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UPDATED: Gun Control Organization “Change the Ref” deceptively edits video of Commencement speech for Fake School, refuses to release video, Other Gun Control Groups applaud

26 Jun , 2021   Video

Originally posted at 11:04 AM on Thursday, June 24th, 2021.

“As a father whose daughter was murdered in Parkland, I’m all too used to how liberals engage in fraud and narrative-driving stunts to advance their gun control agenda. Lott has done excellent empirical work on public safety. They can’t attack him on the evidence, so they pull off a sad spectacle like this.”

Andrew Pollack, author Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students, Friday, June 25, 2021.

Gun control organizations can do little wrong as far as most of the press is concerned. Earlier this month, Dr. John Lott was supposed to give a commencement address at a high school graduation of 2,000 students in Las Vegas. It turns out that David Keene, the past president for the NRA and editor-at-large for the Washington Times, was also invited to be “the” commencement speaker. It turns out that both Lott and Keene were victims of an elaborate hoax by the gun control organization “Change the Ref.” Despite a website, there was no school. The gun-control group spent a lot of money to create a fake commencement address.

Most of the media doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that the gun control group refuses to release the entire video and selectively edited what they did provide. For those interested, a rough outline of Dr. Lott’s commencement address is available here.

The videos have garnered a lot of press coverage. The gun control groups, such as Change the Ref, have a lot of money. Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC spent almost 14 minutes on the incident. and other major national media outlets as well as newspapers and television stations around the country went with the story.

Note that the quotes that they show printed out in the video are not from statements that they actually have me saying.

1) A common theme in the news coverage was Lott’s denouncing background checks. Regarding Lott, the video states: “He often speaks out against universal background checks.” And the media picked up on this claim.

In another, John Lott Jr, author of More Guns, Less Crime, denounces universal background checks as audio of frantic children calling 911 during school shootings is overlaid. “They were shooting into my classroom,” one girl said, shortly before a series of gunshots is heard.

Sarah Betancourt, “Ex-NRA chief tricked into speech to 3,044 empty chairs for gun victims,” The Guardian, June 24, 2021.

During his speech, Lott claims that gun control activists and Democrats are fighting tooth and nail for a background check on those who buy weapons. [English translation]

Susana Samhan. “La trampa de unos padres sin hijo a figuras de Asociación Nacional del Rifle.” Swissinfo.ch, June 26, 2021.

“The videos argue that Keene and Lott have advocated against background checks.”

Danielle Wallace, “Parkland school shooting parent tricks ex-NRA president into fake high school graduation speech,” Fox News, June 24, 2021.

Here is a very typical appearance by Lott from 2019 where he makes very clear that he is trying to offer simple reasonable improvements to the background check system that Democrats fight against.

From Lott:

In fact, my talk focused on how to fix a system that discriminates against minorities and the poor, and I made two points.

— While President Biden and other Democrats are constantly claiming that 3 million prohibited people have been stopped from buying guns because of background checks, that is a lie. There is a massive, inexcusable error rate in the background check system, about 99% of the denials are law-abiding people who are improperly stopped. 

The system discriminates most against black and Hispanic males. When I was working in the US Department of Justice up until January, I saw data showing that the error rate for black males was more than 3 times their share of the population. I pointed out that this could be easily fixed if the federal government had to meet the same standards for background checks that private companies have to.

— I made two points on the costs of background checks. In DC, checks on private transfers cost $125. If we want to encourage people to undertake these checks, we shouldn’t make them so expensive. And if background checks really reduce crime, then they reduce crime for everyone. As an economist, I would say that everyone who benefits should pay for those benefits. The costs ought to be financed out of government revenue, not used to penalize gun owners.When I said “Gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail,” I was talking about them fighting against these “reasonable” changes.

2) “and once claimed that universal background checks would not have stopped a single mass shooting this century.”

This is close, but not exactly what Lott said. Lott has said that there is not one mass public shooting this century that would have been stopped by universal background checks. For information backing up that claim see our research on mass public shootings here up through May 2021.

3) The videos made from this address focus on the ‘lost class,” which are described as: “They are the 3,044 graduating high school seniors that died from gun violence.” These dead students were represented by the vast see of 3,044 empty chairs that they had me do my “dress rehearsal” talk before.  It is a claim that received unquestioning extensive national (e.g., Washington PostMSNBCUSA TodayCNN) and international news coverage (e.g., The Guardian (UK), Stern (Germany)SBS News (Australia)). Many of these outlets had the 3,044 number in their headlines. But it is a lie that isn’t even remotely close to the truth.

