More than 3,000 children won’t graduate from high school this year because they were victims of gun violence. A new ad makes that statistic shockingly visceral, and it uses a former president of the National Rifle Association, of all people, to do it.
On June 4, anti-gun violence activist organization Change the Ref set up a full graduation ceremony for what they claimed would be roughly 3,000 students, then invited its guest speakers: NRA board member and former president David Keene, and right-wing gun advocate John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime. The two speakers waxed on about the Second Amendment and the scourge of universal background checks in front of an audience of empty chairs, thinking it was a rehearsal until the real audience showed up.
Except the audience never did show up. And that was the point. The brilliant PSAs that resulted from the setup are about confronting those fighting gun violence regulation with the humanity their work and words have taken away. In the ads, the speeches of Keene and Lott are intercut with audio of 911 calls from young people trapped amid school shootings. The juxtaposition of Keene’s and Lott’s arrogance with kids’ fear is powerful.
The NRA once used advertising to transform American gun culture. Now it’s getting a taste of its own medicine. Change the Ref was cofounded by Patricia and Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, was killed in the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “People deny the actual reality and we cannot allow them to deny it because this is real. This is happening,” says Patricia Oliver in a behind-the-scenes video.
In a statement, Lott said his speech was taken “out of context,” and criticized the ad as “deceptive and selectively edited.” Yet there’s not much context needed for a statement like, “Universal background checks would not have stopped a single mass shooting this century.”
The Olivers have been speaking out against gun violence and the laws that perpetuate it since their son was killed in 2018. That year, to protest and raise awareness around 3D-printed guns, they created a 3D-printed version of Joaquin called the “3D Activist,” which debuted in Times Square in New York, then traveled to gun reform events and protests around the country. Late last year, after the NRA tweeted out “Dear Santa, You give us ammo. We give you cookies. It’s that simple.” Change the Ref sent the lobby group 1,700 cookies in the shape of shooting victims to represent each child or teen who dies every year from gun violence.
These newest PSAs, like much of the organization’s work, use a clever concept to drive home a powerful message: that each and every victim is more than a number, more than a stat, and definitely more than an empty chair.