The tragic death of Trayvon Martin – the 17 year old African American who was slain while walking down the sidewalk of a gated community – has shocked the nation, and has drawn international attention to the role of race relations in America.
The tragedy has also shed light on Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law, which expands the legal justifications for "justifiable homicide" – and which is key to the "self-defense" claims of Trayvon’s alleged shooter, George Zimmerman. This "Stand Your Ground" law, signed into Florida statutes in 2005, became a model for legislation pushed by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and with ALEC’s help has since been replicated in states across the country.
On April 26th, 2005, Florida became the first state in the nation to pass "Stand Your Ground" legislation, which expanded the circumstances under which the use of deadly force for self-defense is considered justifiable. Under the so-called "Castle Doctrine," a person’s right to defend themselves from attack in their own home has traditionally been recognized and typically in such circumstances the burden falls on the individual to prove that the use of force is reasonable. Under the expanded “Stand Your Ground” laws, the permissible use of deadly force for self-defense expands beyond the home, into spaces including personal vehicles and even public places, and the burden of showing that the use of force was unreasonable falls on the prosecution. It is such provisions which are apparently complicating the current investigations in the Martin shooting.
"Stand Your Ground" laws have been popping up around the country in recent years (24 states currently have them on the books) – and that’s no coincidence. Just as we have seen with the proliferation of Voter-ID laws, the force behind the trend is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded front group that has helped advance the most extreme laws adopted by state legislatures, from SB 1070 in Arizona to SB 5 in Ohio.
Again and again, we’ve seen corporations use ALEC to push laws that put profits above the wellbeing of ordinary people. In the case of “Stand Your Ground” legislation, the weapons industry and ALEC have advocated for a law that encourages more people to carry weapons, thereby increasing industry profits.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a prominent member of ALEC, and has used its influence within the organization to push pro-gun policies across the country. In 2008, ALEC employee Michael Hough appeared on NRA News to talk about ALEC’s amicus brief in support of the NRA’s position in District of Columbia v. Heller. Hough described ALEC as a “very pro-Second Amendment organization,” and also stated, “Some of the things we were pushing in states was the Castle Doctrine [the name for ALEC’s model bill], we worked with the NRA with that, that’s one of our model bills that we have states introduce, and another one was the emergency powers legislation which was enacted in a couple states.”
Despite their grassroots image, the NRA is far from being simply a grassroots organization. An extensive report by the Violence Policy Center documents how gun companies bankroll the NRA through their many opportunities to sponsor NRA programs and make direct contributions to the organization:
Since 2005, corporations—gun related and other—have contributed between $19.8 million and $52.6 million to the NRA as detailed in its Ring of Freedom corporate giving program.1 In a promotional brochure for the program, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre promises that the “National Rifle Association’s newly expanded Corporate Partners Program is an opportunity for corporations to partner with the NRA....This program is geared toward your company’s corporate interests.” The vast majority of funds—74 percent—contributed to the NRA from “corporate partners” are members of the firearms industry: companies involved in the manufacture or sale of firearms or shooting-related products. Contributions to the NRA from the firearms industry since 2005 total between $14.7 million and $38.9 million.
That corporate funding helps to explain why the NRA has the means to donate, for example, $25,000 to ALEC in 2011 to achieve "Vice-Chairman" level sponsorship for ALEC’s annual conference. It also explains why NRA lobbying efforts are so important to their mission, since the laws they lobby for enrich the financial funders of the organization.
Unfortunately, until we change it, the ALEC model is working – for the corporations that fund the network. Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" legislation and ALEC’s model bill contain identical language, which has now been introduced in states across the country.
Those who aren’t served by this system are the American people. When politicians enact ALEC legislation that benefits corporations, real people suffer the consequences. The results are tragic:
(Source: Data issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement)
Over the past few weeks, more progressive elected officials are not just voting against ALEC inspired legislation that would privatize public services and make a few people very rich, they are calling it out by name and raising awareness of how ALEC serves as a vehicle to enact a corporate wish list into law in states across the country.
“Exactly who did the Republicans in the legislature listen to? Well, three of the four bills come right from this manual, Tort Reform Boot Camp, published by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. This is the same group who reportedly provided legislators last week with all-expense paid trips to a posh Florida hotel for what they call an “education policy conference.” It is an extremely conservative group, funded largely by large corporations, big business associations, insurance companies and very wealthy individuals. I’ve found that Minnesotans do not want their laws written by the lobbyists of big corporations.
“Since these Republican bills so closely follow ALEC’s instructions on tort reform, and since ALEC’s opinion on these subjects are evidently more important to Republican legislators than mine, their fellow legislator’s or the Supreme Court’s, perhaps they would share with us all of the other ALEC boot camp manuals, so we can know in advance what to expect from them for the rest of this session. If Republicans want to continue to prove to Minnesotans that they are too extreme to lead, they should continue to throw ALEC’s ideology at us. If they want to begin to govern responsibly, and work collaboratively, pass real jobs legislation – and my three measures have not even been taken up – real jobs legislations that will put Minnesotans back to work, then I’m ready to work with them. And I’m waiting.”
Just last week, Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan (D) decided to take action as well. He joined ALEC to gain access to the bill templates, and then took to the floor to expose the origins of AB110, a bill that would damage the public education system by giving special taxpayer subsidies to private schools for special needs children.
“This is part of dismantling public education in Wisconsin, and Florida, and Ohio, and every single state it’s introduced in,” Pocan explained. “This bill doesn’t come from this body, this bill is an identical bill that’s been introduced brought by special interests by ALEC and introduced state by state by state.”
ALEC’s secret jig is up. The American people don’t want their laws to be written by corporations, and they’ve made their voices heard. Now, our elected representatives – that is, the ones who are actually representing us, not wealthy special interests – are taking a stand too. ALEC’s pro- corporate agenda can only advance if kept secret. Kudos to those elected officials with the courage to shine the spotlight on this undemocratic organization.