They say “graduating high school seniors that died.” Yet, in 2019, the latest year that the data is available for, Centers for Disease Control shows there were 337 homicides involving 17-year-olds, 18 accidental deaths, and 193 suicides for a total of 548 – about 1/6th of the number they use.

But even these numbers are inflated. For example, homicides include justifiable homicides, if a victim shoots a 17-year-old robber or rapist or person intent on murdering them, that shouldn’t be in the same category as a victim being murdered. The largest category here of homicides are overwhelmingly gang related violence. Those lives surely count, but why describe these gang members as otherwise “graduating high school seniors”?

Suppose that you even looked at everyone under 18.For everyone under 18 in 2019, the CDC shows that there were homicides of 938, accidental deaths of 88, and suicides of 657 for a total of 1,638. Short of the 3,044 that they claim for just the graduating high school class. For 17 year olds, the total was 548. The homicide numbers here are inflated because they include justifiable homicides. Overwhelmingly gang related violence. Background checks are as likely to stop those people from getting guns as pharmacists checking IDs stops people from buying illegal drugs.

News articles and some responses

Here are some of the articles from the Washington Post, Washington Examiner, and NBC News.

. . . Keene did not immediately respond to messages from The Washington Post late on Wednesday. But Lott said he only learned that the event had been a trick when contacted by reporters on Wednesday. Lott claims his nearly 15-minute speech, which was condensed in a nearly two-minute clip, was “selectively” edited and taken out of context.

“Gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail,” Lott told the nearly empty venue. “They want to go off and say we’ve stopped three-and-a-half million dangerous people, I look at it as, we’ve stopped three-and-a-half million law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun.”

“It was purposefully edited to radically change what I said,” Lott, 63, told The Post. He says his point was that people of color who meet the criteria to legally own a gun, and who are the “most vulnerable,” are often denied them because of what he calls errors in the system.

“I wasn’t arguing about background checks,” he said. “I was explaining to people how they can change the system to make it better.”

“They left all of that stuff out,” he added.

Lott also said he did not plan to discuss background checks when he agreed to participate in the event after a man identified as the board chairman at James Madison Academy contacted him in mid May.

But days before the event, the man requested that he discuss background checks and the Second Amendment. When Lott said he was uncomfortable, the man said the students were conservatives and that the Second Amendment had been part of this academic year’s core curriculum, Lott said, so he ultimately agreed.

In an email Lott shared with The Post outlining his speech, Lott told the board chairman, “I still feel uncomfortable getting into this type of political discussion for a commencement because it seems to me that commencements should be talks that leave everyone satisfied.”

But Lott agreed to drive from Montana to Nevada for the rehearsal on June 4. That day, he met the supposed school principal, the event organizer and the man who identified as the board chairman, he said. The team of about 20 technicians scattered around the venue, flying drones. A tent with equipment and banners with the high school’s logo on both sides of the stage didn’t raise any suspicion that the event might be fake, Lott said.

Before he began his speech, he was told the staff would record him in case something happened the following day during commencement, Lott said. Then, Lott, who was there to receive the “Keeper of the Constitution Award,” took the stage. . . .

The following day, Lott said, his contact told him the commencement was canceled because of security threats. Lott claims he reached out to the man on multiple occasions to follow up about the commencement, the travel expenses they promised to reimburse and nearly half of the $1,000 they still owed him, but never got a response.

Lott asked the organizers to release the full video of his speech.

“If somebody wants to debate me, I’m happy to debate,” Lott said. “If they had confidence in their arguments then they wouldn’t find it was necessary to take my talk and cut it up and make it come across as if I was saying things very different from what I was saying.”

But Change the Ref, which produced the stunt with help from advertising agency Leo Burnett and production company Hungry Man, BuzzFeed News reported, argued that Lott and Keene should have done more research to learn that the school was fake. . . .

Andrea Salcedo, “Parkland parents tricked ex-NRA president into a ‘graduation speech’ to empty chairs representing gun victims,” Washington Post, June 24, 2021.

It is hardly obvious how much more checking should be done before agreeing to give a talk. Dr. Lott had checked the school online, and they had an extensive website (which has since been taken down).

From the Washington Examiner:

John Lott, a pro-Second Amendment activist, lashed out after being duped into speaking at a fake high school graduation in a ploy by a little-known gun control group.

