Former NRA president tricked into fake graduation speech for gun violence prevention video

The empty chairs David Keene, former NRA president, is addressing represents teenagers who were killed due to gun violence. (Photo: Change The Ref)

In a video released by a gun violence prevention group, former NRA president David Keene is seen addressing a stadium of empty chairs. At that time, Keene believed he was speaking to James Madison Academy’s 2021 graduating class.

Keene urges students to uphold the second amendment as the video breaks to audio from 911 calls, revealing terrified voices of students trapped in schools during a shooting.

James Madison Academy isn’t real. The 3,044 empty chairs Keene was addressing represented children and teenagers who were shot and killed before they could graduate from high school.

Keene and another gun rights advocateJohn Lott Jr. were tricked into the fictitious ceremony.

Change the Ref, a gun safety organization founded by Patricia and Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was murdered in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, published the videos Wednesday. The fake graduation was held for what they call “The Lost Class” of students and to advocate for regulations on gun violence.

“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 and Lott gave their speeches during what they were told was a rehearsal; afterward they were told the graduation was canceled. They were not informed about the videos or that the event was fake, BuzzFeed News reported. 

“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.”

“We need to call them out, we need to show everyone — this is how they process the logic behind the gun industry,” Manuel Oliver told BuzzFeed News. “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.”

On June 4, David Keene and John Lott Jr. believed they were rehearsing to speak a high school graduation. In reality, there speeches were used in a gun violence prevention video. (Photo: Change The Ref)

Lott spoke to the empty chairs about his time working for the Department of Justice during the Trump administration. He went on to call people whose gun purchases were foiled by background checks as “three-and-a-half million law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun.”

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In a statement, Lott said his comments in the video were taken “out of context” and the clips “deceptive and selectively edited.” Lott said he spoke for about 15 minutes but only one minute appeared in the video. Manuel Oliver said the video was not deceptively edited, NBC News reported. 

Keene and Lott did not immediately reply to requests from USA TODAY. 

Although the graduation was fake, Oliver said the lives lost and the message about gun violence is real. And Nicole Hockley, mother of Jake Hockley who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, agreed. On Twitter, she praised the organization. 

Sheer brilliance from @ChangeTheRef 💜.

As well as Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement for gun violence prevention. Watts tweeted that although the video was tough to watch, the fake graduation trick was “brilliant.”

Gun violence is a leading cause of premature death in the U.S., killing more than 38,000 people and cause nearly 85,000 injuries each year, according to the American Public Health Association. 

“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.”

Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda

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