An ex-NRA president spoke at a fake high school graduation where the empty seats represented students killed by gun violence

David Keene, President of the NRA, waves to members after arriving to the National Rifle Association’s Annual Meeting of Members in Houston, Texas on May 4, 2013 Reuters

  • A former NRA president was invited to speak at a fake high school graduation in Las Vegas.

  • The 3,044 empty chairs in the stadium symbolized high school seniors who were killed by gun violence.

  • The stunt was orchestrated by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son died in the 2018 Parkland shooting.

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A former NRA president spoke at a fake graduation ceremony in Las Vegas, where the thousands of empty seats represented the high school seniors who were killed by gun violence.

David Keene, who served as president of the National Rifle Association from 2011 to 2013 and is a current NRA board member, was apparently fooled into delivering a speech on June 4 to the 2021 graduating class of James Madison Academy, a school that doesn’t exist.

During his speech, Keene called on the nonexistent students to fight against the push for tighter gun control policies.

“I’d be willing to bet that many of you will be among those who stand up and prevent those from proceeding,” Keene said during the speech to 3,044 empty socially distanced chairs.

The stunt was orchestrated by Change the Ref, an organization founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin “Guac” was killed in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They invited Keene and guns rights activist John Lott to address the nonexistent graduating students, whom they dubbed “The Lost Class.”

“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,” he added. “We’ve already felt the worst possible situation. There’s no threat that can make me feel different.”

Change the Ref posted a three-part series of the event on YouTube Wednesday, which Keene and Lott were told was a rehearsal with empty chairs. The videos show snippets of Keene’s and Lott’s speech with audio recordings of 911 calls by students during school shootings.

“We lost Joaquin three months before his graduation,” Manuel Oliver told BuzzFeed News. “We know exactly the feeling of being there and receiving the diploma without your kid being there. Because we understand that, we know there are a lot of people going through that same experience right now.”

Lott told BuzzFeed News that he was not aware that the ceremony was fake, and he was told the actual commencement ceremony was cancelled due to a credible threat of violence. He said he tried to call the person who had contacted him to speak at the graduation but the number was disconnected.

Lott said was disappointed with the way the videos posted Wednesday were edited and took his comments out of context.

“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?”

He told BuzzFeed News that he originally intended one writing an inspirational commencement speech but was instead encouraged to touch upon background checks and James Madison, the Founding Father who proposed the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms.

Though in the second video of “The Lost Class” series, a chyron reads that he “often speaks out against universal background checks, Lott also said he does support background checks but claims the current gun control system keeps minorities – namely Black and Latino people – from buying guns to protect themselves.

“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 told BuzzFeed News.

Representatives from the NRA did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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