David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and John Lott, a discredited author and gun rights activist, were invited to speak at the commencement ceremony of James Madison Academy in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Initially told that they were doing a dress rehearsal, Keene and Lott delivered their speeches on June 4 to 3,044 empty chairs.
However, the school does not exist, and neither knew at the time that each chair represented a student who was supposed to graduate this year but was killed by an act of gun violence.
The elaborate ruse was put on by Change the Ref, an organization that describes itself as giving “the young generation of survivors and victims” of gun violence “a disrupting voice to help lead the way to change – a more peaceful future.” The group was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son was among those killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
The organization noted that Keene and Lott likely failed to do any research on the fictional school before arriving in Las Vegas.
“Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake,” a spokesperson for Change the Ref said to BuzzFeed News.
The video of the event shows Keene, who served as head of the NRA from 2011 to 2013, speaking in front of thousands of empty white chairs. As the camera continues to pan backward, Keene’s words are overlaid with audio of 911 calls during mass shooting events, describing those who would not be graduating this year because of gun violence as the Lost Class of 2021.
The two speakers’ speeches were decidedly pro-gun. Keene told the empty crowd that “many” of them would “be among those who stand up and prevent” changes to laws aimed at addressing gun violence in the country.
“An overwhelming majority of you will go on to college, while others may decide their dream dictates a different route to success,” Keene added. “My advice to you is simple enough: follow your dream and make it a reality.”
“Your school is named after James Madison, and he proposed what became the Second Amendment to the Constitution, that there’s an individual right for people to be able to keep guns for protection,” Lott, who also served briefly in the Department of Justice during the Trump administration’s final months, said in his remarks.
Lott’s claim contradicts what many constitutional and historical scholars say Madison and the nation’s founders had intended by the Second Amendment. Rather than being an individual right to own any weapons, the amendment was instead written to help secure the colonial ruling class against a foreign threat. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2008 when the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that an individual right to bear arms was interpreted from the amendment’s language.
After being informed later on that the event was fake, Lott was incredulous. “You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?” he said to BuzzFeed News.
Gun violence and deaths have risen dramatically over the past year and a half. As of May 31, there have been more than 8,100 gun deaths in the U.S. for the year 2021 — a rate of about 54 fatalities per day, outpacing what was seen in 2020, which was itself the most deadly year for gun violence seen in decades.