A pair of gun rights activists gave speeches earlier this month in Las Vegas, standing on a stage in front of thousands of empty white chairs. They thought they were rehearsing graduation addresses to be delivered to the graduating seniors of James Madison Academy, a private online high school. But they had actually been hoodwinked by a pair of Parkland parents looking to make a statement.
“Let me begin by telling you what an honor it is to be here to help celebrate your graduation,” said former NRA president David Keene, one of the speakers. “There are some who will continue to fight to gut the Second Amendment, but I’d be willing to bet that many of you will be among those who stand up and prevent them from succeeding.”
The total number of empty white chairs set up that day was 3,044, representing the 3,044 members of this year’s graduating class who didn’t make it to graduation because they died from gun violence.
The end result is a striking video: Keene giving his speech, essentially Second Amendment advocate boilerplate, intercut with frantic 911 calls from school shootings and footage from drones flying over the vast expanse of gleaming white chairs that don’t look unlike headstones in a cemetery.
John Lott, an author and gun rights activist, was the other speaker. He only learned that the event was fake when contacted by BuzzFeed News.
“You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?” Lott said. “No, I didn’t know that.” He also claimed that his words were selectively, dishonestly edited.
The group behind the video is Change the Ref, founded by Manuel Oliver and his wife Patricia, whose son Joaquin “Guac” Oliver was one of the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day in 2018. It enlisted the services of advertising agency Leo Burnett and production company Hungry Man to pull off the stunt.
“We are here representing every single kid that is not able to finish high school,” Manuel Oliver said in a behind-the-scenes video. “Three thousand kids that are not using those chairs because they are not here and they won’t be here.”
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