An aide to a Florida legislator was fired on Tuesday after claiming that two survivors of the mass shooting at a Parkland high school were “actors” and not really students, echoing a conspiracy theory that has gained traction on social media following the deadly attack.
Benjamin Kelly, an aide to Rep. Shawn Harrison (R-Tampa), reportedly penned the false claim in an “unsolicited” email sent Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Times’ Washington bureau chief Alex Leary. In his note, Kelly suggested that Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, were actually “actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” He also sent Leary a link to a conspiracy video on YouTube.
Hogg, 17, and Gonzalez, 18, are among a vocal group of young gun violence survivors who have risen up to call for stricter gun control laws since last week’s mass shooting in Parkland, which left 17 dead. Conspiracy theorists have attempted to undermine their activism by suggesting, like Kelly did, that the survivors are “crisis actors” or being used as political pawns.
The reaction to Kelly’s remarks was swift and scathing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has come under scrutiny this week for failing to support gun control efforts, said the people pushing such conspiracy theories were a “disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”
“We are KIDS — not actors,” wrote a classmate of Hogg’s and Gonzalez’s on Twitter. “We are KIDS who feared for our lives while someone shot up our school.”
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R) fired Kelly just hours after the controversial remarks went public. He expressed shock and anger at Kelly’s claim and issued an apology to the students.
Harrison also condemned his former aide, saying he was “appalled at and strongly denounce his comments about the Parkland students.”
According to the Washington Post, Kelly later confirmed on Twitter that he’d been “terminated from the State House.”
“I made a mistake whereas I tried to inform a reporter of information relating to his story regarding a school shooting. This was not my responsibility. I meant no disrespect to the students or parents of Parkland,” he wrote.
Kelly’s Twitter handle appears to have since been deactivated after he reportedly tweeted a quote from the Bible: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”