On Wednesday, Change the Ref, an organization aiming to raise awareness about mass shootings, released a video titled “The Lost Class,” which showed Lott speaking to a chorus of empty chairs on June 4, an event he thought was a rehearsal for a prominent institution’s graduation commencement. The footage featured clips of Lott talking about gun background checks as the group panned over the empty chairs and insisted thousands of high school students die from firearm violence annually, a number Change the Ref says would be improved by more laws regulating gun sales.

The Change the Ref ploy also included a speech from former National Rifle AssociationPresident David Keene, who now serves as the editor-at-large for the Washington Times. Keene may have been subject to the same misinformation from the organization.

“If they feel that they have a strong argument, why is it necessary to take video and take things so completely out of context?” Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, told the Washington Examiner in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I mean, why is it necessary to do that?”

“If they had confidence in their claims, they wouldn’t have to do stuff like this, they wouldn’t have to lie, [and] they wouldn’t have to go and take things out of context,” he added. “I’m disappointed and upset.”

He also blasted the footage for being “very selectively edited” and “out of context.” As a result, he said, it missed his main arguments that background checks are subject to large numbers of “false positives” and have adverse effects on minority males.

On May 14, Lott said he was contacted by a man claiming to be Jordan Simon, the board chairman of a fictional school called the James Madison Academy, to be its keynote speaker. At the time, the unidentified person who worked for Change the Ref, crafted a fake website for the institution, JamesMadisonAcademy.net, which no longer displays on a web browser. 

The man claiming to be Simon told Lott he would receive the “Keeper of the Constitution Award” for showing “exceptional dedication to preserving the 2nd Amendment,” according to emails provided to the Washington Examiner. 

“It was a pleasure speaking to you on the phone earlier. As I mentioned, I am the Board Chairman with James Madison Academy, a private, online high school in Las Vegas,” the May 14 email read in part. 

It continued: “On Saturday, June 5th, we will be holding a special in-person graduation ceremony in Las Vegas. We’d be thrilled to have you accept the award at the ceremony and give a 5-10 minute speech addressing the graduating class, focusing on the importance of the individual liberties given to us in our ‘Bill of Rights’ — especially the 2nd Amendment.” 

At first, Lott, who said it was “a bit of an honor to go and give a talk to such a large group of high school students,” was reluctant to bring politics into a high school commencement. He voiced these concerns to the fake school, though they insisted he talked about background checks. He eventually agreed. 

“I said, ‘Look, you know, it seems inappropriate to me to give a political discussion at a high school commencement,'” Lott said in his interview. “I wanted to go and give them basically the talk that I give my kids, and that is, ‘If you’re going to work hard, work hard in the beginning of your life. You try to pick a job that’s not a job because if it’s something you really enjoy, you’ll be a lot more successful.'”

The Second Amendment activist said he was promised $1,000, which he received in cash, and $496 for travel, though he has yet to recoup that portion of the pay. On June 3, Lott began the 1,000-mile trek from his home state of Montana to Las Vegas by car after he was instructed to arrive one day early for a “practice” session in front of empty chairs. 

Lott, who gave a talk somewhere else on June 3, was inconvenienced by the news and offered to give the “practice” session by phone, though the man claiming to be Simon insisted he arrive as soon as possible, according to text messages obtained by the Washington Examiner. 

“If I can give the practice talk on the phone, it would really make my life a lot easier,” Lott told the unnamed man. “I have given lots of talks to large audiences. I guess that it would really make life much easier.” 

To which “Simon” responded, “Unfortunately, my hands are tied. Everyone participating will have to be there on Friday for rehearsal.”

Lott then rushed through the night to Vegas and was subsequently stopped and ticketed by a police officer at around 1 a.m., texts between the pair showed. 

“I drove until 1 AM last night,” Lott wrote. “Was doing better on time until the police pulled me over.” 

The man claiming to be Simons responded, “Oh no! Did you get a ticket?” 

“Yes,” Lott answered.

When June 5 arrived, Lott was told the “live-version” of the commencement was canceled due to “threats of violence,” and organizers claimed the police were generating leads on the supposed perpetrators. He was sent on his way without performing the “actual” ceremony. 

When he tried to contact the man posing as Simons to follow up on what he thought was a disturbing development, the phone number was disconnected.

Neither Keene nor Change the Ref immediately responded to requests for comment from the Washington Examiner.

