Fact Check

Did Gun Violence Prevention Group Trick Ex-NRA Chief into Speaking at Fake Graduation?

Videos showed David Keene, who led the NRA from 2011 to 2013, speaking in front of empty chairs representing victims of gun violence.

Published Jun 28, 2021

Updated Jun 30, 2021
DENVER, CO. - FEBRUARY 07: The president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene sits down for an interview at The Denver Post via Getty Images, February, 07, 2013. Keene was in Denver to meet later with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. (Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Image Via Getty Images
In June 2021, parents of someone who died in the 2018 Parkland shooting tricked David Keene, a former NRA president, into speaking at a fake graduation as part of an anti-gun violence media campaign.

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."

Parents of someone who died in the 2018 Parkland shooting tricked David Keene a former NRA president into speaking at a fake graduation speech.

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.
The exact circumstances under which Change the Ref advertised the speaking opportunity to Keene and Lott were unknown. Lott told The Washington Post that a man whom identified as the school's board chairman had contacted him weeks earlier and told Lott that the students were conservatives focused on the Second Amendment.
In an email to Snopes, Keene wrote:
[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.
In other words, Keen substantiated the gun advocacy group's videos' claim: that he was unaware of the stunt's premise. For that reason, it was accurate to claim he was "tricked" or "duped" into showing up to the event.
In column published in the Wall Street Journal and posts on his website, crime research.org, Lott said he, too, did not know what his appearance was actually part of. He said he drove 1,000 miles from Montana to Nevada for the appearance.
"I thought I was trying to help out a school there," Lott told NBC.
After the initial publication of this report, Lott sent Snopes documents that he said were his email and text conversations with the school's so-called "Board Chairman" about his travel plans and accommodations for the appearance.
In one message, according to the forward emails provided by Lott (a screenshot of which is displayed below), he said he felt "uncomfortable" fulfilling the school's request to reference background checks on gun purchases somewhere in his speech, since "it seems to me that commencements should be talks that leave everyone satisfied."
Additionally, Lott blamed the advocacy group for "selectively" editing his statements and taking them out of context for its agenda — a claim the videos' creators in media interviews have denied.
"[Lott and Keene] might be mad. They might feel like fools," Manuel Oliver told CNN. "Honestly, it's not about them. It's about the 3,044 chairs that were missing a student because of gun violence."
We reached out to Change the Ref directly for its response to Lott's accusation of deceptive editing, as well as to learn how, or by what methods, they initially contacted Keene and Lott. We also requested copies of the recordings of both Keene and Lott's entire speeches. The group has not responded. We will update this report when, or if, if that changes.
The NRA's communication team has also not responded to our request for comment.


This report was updated to include information provided to Snopes from John Lott.

Jessica Lee is Snopes' Senior Assignments Editor with expertise in investigative storytelling, media literacy advocacy and digital audience engagement.

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