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Why Former NRA President David Keene Was Tricked Into Giving Commencement Speech To Empty Chairs

Photo: Change the Ref YouTube
Former NRA President David Keene

On June 23, 2021, Change the Ref, a gun safety organization, released a video showing former National Rifle Association (NRA) president David Keene addressing a stadium packed with empty chairs.

At the time, Keene believed that he was rehearsing a speech that he was to give to the graduating class of James Madison Academy. However, James Madison Academy does not exist. 

Patricia and Manuel Oliver, parents of a student who died during the Parkland school shooting, tricked the former president of the NRA into giving a speech in front of 3,044 empty chairs — chairs that represent the victims of school gun violence that would have graduated this year. 

Keene began his speech to the rows and rows of empty chairs saying, “This year you focused on one of the most important of [James] Madison’s amendments, the Second Amendment.” 

“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,” he continued. 

“An overwhelming majority of you will go on to college, while others may decide their dream dictates a different route to success” 

Unfortunately, none of the students represented by the empty chairs will be attending college in the fall or following their dreams of success.

The 3,044 empty chairs that Keene gave his speech to are referred to as the “Lost Class.” 

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The video contains Keene’s speech, footage of the empty chairs, the audio of 911 calls made by students in active shooter situations and their parents as well as the sound of gunshots.

Keene was led to believe that he was simply rehearsing his commencement speech that he would be giving at the fake high school. He was completely unaware that there was neither a James Madison Academy, nor an actual graduation ceremony. 

David Keene was not the only NRA advocate to be duped into speaking at the fictitious graduation. John Lott Jr., author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” was also a speaker at the “graduation.” Lott’s book is often referred to as the NRA’s “bible,” says the video. 

“Gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail,” Lott said as he addressed the audience of empty chairs.

“They want to go and say ‘We’ve stopped 3.5 million dangerous people.’ I look at it as we’ve stopped 3.5 million law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun,” he said as he continued his speech about background checks. 

The Olivers, co-founders of Change the Ref, organized the fake graduation. They began Change the Ref after their son, Joaquin, was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. 

“Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake,” noted a Change the Ref spokesperson in a press release.

Manuel and his team planned the fake graduation ceremony over three months ago in an attempt to highlight the students who lost their lives due to gun violence. 

“I attended my son’s graduation three months after he was shot, after he was shot four times with an AR-15. This is not about being selfish and thinking it will never happen to you, just because I got news for you. It could happen,” he told USA Today

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After giving their speeches at the fake rehearsal, Keene and Lott were told the graduation had been canceled but were not informed that the graduation had never existed in the first place. 

When asked for a comment about the speech by Buzzfeed News, Lott said, “You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?”

Lott is now demanding that the entirety of his 15-minute speech be released, claiming that it was edited out of context for the two-minute Change the Ref video. Manuel responded to his demand saying, “there was no editing...They said the speech. Those are their words. They believe that.” 

“This is what these guys believe and what we did was call it out and put it out there so everyone knows,” he added. 

“They might be made. They might feel like fools,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not about them. It’s about the 3,044 chairs that were missing a student because of gun violence, and those two guys are part of the problem and they are far away from being part of the solution.”

In the United States in 2019, a child or teen was killed every 2 hours and 36 minutes. Guns killed more children and teens than cancers, pneumonia, influenza, asthma, HIV/AIDS, and opioids combined according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Livvie Brault is a writer who covers self-love, entertainment and news and relationships.