This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
On June 4, former NRA President David Keene gave an address at a high school graduation. “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 those from proceeding,” Keene said. This won’t happen, though — because the 3,044 students he was addressing all died of gun violence.
Keene, still an NRA board member, believed he was speaking to students at a nonexistent high school in Las Vegas, NV called James Madison Academy. A video shows him addressing thousands of empty chairs during a graduation dress rehearsal. But in reality, James Madison Academy doesn’t exist, and his speech was instead intercut with recordings of terrified students calling 911.
The event, called The Lost Class, was coordinated by creative director Sam Shepherd; filmmaker Bryan Buckley; and Change the Ref co-founder Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, died in the 2018 Parkland school shooting.
“Gun violence has only gotten worse and we need to do something to change our gun laws in the U.S. The 3,044 number of high school students who should be graduating is sobering,” executive producer Ashley Geisheker says. “That number alone should make people want to do anything they can to help make our laws safer.”
Another gun rights advocate, John Lott, was similarly tricked into speaking at the fake graduation. During his speech, he denounced universal background checks and wished the audience “a bright future ahead.” Keene has not commented on the stunt, but Lott called it “outrageous” and told NBC News that he drove 1,000 miles to deliver his speech. “I thought I was trying to help out a school there,” he said. He added that his remarks were taken out of context, which Oliver denies.
“We have back up to the quote: ‘Universal background checks would not have stopped a single mass shooting this century.’ Sometimes there’s no need for editing, and this is one of those cases,” he told NBC News. “Actual words, real space, absolute arrogance, and 3,044 empty chairs.”
So, how and why did this event take place? The Lost Class aims to raise awareness about gun violence and push lawmakers to require universal background checks on all gun purchases. So, they organized an event to call out gun enthusiasts, right-wing lawmakers, and send a message about the horrors of school shootings. “Any activism is important if it keeps the conversation front and center,” Geisheker says. “This is different in the approach we took to get people’s attention, but the message is still to get at the core of the problem: common-sense gun laws and stronger background checks.”
So far this year, there have been 34 school shootings, according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety. Approximately 3 million children and teenagers witness a shooting each year, and more than 3,000 are killed annually.
“As a father, I don’t have any better option than empowering my son’s legacy and protecting other parents from suffering the insane amount of pain that can only come from losing a son,” Oliver tells Refinery29. “I feel that Joaquin, his mother, and I make a great team, and we’ll never stop fighting against corrupt officials that protect the gun industry over kids.”
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