Meet the Dad Who Tricked Ex-NRA Head Into “Graduation Speech” for Empty Chairs

The parents of a student killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School duped a former president of the National Rifle Association into giving a high school graduation speech defending gun rights in front of 3,044 empty white chairs — one chair for each student who could not graduate this year because they were killed by gun violence. David Keene, who still serves on the NRA board, thought he was giving a rehearsal speech for graduating students at the James Madison Academy in Las Vegas, but no such school exists. Video of the speech was turned into a viral video promoting universal background checks. The stunt was organized by the group Change the Ref, which was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was shot dead in the Parkland, Florida, massacre. Manuel Oliver says the video has led to an outpouring of support from across the U.S. “We need to do these more often, because it shows that the NRA, the gun industry and the gun lobby are not as powerful as they say,” he says.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show looking at how the parents of a student killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida tricked a former president of the National Rifle Association into giving a high school graduation speech defending gun rights in front of 3,044 empty white chairs — one chair for each student who could not graduate this year because they were killed by gun violence. David Keene, who still serves on the NRA board, thought he was giving a rehearsal speech for graduating students at the James Madison Academy at Las Vegas — but no such school exists.

The stunt was organized by the group Change the Ref, which was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin, or “Guac,” was shot dead in the Parkland, Florida, massacre in 2018 in his high school.

This week, the group released this video of David Keene’s remarks in front of thousands of empty chairs in Las Vegas. A warning to our audience: His words are interspersed with the sounds of 911 calls of students trapped at schools with active shooters.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES: David Keene was the two-time president of the National Rifle Association. He continues to be a staunch defender of your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Therefore, it is my privilege to introduce to you David Keene.

DAVID KEENE: Let me begin by telling you what an honor it is to be here to help celebrate your graduation. Picture for a minute the young James Madison, for whom this school is named. This year you focused on one of the most important of 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.

911 DISPATCHER: 911, what’s your emergency?

STUDENT 1: Help. Please help! Please!

DAVID KEENE: Defending it is a challenge and a duty that Americans like you —

STUDENT 2: Stoneman Douglas High School is being shot up.

STUDENT 3: He was shooting into my classroom.

DAVID KEENE: — who understand what has made the country the envy of the world, must accept as their own.

911 DISPATCHER: OK. Is anybody injured?

STUDENT 1: Yes! Yes! A lot of blood. Please help! Please!

DAVID KEENE: An overwhelming majority of you will go on to college, while others may decide their dream dictates a different route to success.

STUDENT 4: A school. It’s a school. It’s a school.

911 DISPATCHER: OK. Do you know how many people are injured?

DAVID KEENE: So my advice to you is simple enough: follow your dream and make it a reality.

MOTHER 1: My son is in Stoneman Douglas High School.

MOTHER 2: My daughter just texted me from school. She’s at Stoneman Douglas.

DAVID KEENE: And never for a minute doubt that you can achieve that dream. Thank you.

STUDENT 5: Oh my — oh no. Oh no. Oh — [gunshots]

STUDENT 6: Oh my god! Oh my god!

STUDENT 5: Oh no.

AMY GOODMAN: That video, produced by the gun reform group Change the Ref, which tricked the former president of the NRA into giving this graduation speech in front of 3,044 empty white chairs — one chair for each student who would have been a high school senior this year, who will not graduate because they were killed by gun violence. The group also tricked John Lott Jr., the author of More Guns, Less Crime, to give a similar speech.

We’re joined now by Manuel Oliver, co-founder of Change the Ref. His son “Guac,” Joaquin, was one of 17 people killed in their own high school in 2018 at the mass shooting there at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Manny, thanks so much for being with us. What you have portrayed in this — I don’t even want to call it a stunt, this incredible action, this demonstration of what gun violence means in this country, unique in the world, talk about what you did.

MANUEL OLIVER: Well, thank you, Amy, for having us here today.

Well, this is our latest campaign. You know what we’ve been doing for the last three years. And we did something different this time. We actually confronted these leaders, members of the NRA and representing the gun industry for decades.

So, we are very pleased with the results. You have no idea how many emails and text messages of support come to my computer per minute. Like, it’s incredible. I think that we need to do this more often, because it shows that the NRA, the gun industry and the gun lobby are not as powerful as they say. And on the other hand, it also represents the amount of power that parents of victims can show and have.

More [inaudible] I’m pretty sure, that enjoyed that moment, when we were able to show the truth, without any editing. There was no need for that. These guys are repeating their own words. This is what they believe. And this is what they have been repeating for decades, and I don’t know in how many acts like this one, with actual kids sitting down.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as part of this action that you engaged in — and it’s truly amazing. For those listening on radio, the shot from above of the thousands of empty chairs is really astounding. You also invited John Lott Jr., who accepted the invitation, to speak at the fake graduation ceremony. I want to play that clip.

