ALEC takes great pains to obscure its “model” legislation’s corporate origins, and for decades, the group has thrived largely by lurking in the shadows. But anonymity and secrecy have become increasingly difficult to maintain as the cost of ALEC’s handiwork has become apparent to all. Study after study has shown a drastic increase in homicides in states with Stand Your Ground – candidly referred to as “Shoot First” by the police and prosecutors who see these laws’ deadly impact every day. Public outcry over Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida, where the number of so-called “justifiable” homicides has jumped 200 percent since Shoot First became law in 2005, exposed ALEC’s toxic agenda before a global audience.
Now the organization is in the spotlight again, thanks to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D), who has convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Shoot First on Oct. 29, focusing on ALEC’s responsibility for replicating these laws in more than two dozen states. The hearing was supposed to take place earlier this month but was postponed due to yet another seemingly avoidable shooting tragedy – this time just a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill.
Clearly, the association with profit-driven gun legislation that drives up gun violence – and immunizes homicidal vigilantes from criminal and civil liability – is perceived in corporate boardrooms as being bad for business. Even Walmart, the nation’s largest gun retailer, said in May that the divide between its support for ALEC and its core business interests “has become too wide.”
Naturally, ALEC does not see it that way, and orchestrated a backlash against Durbin. The Washington Times thundered: “The spirit of Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list lives.” Ted Cruz (R), the Tea Party senator from Texas, called the letter “an inappropriate governmental intrusion into the personal and political views of American citizens and businesses.”
The notion that ALEC is somehow a champion of free speech rights is laughable. The organization has taken every imaginable measure to avoid public scrutiny, working furiously to keep both the corporations and elected officials it claims as members under wraps, resorting to technological work-arounds when sending bill text to legislators so its handiwork becomes harder to reach under state sunshine laws, and even asking one state, Texas, to issue a blanket exemption from the usual disclosure requirements.
The real story here is the long-overdue exposure of ALEC as a cancer on the democratic process. Corporations are paying through the nose for the privilege of voting as equals on model legislation with elected officials. As ALEC’s private-sector chairman, C. Stevens Seale of SAP America, unabashedly reminded legislators during ALEC’s latest annual gathering, “The private-sector members spent a lot of money to get your attention and let you hear their messages during this event.”
ALEC has done extraordinary damage. According to a new study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Shoot First states have seen the number of “justifiable” homicides spike an average of 53 percent in the first five years after passage. The overall murder rate has also risen. States without Shoot First, by contrast, have seen an average decline in justifiable homicides of five percent over the same period.
Other evidence points to a disproportionate effect on African Americans – something of particular concern to ColorOfChange and our over 900,000 members. A study based on FBI crime statistics shows that white killers are 354 percent more likely to be cleared of wrongdoing in Shoot First states if their victims are black than if their victims are white.
The Senate hearing has been a long time coming. Millions of Americans live in Shoot First jurisdictions, and ALEC has taken no steps to repeal these deadly laws – or to dissuade its member legislators from introducing new ones. At least ten Shoot First bills have been introduced so far in 2013, and two have passed. We can defang ALEC by urging corporations to withdraw their financial support and creating a toxic political environment for legislators who do ALEC’s bidding, returning some measure of democratic accountability to the legislative process and – with luck – saving a lot of lives.
Robinson is executive director of ColorofChange — the largest online civil rights organization.