Gun laws have a price

When Florida’s “stand your ground” law was passed in 2005, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said Florida was the “first step of a multistate strategy” in which the NRA was engaged as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to take advantage of conservative movements in state legislatures in the South and Midwest. Not by coincidence, the policy, now receiving new scrutiny in the aftermath of the senseless shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, currently exists in some form in 30 other states.

Each of these “stand your ground” laws shares a common DNA and common origin. Each is based on expanding a right to self-defense that shifts the burden of proof as to whether use of force was justified, even if danger was not imminent, from the shooter to the prosecutor. 

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These laws are based almost entirely on model legislation drafted by ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force, now called Public Safety and Elections, of which the NRA was a member along with gun retailer Wal-Mart. According to reports from The Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause, the vast majority of ALEC’s estimated $7 million annual budget — more than 98 percent — comes from sources that include corporate contributors, foundations and others. Among those funders are the usual suspects of the right wing, including the NRA, the Robert Koch Foundation, the Scaife family (the Allegheny Foundation and the Scaife Family Foundation), the Coors family (the Castle Rock Foundation), and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation. Corporate board members include representatives from Altria, AT&T, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Kraft, PhRMA and Wal-Mart.

For a small membership fee — approximately $50 — state legislators are wined and dined at retreats underwritten by the corporate funders, who themselves pay up to $25,000 for membership. The “pay to play” events give ALEC’s funders access and the opportunity to pitch “model” legislation that has essentially been ghostwritten by ALEC’s committees and task forces. ALEC has 10 such task forces working on issue campaigns and model legislation covering a range of issues, including the deregulation of utility industries (of particular interest to former ALEC member Enron), preventing the importation of low-cost prescription drugs, restrictive voter ID legislation and gun control. Task force membership is divided between representatives from corporate sponsors and lawmakers. Each task force is chaired by an elected official and “private sector” member, who each hold an equal vote on legislation drafted and adopted by the task force. 

A 2010 report from the American Association for Justice quotes former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as saying, “I always found new ideas, and then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare that it’s mine.” According to ALEC’s 2010 Legislative Scorecard, 826 pieces of ALEC legislation were introduced in statehouses around the country in 2009, and 115 were enacted into law. 

The co-mingling ALEC facilitates creates a marketplace in which a company can purchase a legislative outcome that favors the company’s bottom line or an ideological agenda. As an investigative report from NPR showed, for-profit prison company and ALEC member Corrections Corporations of America helped draft model immigration legislation, presented at an ALEC conference, that became Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law some four months later. Quoted as saying that immigrant detention is their next big market, CCA stands to gain significant profit housing the illegal immigrants arrested under the new law. 

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant, and co-host of POTUS/Sirius XM’s “The Flaks.”