Has Change The Ref Lost The Plot?

I’m sure you’ve seen the story by now; Second Amendment activists duped into giving a graduation speech to an empty field filled with 3,044 empty chairs, their pro-2A remarks edited together with 911 calls from students inside schools where active shooters were prowling the hallways and classrooms and taking innocent lives. The slickly-produced piece of agit-prop was released by gun control group Change The Ref, which was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver after their son Joaquin was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but the clip was put together by Leo Burnett Chicago, one of the most widely-regarded advertising agencies in the country.


“We were looking for an idea that was unlike anything that had been done before,” executive creative director Sam Shepherd tells Muse. “That’s a pretty tough brief. When the teams shared an image of empty graduation chairs arranged like the cemetery in Normandy, I was blown away. But it wasn’t enough for us to shoot an emotional film capturing the 3,044 chairs. That’s where every gun ad has stopped before. We had to place this devastating image in front of those directly responsible.”

“It was important for us to go all the way, no matter what the cost, to finally confront these NRA members with the results of what their words and lobbying have caused,” Shepherd says.

On today’s Bearing Arms’ Cam & Co, I spoke with one of those NRA members and Second Amendment advocates; Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was also murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that horrific February day in 2018. What’s his response to Shepherd, who says that Petty’s support for the right to keep and bear arms caused his daughter’s murder?

“It’s an asinine comment, and he should retract that statement immediately. It’s disgusting,” Petty told me, shaking his head.


“I’m no more responsible for my daughter’s death than Dr. Lott is, or the NRA, or any other Second Amendment supporter,” he continued. “There’s no causal relationship there between the words used to defend a right that is precious and should be precious to every American; that was codified by our Founding Fathers, recognized by our Founding Fathers and put into the Bill of Rights.

“It’s disgusting to equate that with the actions of these evil people that have used a firearm to kill innocent people. The person responsible for the death of my daughter, for killing my daughter, is sitting in jail awaiting trial. It’s been three-plus years and we’re still not at trial yet, but that is the person that took that firearm and murdered 17 people and injured 17 others.”

Petty says the Change the Ref video doesn’t just target the wrong people, but that in doing so it also gets in the way of doing things that really can work to reduce violence in schools, including school shootings. I brought up the fact that a Secret Service report on preventing school shootings found that 94% of the attackers had communicated their threats beforehand, and asked Ryan if he thought that a public service campaign aimed at getting more of us to speak out when we hear threats spoken or see them online could be effective at reducing school violence.


Petty, who has spent the past three years working with law enforcement agencies from his county sheriff to the Secret Service on preventing active assailant attacks at school, says the Change the Ref ad was not only a waste of money, but a wasted opportunity.

“Imagine Leo Burnett or other advertising experts using that expertise to communicate what we’ve learned about prevention, what we know will actually solve these terrible tragedies. If they just took the same effort, energy, and frankly, dollars and applied it to prevention as opposed to these stunts… it’s hard for me to imagine the impact they could have. And not just in terms of big, low-probability big events like Parkland, which just change a community forever, change families’ lives forever. Imagine the message, just violence in our schools in general… imagine if they put that effort and energy into putting a campaign together and offered it free to school districts.”

Petty says he’d be willing to talk to Leo Burnett or any other agency that was willing to devote time and resources to that proactive messaging instead of simply preaching to the choir, but I’m not holding my breath that he’ll get a warm response, and I doubt he is either. Instead, he’s continuing to work with everyone from parents, police, mental health experts, and politicians to put effective strategies in place that will prevent active assailant attacks from happening in the first place; without the need for any gun control laws (or elaborate stunts).


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