School Climate & Safety

Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents

By Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — June 24, 2021 2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
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A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence by an organization founded by the parents of a student killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Former NRA president and current board member David Keene delivered the commencement speech to more than 3,000 socially distanced chairs as part of what he thought was a rehearsal for graduation at James Madison Academy.

The speech was recorded by the nonprofit group Change the Ref, founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver after their son Joaquin was killed at the high school in Parkland in February 2018.

The sea of empty white chairs was meant to represent high school students who should have graduated this year but were killed in gun violence.

Keene advocated for gun rights and the Second Amendment in his speech on June 4 in Las Vegas. He also urged fighting efforts to tighten gun restrictions.

“I’d be willing to bet that many of you will be among those who stand up and prevent those from proceeding,” he said in his speech.

Author and gun rights activist John Lott also spoke at the fake graduation.

Keene and Lott were told it was a rehearsal in the stadium, BuzzFeed News reported.

During their separate speeches, Lott and Keene called for gun-rights protections and discussed James Madison, the Founding Father who proposed the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

After filming, Keene and Lott were told the graduation was canceled because of a threat of violence, BuzzFeed reported. They had no idea it had all been a fake until a reporter told them, according to the report.

“I think it was brilliant,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was among the 17 people murdered at Stoneman Douglas. He said the “one creative stroke” exposed the “hypocrisy” of the gun lobby telling “kids who should have been graduating this year, like my daughter, telling my daughter in the grave she should have big dreams.”

The Olivers started Change the Ref to raise awareness about gun violence and advocate for reform.

Last year, they baked 1,700 cookies in the shape of a small person riddled with holes, representing bullets and the 1,700 children killed by gun violence every year. Patricia Oliver planned to hand-deliver the baked goods to the NRA office outside of Washington, D.C.

Manuel Oliver could not be reached for comment on his cellphone Thursday, and a representative of Change The Ref did not respond to an email. NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said she did not have any comment Thursday.

“This campaign is not about tricking a couple of NRA members, it’s about showing how thousands of empty chairs during graduations, have become a normal American tradition,” Change the Ref said in a statement to NBC News.

Patricia Oliver told NBC News that Change the Ref released three videos on YouTube “to make a change to regulations on gun violence.”

Although the school the NRA was invited to — James Madison Academy —doesn’t even exist, there is a James Madison High School, but it’s in Brooklyn. Their commencement ceremony was Thursday.

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Copyright (c) 2021, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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