MASTER OF CEREMONIES: John Lott is an economist, educator and scholar. He has authored several books, including More Guns, Less Crime, often referred to as the bible of the National Rifle Association. It is my privilege to introduce to you Dr. John Lott.

JOHN LOTT JR.: Congratulations. You all have made a new stage in life. You know, your school is named after James Madison. And he proposed what became a Second Amendment to the Constitution, that there’s an individual right to people be able to keep guns for protection. Can you name me one place in the world, any place in the world, that’s banned either all guns or all handguns and seen murder rates go down? I can’t find a single place like that.

911 DISPATCHER: 911. What is your emergency?

STUDENT 1: Oh no!

JOHN LOTT JR.: I was just working in the Department of Justice. Gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail.

STUDENT 2: Stoneman Douglas High School is being shot up.

JOHN LOTT JR.: They want to go and say, “We’ve stopped three-and-a-half million dangerous people.

911 DISPATCHER: OK. Is anybody injured?

STUDENT 1: Yes! Yes! A lot of blood. Please help! Please!

JOHN LOTT JR.: I look at it as we’ve stopped three-and-a-half million law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun.

911 DISPATCHER: Are you in the school? Where are you in the school?

STUDENT 3: We’re on the first floor. He was shooting into my classroom.

JOHN LOTT JR.: Anyway, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. You know, I’m sure all of you will have a very bright future ahead. Thank you very much. [gunshots]

STUDENT 4: Oh my god! Oh my god!

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Lott Jr., who wrote what is considered the bible of the gun rights movement, speaking at the fake graduation ceremony in Las Vegas, of course, where there was another massacre that took place a few years ago that killed scores of people. By the way, BuzzFeed contacted Mr. Lott. He said, “You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?” He said, “No, I didn’t know that.” So, Manuel, where were you and Patricia, your wife, Joaquin’s parents, when all this was happening?

MANUEL OLIVER: We were right there. And you have to also understand that this guy, his best accomplishment is that he wrote a book that is called More Guns, Less Crime. So, that’s the kind of person that is trying to — after all this happened, trying to protect himself behind the fact that we played with his words or whatever.

We were right there. We were not allowed to be seen, because of probably someone could recognize our faces. So we were inside a trailer home next to the stage, watching everything and making sure that everything was — with a huge team that helped us here, making sure that every single detail was coming out the way that we planned it.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the spokespeople for Change the Ref, your group, said, “Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake.” Talk about calling it James Madison High School.

MANUEL OLIVER: Well, we needed to bring the reality behind the gun big picture — let’s put everything together — to make it very legit. And the fact that these guys were invited to become speakers in James Madison School, who is the guy that wrote the Second Amendment, that will be a reason to be there. And it worked. And again, more than how we did this and bragging about the way that we were able to bring these two influencers from the gun lobby —

AMY GOODMAN: You made a website.

MANUEL OLIVER: Yeah, we made a website.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the fake school.

MANUEL OLIVER: Correct. Correct. We made a website, and they went in to the website. If you go deep into the website, you will see that that school was only working since April, so that’s a red flag. But the egos of these people are beyond that. You know, they just wanted — “Let’s go to Vegas, spend the weekend.” And everything ties together just like we planned it.

AMY GOODMAN: Manny, we just have one minute. And, of course, it’s graduation season all over the country. You’ve shown the more than 3,000 chairs of kids who won’t graduate from high school because of gun violence. President Biden just gave a major speech on gun violence. Do you think the Biden administration is doing enough?

We’re having a little trouble hearing you. Your sound is dropping out. We’re talking to Manuel Oliver, who is co-founder of the gun reform group Change the Ref. His son Joaquin was one of 17 people killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. If you want to see the full images of this event that he organized in Las Vegas to demonstrate the loss, the pain, the horror of gun violence, can go to democracynow.org. Manny, we have 15 seconds for your final comment on is enough being done.

MANUEL OLIVER: We need to — it’s the addition of different things. It’s not only what President Biden is trying to do. It’s not only what some leaders are trying to do. It’s what we are trying to do, what the youth is trying to do. All those things together are bringing these conversations. We are having a conversation with no need of a mass shooting for you to call me. And that’s advancing in the fight against gun violence.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much. And our best to you and Patricia. Manuel Oliver, thank you. This is Democracy Now!

MANUEL OLIVER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, stay safe. Special thanks to our whole team here at Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.