Tuesday, August 6, 2013

ALEC and NRA: How Trayvon Martin's killer got away with murder


A group of conservatives founded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 1973. They intended ALEC to be a study group for advancing conservative ideas on the state level. The original founders included Henry Hyde, Paul Weyrich, and Lou Barnett. Henry Hyde was a practical politician who was elected to the House in 1968. Weyrich became a leader of the religious right and founded the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. Weyrich gained the backing of Joseph Coors for the organizations he founded, including the Free Congress Association. Barnett had participated in the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. He later started the Conservative Political Action Committee.

The founders shared an anti-federalist philosophy that was in line with then-president Nixon, who had decided on a southern strategy to bring southern Democrats into the Republican party. One key tenet of the southerners was a strong commitment to states' rights. Jesse Helms, who had just been elected to the Senate from North Carolina as a Republican, was an early member of the group. Helms was an overt racist and former Democrat. The composition of ALEC mirrored what would later become the Republican coalition. ALEC was at first nonpartisan but became solidly Republican as the white southern Democrats deserted their party.

In 1980 President Reagan formed a National Task Force on Federalism to seek ways to return power to the states. ALEC members took lead roles in the Task Force, and ALEC soon created task forces of its own to study issues and propose legislative solutions. In 1983 ALEC responded to Reagan's report on education by making recommendations to “improve” the educational system. Later statistical analysis (the Sandia report) showed that the educational system wasn't declining at all, but improving. The Sandia report was ignored by conservatives, who didn't want facts to get in the way of their theories—neither the first nor the last time this happened.

In 1986 ALEC started internal task forces of its own. By 1987 the Civil Justice Task Force was formed in response to the nation's “frivolous” litigation explosion. This explosion was an invention of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) and other front groups for the asbestos and tobacco industries. The litigation against these companies, far from being frivolous, was a result of decades of deceit and arrogance on the part of the executives of these companies, who concealed from their customers the deadly nature of the products they were selling. This “frivolous” litigation explosion is an example of an invented problem (litigation crisis) whose solution (lower awards, more hurdles and extended delays) coincided exactly with what the corporations needed to solve their own crisis, one which they had caused: an enormous number of product liability cases waiting to be filed.

In 1988, ALEC made the fateful step of inviting direct participation of the corporate sponsors who had until then remained in the background. The wording of positions and model legislation was thenceforward decided, not by the state legislatures who formed the membership, but by the corporations who provided the money for lobbying activities. It can be argued that ALEC was “captured” at that time, that is, it was secretly taken over by the very companies its model legislation was supposed to regulate.


The National Rifle Association (NRA) is much older than ALEC, having been formed after the civil war by former Union soldiers. The original purpose of the NRA was to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis. In keeping with its purpose, NRA spent over 100 years without becoming actively involved in politics.

In their 1975 elections, NRA was taken over by a group of conservatives who envisioned a much more active role for the organization. NRA and ALEC soon began collaborating on legislative ideas. ALEC formed a study group that eventually became the Public Safety and Elections Task Force. ALEC stated that this group was dedicated to producing model bills to reduce crime and violence in our cities and neighborhoods. NRA had a permanent seat on this task force.

Among the model bills developed jointly by NRA and ALEC are those that change the definition of self defense, so-called “stand your ground” laws. These laws came into sharp focus when jurors at the Trayvon Martin murder trial acquitted the killer because they had no other alternative under the new definition of self-defense written into Florida law at the suggestion of ALEC.

NRA may support such laws because their corporate sponsors want to sell more guns. This motive is indefensible morally because it makes profits more important than human lives. This is actually what defines an “outlaw corporation”. People have a low opinion of tobacco companies, not because the business of selling tobacco is despised, but because tobacco kills its users. Tobacco companies were not held liable in court for the deaths of smokers until it was proven that the executives knew their product was deadly and ignored that fact. The same is true of asbestos mining companies.

Gun manufacturers are similarly “outlaws” because their products kill. The public will always look down on people who make a profit from killing.

Stand-your-ground laws are an example of laws that solve a problem that didn't exist. Self-defense laws have been well-accepted for centuries, dating back to English law. Stand-your-ground, or castle doctrine laws, elevate the personal prerogative above the societal one. Under castle doctrine, the most important element is personal honor, so a person has a right to use deadly force if he believes an attacker intends to kill him. Using this premise, it would be dishonorable to retreat before such an attacker.

This conception of personal rights is part of libertarian theory. The Libertarian Party platform asserts:

We affirm the individual right recognized by the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms, and oppose the prosecution of individuals for exercising their rights of self-defense.”1

This assertion shows that libertarian thought is just not practical in our society. Civil society cannot exist if you are allowed to kill someone because you don't like his face. Stand-your-ground laws make violence justifiable if the perpetrator believed his life was in danger. If the perpetrator claims that he believed his life was in danger, it is extremely difficult to prove otherwise in court because only he knows the contents of his mind.

The traditional definition of self-defense deals only with actions. It considers what the defendant did, not what he thought. It requires him to avoid violence whenever possible. A person's actions are easier to prove than his thoughts and make a preferable basis on which to draw a reasonable conclusion. If a person tries to avoid violence, he should not be blamed if he is forced by circumstance to use it.
Under traditional laws governing self-defense Trayvon Martin was murdered, because he was not the aggressor. His assailant did not try to avoid violence, he sought it out. Trayvon, on the other hand, did try to escape from his pursuer. We don't need the services of a mind-reader to prove those facts.

1Libertarian Party Platform §1., http://www.lp.org/platform

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