In a speech to the James Madison Academy 2021 graduating class, David Keene, a former NRA president and current board member of the gun-rights group, called on the class to fight against those looking to implement tighter gun restrictions.
“An overwhelming majority of you will go on to college, while others may decide their dream dictates a different route to success,” said Keene, “My advice to you is simple enough: follow your dream and make it a reality.”
“I’d be willing to bet that many of you will be among those who stand up and prevent those from proceeding,” he said to a Las Vegas stadium of thousands of socially distanced chairs on June 4th.
However, the teens couldn’t stand up. Because they cease to exist. James Madison Academy isn’t a real school.
Instead, Keene was addressing the approximate 3,044 kids who should have graduated high school this year, represented through thousands of empty white chairs. These kids were killed by gun violence.
Change the Ref, an organization founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver whose son Joaquin “Guac” was killed in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, held the fake high school graduation for what they call “The Lost Class” of students.
The Olivers invited Keene and author and guns rights activist John Lott to give remarks to a high school graduating class and filmed what they were told was a rehearsal to a stadium of empty chairs.
“Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake,” a Change the Ref spokesperson said in a press release.
Once filming had ended, Keene and Lott were told the graduation was canceled and were not informed before the videos were released on Wednesday that the event was fake.
“You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?” said Lott when he responded to a request for comment, “No, I didn’t know that.”
Oliver explained how the stunt was designed to highlight how powerful gun advocates are when they speak: “These 2 guys are part of the problem, we need to call them out, we need to show everyone — this is how they process the logic behind the gun industry. We need to show we’re brave and we’re not afraid of these guys. We’ve already felt the worst possible situation. There’s no threat that can make me feel different.”
The video was released on Wednesday and featured Lott and Keene’s graduation speeches, in which they called for gun rights to protect lions and James Madison, the Founding Father who proposed the Second Amendment. Alongside the speeches were audio recordings from 911 calls about school shootings and the sound of gunfire.
Oliver said that Bothe Keene and Lott traveled to Vegas and we’re excited to speak, however, Oliver didn’t actually meet them in fear they would recognize him. Advertising agency Leo Burnett and production company Hungry Man helped create the event.
Lott expressed how disappointed he was with how the video was edited. He says he does support background checks for gun owners but believes the current system mainly prevents law-abiding Black and Latino people from buying guns and should be adjusted.
“You want to stop dangerous people from getting guns, but you don’t want to stop the people who are potential victims from getting guns?” he asked.
Lott said he’d driven down from Montana for the speech, which took thirteen hours and showed emails where he’d been promised that he would receive $495, the equivalent of a plane ticket, but was never paid back. In the original email inviting him, Lott was told he was to be given the “Keeper of the Constitution” award.
“Unfortunately, the fact they lied to me many times is kind of illustrated by the way they edited and chopped up the video that’s there,” Lott said, “Is that the way we want to have a political debate in the country? Where people lie and creatively edit what people say?”
Though James Madison school isn’t real, the experience of thousands of families who’ve lost children to gun violence enduring graduations in recent months very real.
“We lost Joaquin 3 months before his graduation. We know exactly the feeling of being there and receiving the diploma without your kid being there,” Oliver said, “Because we understand that, we know there are a lot of people going through that same experience right now.”
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for American middle and high school students. The 3,044 number was estimated by compiling firearm deaths by age since 2003 and matching it to student age.
“Never for a minute doubt that you can achieve that dream,” Keene said in his rehearsed speech to the seniors.
“The contrast of knowing the students they are addressing are dead makes the comments appear deeply sarcastic”, Oliver said, “It shows them [as] weak, but this is not about bragging about doing this to the former president of the NRA. No, this is about pushing our reps to move on with universal background check laws.”
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