Hundreds of empty white fold-out chairs
Change the Red

3,044 chairs placed in a stadium in Las Vegas to represent those seniors who didn’t graduate because they were killed by gun violence

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 teens to fight those looking to implement tighter gun restrictions.

“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 4.

“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.”

Except, they can’t. The students aren’t real. James Madison Academy doesn’t exist.

Without realizing it, Keene was actually addressing his comments to thousands of empty chairs set up to represent the estimated 3,044 kids who should have graduated high school this year and instead 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 a fake high school graduation for what they call “The Lost Class” of students.

They invited Keene and John Lott, an author and gun rights activist, to give remarks to a high school graduating class and filmed what they were told was a rehearsal in 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.

Keene in a cap and gown is addressing a crowd in front of a Class of 2021 sign
Change the Ref

David Keene addressing the stadium

After filming, 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 BuzzFeed News’ request for comment. “No, I didn’t know that.”

The stunt was designed to highlight how powerful gun advocates speak. “These two guys are part of the problem,” Manuel Oliver told BuzzFeed News. “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,” Oliver said. “We’ve already felt the worst possible situation. There’s no threat that can make me feel different.”

In videos released on Wednesday, Lott and Keene’s graduation speeches — in which they call for gun rights protections and talk about James Madison, the Founding Father who proposed the Second Amendment — are interspersed with audio from 911 calls about school shootings and the sound of gunfire.

Both Keene and Lott traveled to Vegas and were excited to speak, said Oliver, who did not meet either of them to make sure the stunt did not get disrupted by anyone recognizing him. Advertising agency Leo Burnett and production company Hungry Man helped create the event.

Lott said he was disappointed about the way the video was edited — he does support background checks 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 13 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.

Originally Lott wanted to give more general life advice in his commencement speech but had been encouraged to speak about James Madison and background checks. After the rehearsal, he was told the ceremony was canceled because of a credible threat of violence and after discussion with police. A week later, Lott tried to call the person who’d been in contact with him and the number was disconnected.

“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 political debate in the country? Where people lie and creatively edit what people say?”

James Madison Academy isn’t a real school (a Google cache shows that a website was created to help ensure the stunt’s success). But the experience of thousands of families who’ve lost children to gun violence enduring graduations in recent months is very real, Oliver said.

“We lost Joaquin three 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.”

Sun Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Joaquin Oliver’s mother, Patricia, and father, Manuel, walk offstage after receiving their son’s diploma, which was awarded posthumously, during a graduation ceremony on Sunday, June 3, 2018, in Sunrise, Florida.

Oliver entwines his activism for gun violence prevention with art. To celebrate what would have been his son’s 21st birthday on Aug. 4, he is hosting Guacathon, a 21-hour festival of performances and exercise.

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,” he told BuzzFeed News. “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.”

UPDATE

This story has been updated with comments from John Lott.

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