Florida's "stand your ground" law has come under wide controversy since the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black youth who was trailed and shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer who then claimed he fatally shot the teen in the chest in self-defense. The controversy is clearly just. The watch volunteer had been told by a 911 police dispatcher not to follow the youth. Had he heeded that directive, there would have been no encounter between the shooter and the victim he stalked.
Behind this needless, reckless shooting lies other, less obvious, factors that argue against both the "stand your ground law" and the way its been promoted by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, more commonly known as ALEC.
The NRA's aggressive gun-rights agenda meshes well with that of ALEC, a corporate-sponsored vehicle for extreme right-wing legislation. Because they appeal to the same legislative base, ALEC has apparently been happy to help the NRA promote passage of similar "stand your ground laws" in 23 other states, including Tennessee, since Florida adopted the law in 2005.
Their joint influence in passing these lethal laws in so many states is striking. It is further noteworthy because it is just one example of the broad and largely negative legislative agenda that ALEC and its corporate funders are successfully pushing through Republican-dominated state legislatures around the country against the broader public interest.
Tennessee's 2007 "stand your ground" law is less extreme than Florida's version in that it limits its shoot-to-kill right against unarmed people in a citizen's residential property, dwelling and vehicle. Florida's more wide-open law allows people who feel "threatened" to shoot-to-kill in most public spaces. Yet all these laws exclude a duty to retreat before using lethal force-- the legal standard that had traditionally separated reasonable self-defense from outright murder.
The 24 states that now carry these laws -- the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation found them through a computer search, but it says there may be others, since not all states have put their laws online -- have made it much more difficult for police to prosecute gunshot killings.
Florida police and prosecutors say they opposed the 2005 law for that reason. And, indeed, since the law was passed, unprosecuted shooting deaths have nearly tripled in Florida for lack of evidence against a shooter's word about being threatened. That suggests that some -- if not many -- of these deaths may be legalized cold-blooded murder. Without the duty to retreat from a threatening encounter between two people where there are no witnesses, who's to say how the shooting occurred.
Such an unexamined lethal threat may be the worst of the NRA-ALEC tandem, yet there are ample grounds to scrutinize ALEC's broader agenda. The organization has gained massive influence through the 2,000 state legislators and corporate executives that have joined hands under its umbrella, a new report by the nonpartisan Common Cause watchdog reports.
Among other examples of ALEC-drafted and promoted legislation adopted by Tennessee's GOP-controlled Legislature are bills to allow corporations to donate directly to legislators; to raise the limits on PAC funds for state and local offices from 50 percent of the candidate's total donations to 100 percent of donations; to dismantle the teacher's union and its right to negotiate for a contract; to create charter schools; to adopt voter ID laws that make it difficult for seniors, the disabled and poor to obtain voter ID cards; to bar voting rights to non-local college students; and to develop more private, for-profit prisons.
ALEC's corporate sponsors also help funnel donations to compliant legislators, which boosts its campaigns against health care reform and environmental regulations, trade and public employee unions and state minimum wage laws.
ALEC's corporate leaders are drawn from some of the nation's largest corporations, i.e., the Koch industries, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and AT&T. They invest some $7 million a year in promoting ALEC's "model" legislation and building a corporate launching pad and network for its agenda, and the agenda of its natural allies, like the NRA.
Given its firepower against the broader public in fair legislation, public services and tax equity, ordinary citizens have about as much chance of getting justice as innocent victims of "stand-your-ground" laws.