The Center for Media and Democracy’s (CMD) Executive Director, Lisa Graves, composed an extensive testimony on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to submit to the Senate’s “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws hearing today.
In July, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced that, in light of the Zimmerman – Martin case, the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold a hearing in September to examine SYG laws. Specifically, Durbin said in a statement that the hearing would examine the gun lobby’s and ALEC’s influence on the creation of SYG laws, how the laws have altered the legal definition of self-defense, how the laws have encouraged shooting confrontations, and “the civil rights implications when racial profiling and ‘stand your ground’ laws mix.”
Due to the Navy Yard shootings in September, the hearing was postponed to October. The mothers of two teens killed by gun violence, including Trayvon Martin’s mother, as well as experts on both sides of the gun control debate are set to testify at the hearing.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will examine the consequences of radical changes to gun laws, which, CMD notes, are a direct result of lobbying by ALEC and the NRA. Graves writes,
SYG laws were peddled by the NRA and ALEC alongside bills to expand the number of people carrying concealed firearms, creating a volatile combination that puts more and more American children and adults at risk of being shot and killed. This Committee has held countless hearings over the years on both federal and state crime policies that affect the rights of Americans, and it is fitting that the Senate examine SYG and the organizations that have urged that SYG become binding law.
The testimony expresses the concern that a corporate lobbying group “masquerading as a charity” has gotten away with introducing and getting SYG laws passed, even while claiming that they spend no money on lobbying. According to CMD, ALEC routinely files IRS tax returns claiming that it does not engage in lobbying.
While ALEC is registered as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, it routinely claims not to spend money on lobbying. At the same time, documents and information obtained through open records requests show the group pushes for legislation to be introduced and then adopted, and even takes credit for the legislation afterward. In August, CMD released a report identifying 466 ALEC bills introduced this year so far.
ALEC has even gone to new lengths to hide its lobbying practices. Many states allow citizens to see the communications between for-profit and non-profit organizations that contact lawmakers, in order for citizens to fight corruption of their representatives. ALEC claims that its communications with lawmakers are not subject to transparency laws. The group has begun stamping documents and communications with a disclaimer that the information is not subject to open records laws.
At a closed-door meeting of ALEC’s “Criminal Justice Task Force” in 2005, the NRA asked legislators and lobbyists to adopt the Florida SYG bill. The bill was approved unanimously. When Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was passed, it became a model for the rest of the country. By implementing SYG laws across the nation, the NRA and ALEC changed the law in 3 major ways, according to CMD:
1. The laws attempt to grant immunity from criminal prosecution by tying the hands of police and prosecutors. SYG also changes the burden of proof “by creating a legal ‘presumption’ that a person had a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm,” CMD reports. Even if a killer did not have a fear of imminent death or bodily harm, SYG by default presumes that the fear was reasonable and the killing justified.
2. Whether the killer chooses to invoke the presumptions or not, SYG also changed the underlying law regarding justifiable homicide. The NRA – ALEC bill extends the traditional rules for self-defense from one’s home to any public place, and eliminates the duty to retreat and avoid using deadly force if possible, which are provisions of traditional criminal law.
3. Under SYG, if a defendant claims deadly force was justified, the law grants immunity from civil suit. This part of the law makes it harder for the family of the victim to sue the killer. While it can be difficult to obtain a criminal conviction with a claim of self-defense, a civil trial has many advantages, Graves writes.
In a civil suit, a killer would have to justify him/herself before a jury, the killer would not be able to invoke Fifth-Amendment protections as in a criminal trial, and the killer would be subject to cross-examination by an adversary, during which the defendant’s history of violence could be called into question.
So far, according to the Associated Press, the Senate Committee hearing has produced little more than the typical partisan bickering. Conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are arguing that the laws represent the “right of everyone to protect themselves and their families,” while both mothers of the teenage victims are asking the Committee to amend SYG laws.
Lucia McBath is the mother of a teenager who was shot and killed last year after a 46-year-old man opened fire on a car in which her son and 3 other teens were sitting. The shooter complained about the teenagers’ loud music and claimed he saw a weapon in their car, though none existed. “You can lift this nation from its internal battle in which guns rule over right,” McBath told the Committee.
Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.