A gun safety group tricked two high-profile gun advocates into addressing a fake high school graduation ceremony featuring a sea of empty chairs meant to represent the children who did not finish school because they were shot.
Videos of the stunt were posted Wednesday by Change the Ref, an organization founded by Patricia and Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin was murdered in the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018.
The group staged a ceremony in Las Vegas for the graduating class of James Madison Academy, a school that does not exist. They invited David Keene, an NRA board member who served as president of the group between 2011 to 2013; and John Lott, an author and gun rights activist.
Both gave their remarks in what they were told was a rehearsal, BuzzFeed News reported. The result? Videos of the men addressing a sea of empty seats representing the estimated 3,044 students who should have graduated this year but didn’t because they were killed by guns. The organization refers to these students as “The Lost Class.”
Both speakers praised founding father James Madison ― the fake school’s namesake ― for proposing the Second Amendment and criticized efforts to introduce gun safety measures.
“Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake,” a Change the Ref spokesperson said, per BuzzFeed.
In the video, Lott referred to his time working in the Justice Department during the Trump administration, saying that “gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail.” Lott said he viewed people who were prevented from buying guns due to laws pushed by those groups as “law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun.”
In a statement to NBC News, Lott said his comments were taken out of context and “selectively edited.” He also said he drove 1,000 miles from Montana to deliver the remarks.
Lott also told BuzzFeed he was encouraged to speak about James Madison and background checks and had been promised $495, the price of a flight, but was never paid.
Oliver said the ruse was not intended to pull one over on the NRA but to push lawmakers to make moves on implementing universal background checks. While the graduation wasn’t real, the pain felt by thousands of families who’ve lost kids to gun violence is, he said.
“We lost Joaquin three months before his graduation. We know exactly the feeling of being there and receiving the diploma without your kid being there,” Oliver said. “Because we understand that, we know there are a lot of people going through that same experience right now.”
According to Change The Ref’s website, its mission is to raise awareness about mass shootings in order to reduce the influence of the NRA on a federal level.
“By bringing the NRA’s corrupt maneuvers to buy lawmakers into focus, we hope to inspire solutions which are essential to healing mass shooting victims,’ survivors’ and their families’ lifelong grief,” it said.