While we seem to finally be gaining ground on the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one public health crisis to which we appear powerless.
That is the epidemic of gun violence.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 305 mass shootings as of this writing.
3,044 students did not have the opportunity to graduate high school this year because of their gun-violence linked deaths.
So parents of a student killed in the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. decided to publicize the political intransigence by inviting a former National Rifle Association (NRA) president to deliver a commencement speech to the students of Las Vegas’s James Madison Academy.
Except there is no James Madison Academy.
There were no graduating students.
Former NRA president David Keene instead delivered a rehearsal speech to 3,044 empty white chairs–one for each student victim of school shootings.
Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed in the 2018 mass shooting, founded the group “Change the Ref” to “empower our Future Leaders.”
According to its website, changetheref.org:
“CTR gives the kids of today the tools they need to be empowered to make changes to critical issues that affect our nation, through education, conversation, and activism. It uses urban art and nonviolent creative confrontation to expose the disastrous effects of the mass shooting pandemic. It also brings focus to the NRA’s corrupt maneuvers to buy lawmakers, while forcing solutions which are essential to healing mass shooting victims’ families’ lifelong grief. Change The Ref’s ultimate goal is to give the young generation of survivors and victims a disrupting voice to help lead the way to change–a more peaceful future.”
In the speech, Keene tells “graduates:”
“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.”
In a statement to multiple media outlets, Change the Ref explained:
“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.”
But David Keene wasn’t the only gun-rights advocate to fall for the ruse.
John Lott Jr., economist, educator, and author of several books, including More Guns, Less Crime–the so-called “NRA bible”–also spoke at the fake ceremony.
Keene and Lott were told the graduation was canceled due to a credible threat of violence and were not informed the event was staged before the videos were released Wednesday.
When BuzzFeed news reached out to Lott for comment, Lott responded:
“You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup? No, I didn’t know that.”
Manuel Oliver explained the reasoning behind the scheme was to underscore the rhetoric gun advocates use to defend the gun industry, stating:
“These two guys are part of the problem. We need to call them out, we need to show everyone—this is how they process the logic behind the gun industry. We need to show we’re brave and we’re not afraid of these guys. We’ve already felt the worst possible situation. There’s no threat that can make me feel different.”
Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, & Third Wednesday. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.