In late June 2021, numerous news outlets reported the parents of a student killed in a mass shooting at an American high school had misled David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), into giving a speech for a video that advocates for universal background checks on firearm purchases.
According to the rumors, the parents had staged a commencement ceremony for a fake private online high school and tricked Keene into thinking he was a keynote speaker for the made-up event.
They apparently got him to practice his appearance, addressing a crowd of empty chairs, on an outdoor stage in Las Vegas and then used a video recording of those remarks for the anti-gun violence PSA.
Multiple credible news outlets, including NBC and The Washington Post, reported on the alleged trickery. A BuzzFeed headline read: "A Parkland Victim's Dad Tricked A Former NRA President Into Speaking At A Fake Graduation."
The claim was true.
The parents, who founded a gun violence prevention group, staged a fake graduation ceremony where Keene told Snopes he was instructed to rehearse a commencement speech — when, in reality, he was speaking for the media campaign to advocate for more background checks on gun sales.
Let us start with some context.
Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin Oliver, 17, was killed when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, were the founders of an advocacy organization, Change the Ref.
On June 4, they led a crew to set up more than 3,000 white chairs for a ceremony to celebrate the 2021 graduates of "James Madison Academy" — a school that did not really exist, videos on the group's YouTube video show. A Google cache shows that a website was at one point established for the stunt.
Then, the advocacy group indeed got Keene and John Lott, a gun-rights activist and author, to take the stage in graduation regalia and speak in front of cameras.
“Let me begin by telling you what an honor it is to be here to help celebrate your graduation,” said Keene, 76, who led the NRA from 2011 to 2013. “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.”
The three-part video series combined moments of Keene and Lott's speeches with audio of 911 calls during mass shootings at schools, as well as drone footage of the event's field of thousands of chairs. Each chair supposedly represented a victim of school gun violence over the past school year, according to the videos.
[It was] rehearsal (or so I was told) to [test] sound system, etc for the next day’s ceremony.The invitation seemed legitimate. The school had a web presence and I was mistakenly satisfied that the invitation was legitimate. The whole thing was, of course, an elaborate and expensive fraud. They flew my wife and I to Vegas and put us up at the Bellagio.Later on the day of the rehearsal we were informed that the live commencement had to be cancelled for security reasons as Las Vegas law enforcement had alerted the school to the possibility of violent demonstrators.