When former NRA President David Keene delivered a commencement speech to thousands of empty chairs, he thought he was rehearsing for a graduation ceremony that would be held later that day. But the ceremony Keene was expecting to attend never occurred. Instead, he and gun rights activist John Lott had both been tricked by the parents of a student killed in the 2018 Parkland school shooting into delivering speeches at a fake graduation ceremony held for the thousands of children who would not graduate this year because they had been killed by gun violence.
“This year, 3,044 students won’t get the chance to graduate because they were killed by a gun,” Change the Ref, the organization behind the fake graduation Keene attended, said when sharing videos of the former NRA president’s commencement speech on YouTube on Wednesday. “It’s time we pass universal background checks, so we can protect our students and make sure more of them make it to their graduation day.”
Founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver after their son Joaquin Oliver was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018, Change the Ref has dedicated itself to raising awareness about mass shootings and reducing the influence of the NRA. According to BuzzFeed News, the organization invited Keene and Lott to speak at a graduation ceremony for James Madison Academy students earlier this month. Except, there is no James Madison Academy.
Shortly after both men delivered speeches to a field of empty chairs at what organizers said was a rehearsal, they were told the actual graduation ceremony had been canceled due to a credible threat of violence, BuzzFeed News reported. Lott reportedly only learned of the setup when contacted by BuzzFeed News for comment, telling the news outlet he’d originally wanted to deliver a speech that centered around general life advice but was encouraged to focus on background checks and James Madison’s support of the Second Amendment.
"Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake," the news outlet reported Change the Ref said in a press release.
Fellow Parkland parent Fred Guttenberg hailed Change the Ref’s “Lost Class” graduation set-up as “absolutely brilliant.”
“In his graduation speech to James Madison [Academy], former NRA President David Keene told students to follow their dreams,” Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, wrote in a separate tweet. “One of the empty chairs was for Jaime. Her favorite saying was ‘Dreams & dedication are a powerful combination.’ I am Jaime's voice & my dream which I am dedicating my life to is destroying the NRA.”