Families using re-created voices of gun violence victims to call lawmakers

Feb 14, 2024, 6:01 AM

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, the parents of Joaquin Oliver, one of the victims of the 2018 mass shoo...

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, the parents of Joaquin Oliver, one of the victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., sit for an interview in Coral Springs, Fla., on Friday Feb. 9, 2024. The Olivers are launching a campaign where re-created voices of gun violence victims will call federal lawmakers. The recordings re-creating voices of victims from around the country are being robocalled to U.S. senators and House members who oppose stricter gun laws. (AP Photo/Cody Jackson)

(AP Photo/Cody Jackson)

PARKLAND, Fla. (AP) — Joaquin “Guac” Oliver died in the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school massacre, but federal lawmakers who oppose tighter gun regulations began getting phone calls in his voice on Wednesday, lambasting them for their position.

The families of Oliver and five others killed with guns are using artificial intelligence to create messages in their loved ones’ voices and robocalling them to senators and House members who support the National Rifle Association and oppose tougher gun laws. The protest is being run through The Shotline website, where visitors select which offices receive calls.

The campaign launched on Valentine’s Day because it’s the sixth anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which left the 17-year-old Oliver, 13 other students and three staff members dead. Oliver was murdered as he lay wounded on the floor, the fatal bullet blasting through the hand he raised as the 19-year-old killer leveled his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, Joaquin’s parents, say the campaign is based on the oft-cited idea that if someone wants laws changed, the first step is calling elected representatives. Immigrants from Venezuela who became U.S. citizens, they want the sale of guns like the AR-15 banned.

“We come from a place where gun violence is a problem, but you will never see a 19-year-old with an AR-15 getting into a school and shooting people,” Manuel Oliver said. “There’s a reason for the gun violence in a Third World country. There’s no reason for the gun violence and the amount of victims in the United States.”

After Joaquin’s murder, the Olivers founded protested inside a supermarket chain that donated to a pro-NRA politician.

“When you keep being traditional … listening over and over and over to the same people lecturing you with the same stats, nothing changes,” Patricia Oliver said.

To make the recordings, the Olivers and other families gave an AI company audio of their loved ones and it re-created their voices, changing tone and pattern based on relatives’ suggestions.

Joaquin’s AI voice identifies him and then says, “Many students and teachers were murdered on Valentine’s Day … by a person using an AR-15, but you don’t care. You never did. It’s been six years and you’ve done nothing.”

It continues, “I died that day in Parkland. My body was destroyed by a weapon of war. I’m back today because my parents used AI to re-create my voice to call you. Other victims like me will be calling too, again and again, to demand action. How many calls will it take for you to care? How many dead voices will you hear before you finally listen?”

The NRA did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

In 2020, the Olivers used AI to create a video of Joaquin urging young voters to choose candidates who support stricter gun laws. Critics accused them of politicizing his death to thwart their rights as law-abiding gun owners.

“They put words in a dead kid’s mouth. If my father did this to me I would haunt him for the rest of his life,” one wrote on YouTube.

The Olivers bristle at the suggestion they don’t know what Joaquin would say.

“I know exactly what my son thought,” Manual Oliver said. “Joaquin took enough time to write his thoughts, his principles, his ideas, his way of living, his dreams, his goals. Everything is out there on social media.”

Others involved in the new campaign include the families of 23-year-old Akilah Dasilva, one of four people slain during a 2018 shooting at a Waffle House restaurant in Tennessee, and 10-year-old Uziyah Garcia, who died in the 2022 massacre at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school. There are also the parents of 15-year-old Ethan Song, who died in an accidental shooting, and a 20-year-old murder victim and the family of a man who committed suicide.

Brett Cross, the uncle who was raising Uziyah, said the boy wanted to help people as a police officer. In the AI’s message, Uziyah’s voice says, “I’m a 4th grader at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Or at least I was when a man with an AR-15 came into my school and killed 18 of my classmates, two teachers and me.” His voice then tells lawmakers, “What is it going to take for you to help make sure violence like this stops?”

Cross said his family is participating “so that no other child will have to go through what Uzi did. No other parent should have to go through what we have.”

Song shot himself in 2018 at his best friend’s house in Connecticut while the two played with a handgun, one of several firearms the other boy’s father hadn’t locked away. Mike and Kristin Song created a message in their son’s voice pushing for a federal law making it a crime to not properly store guns in homes where children live.

“You would think the stacking up of our dead children’s coffins would be enough to create a cultural shift in this country, but sadly our message is really falling on deaf ears,” Kristin Song said.

Other families who lost loved ones to gun violence will be allowed to add their victim’s re-created voice to the project, which runs indefinitely.

The Olivers aren’t alone among Stoneman Douglas families in their public advocacy since the massacre, with positions taken on both sides of the gun debate.

But while many others stick primarily to addressing rallies, social media posts and lobbying — and have had some success — the Olivers, particularly Manuel, get in opponents’ faces and challenge allies to be brazen. They call themselves “the rebel side of the gun violence prevention movement.”

Manuel Oliver’s rally speeches are often laced with obscenities. He was arrested in 2022 after he climbed a construction crane near the White House, unfurling a banner that demanded President Joe Biden enact stricter gun laws. Months later, he was ejected from a White House event for yelling at the president.

An artist, he painted an anti-gun mural across the street from the NRA’s Virginia headquarters as gun-toting counter-protestors watched. He tours the country with a one-man play about his son and his murder, the performances punctuated by him hammering holes into a life-size portrait of Joaquin, each representing the bullets that struck him.

“We don’t have nothing to lose here — we already lost everything,” Manuel Oliver said. “For me, (protesting) is normal. The only thing that is not normal is that we are allowing our society to let people die.”

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Families using re-created voices of gun violence victims to call lawmakers