on semi-automatic rifles and the D.C. gun registration requirement are unconstitutional and may not be enforced.”
Democrats in Congress and others have attacked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for not examining gun control during her work leading the Federal Commission on School Safety that Trump created after the Parkland shootings. They likely won’t have a friend on the Supreme Court in Kavanaugh.
Compared to many others who’ve been directly affected by school shootings, Parkland students and parents have shown little hesitation about taking very public and active positions on gun control and school safety. So perhaps it’s not a complete surprise that one of them took center stage, albeit briefly, during a much-anticipated Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Photo: Fred Guttenberg, left, the father of Jamie Guttenberg, who was killed in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., attempts to shake hands with President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right, as he leaves for a lunch break while appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington on Sept. 4. (Andrew Harnik/AP)