Jake Dima, “Second Amendment activist ‘disappointed and upset’ after gun control group dupes him into speaking at fake graduation,” Washington Examiner, June 23, 2021

From NBC News:

. . . In a statement, Lott said his remarks in the video were taken “out of context” and called the clips “deceptive and selectively edited,” adding that he spoke for about 15 minutes — much longer than the one minute included in the video.

Lott called on Change the Ref to release his full speech.

In follow-up remarks over the phone, Lott said he drove 1,000 miles from Montana to deliver the remarks: “I thought I was trying to help out a school there,” he told NBC News.

“It’s just outrageous that somebody would do that,” he added.

Asked if his video was deceptively edited, Manuel Oliver told NBC News: “it wasn’t.”

“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. Actual words, real space, absolute arrogance, and 3044 empty chairs.” . . .

Tim Fitzsimons, “Former NRA president tricked into gun violence prevention video,” NBC News, June 23, 2021.

In response to this, Dr. Lott released the following statement: “I would appreciate the chance to respond to their last quote. The quote they bring up isn’t even in their selectively-edited video! I believe they also slightly misquote me (“mass shootings” should be “mass public shootings”). Their statements just highlight the need for them to release the full speech, so people can decide for themselves if they took me out of context or not. What are they afraid of?”

Here is a long discussion from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

. . . Change the Ref, led by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, posted clips on Wednesday of the speeches given by former National Rifle Association President David Keene and economist and former Department of Justice adviser John Lott as part of a three-video documentary filmed on June 4. . . .

The videos depict what Keene and Lott were led to believe was a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony of James Madison Academy, which does not exist. They were later told the graduation ceremony had been canceled. . . .

“Gun control advocates and Democrats will fight you tooth and nail,” Lott said in the video. “They want to go and say we’ve stopped 3.5 million dangerous people. I look at it as we’ve stopped 3.5 million law-abiding citizens who wanted to get a gun.”

Lott said Thursday his comments were taken out of context and only made after a fake official from the fictitious school told him the graduating class had selected him as its commencement speaker specifically to discuss background checks and gun rights. He does not definitely oppose universal background checks, he said, but instead favors improving the background check system currently in place.

“Of the 3.5 million initial denials (from purchasing firearms) due to background checks, more than 99 percent of those are false positives,” said Lott, who advised the Justice Department on statistics under former President Donald Trump, in an interview with the Review-Journal. “What we should do is require the federal government meets the same standard of quality in background checks that private companies do.”

Lott said the government should also pay for all background checks, so cost is not prohibitive to gun ownership. He also called the current background check system discriminatory to minorities.

He provided emails and text messages from someone called Jordan Simon, who reportedly served as “board chairman” of James Madison, purported to be a private, online high school in Las Vegas. Simon listed a Las Vegas phone number and a website, jamesmadisonacademy.net, that has since been taken down. Lott said the website was professionally made and featured photos of students and a roster of teachers, complete with testimonials.

Simon offered to cover Lott’s charges for air travel and hotel, as well as “$1,000 in spending cash,” in exchange for his speech. Lott opted to drive about 1,000 miles from Montana and asked only for $500 in reimbursement, which he said he has not yet received.

Lott also expressed his discomfort with speaking about background checks and politics in the emails to Simon. He told the Review-Journal he prefers to offer advice on hard work to graduating classes.

Trickery lured speakers

A news release circulated by Change the Ref mocked Keene and Lott for failing to see through the ruse.

“Ironically, had the men conducted a proper background check on the school, they would have seen that the school is fake,” it read.

The release also accused both Lott and Keene of spending “decades using their power and influence to block background checks and common-sense gun reform, which could have saved thousands of these graduates’ lives.”

It is unclear whether Circus Circus hotel-casino owner Phil Ruffin, a prominent Republican donor who owns the adjacent festival grounds, signed off on the video. The hotel did not respond to a request for clarification.

Oliver said the group chose the venue because speakers are more likely to accept a free trip to speak in Las Vegas.

When asked about Lott’s protests over the deception and editing of his speech, Oliver said Lott “has a right to try and find a way out of this mess and not look like a fool.”

Rory Appleton, “NRA official, gun rights activist duped into fake graduation ceremony,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, June 24, 2021.

The various gun control groups think that this is a brilliant strategy. Here are just a few of them: Team Enough is the Brady Campaign, Amy Axtell and Shannon Watts are with Mothers Demand, and Nicole Hockley with Sandy Hook Promise.

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