Who Writes Our Laws?

Trayvon Martin's death has put a spotlight on Florida's "stand your ground" law. The American Legislative Exchange Council uses that law as a model and encourages other states to adopt it. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lisa Graves of the progressive watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. She says ALEC is fueled by corporate interests.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to another story connected to the Trayvon Martin shooting. When Bill Lee, the police chief of Sanford, Florida, gave his first public explanation of why George Zimmerman was not arrested, he cited Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground Law, which allows the use of deadly force if a person believes his or her life is at risk.

At least half the states in the country now have something like that in place, according to a number of watchdog groups and that is, in part, because of a group called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It's been using the Florida law as a model and encouraging other states to adopt similar legislation and that has caught the attention of progressive groups which are trying to stop them.

Our next guest is a member of one of those groups. She's the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and they started the website called ALEC Exposed. And Lisa Graves is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LISA GRAVES: Sure. My pleasure.

MARTIN: And, at this point, some of you are probably wondering why we didn't just call the American Legislative Exchange Council to join our conversation. We did. They declined to join us today, but they did send a statement. I'll read a little bit from it. They note that they did not come up with the Stand Your Ground Law, but they, rather, use the Florida law as a model for other states.

They say, quote, "Stand Your Ground, or the Castle Doctrine, designed to protect people who defend themselves from imminent death and great bodily harm. It does not allow you to pursue another person. It does not allow you to seek confrontation. It does not allow you to attack someone who does not pose an imminent threat. What it does is allow you to defend yourself and your family from immediate and real danger."

So, Lisa Graves, at this point, I wanted to ask you - what's your objection to this?

GRAVES: Well, I think that that's one way of presenting that bill, but the fact is that we and others have seen, across the country, that these sorts of laws, the laws that were ratified by ALEC after an NRA lobbyist came to a secret closed-door meeting of ALEC corporations, including Wal-Mart and other legislators, where the bill was ratified.

We've seen that these bills have been cited in numerous incidences in which the shooter acted aggressively, did not follow 911 instructions to basically stand their ground or stand down and, instead, have shot people, as appears to be the case in Florida.

MARTIN: And, of course, we said that this matter is still being reviewed. There is - as we've noted extensively here today, that there is a special prosecutor who's been assigned to look at the facts of this case again. So we aren't really sure exactly what happened here and we've heard conflicting accounts, even from government officials who have been involved in this so far.

So let's get back to this group, ALEC. And who are they? And why do you feel they need to be exposed, as the website says?

GRAVES: ALEC describes itself as the largest group of state legislators in the country, and it is, but that clouds what ALEC really is. Over 98 percent of ALEC's $7 million budget comes from corporations and everything but dues from state legislators. That is, it's largely corporate funded and what it does is get lawmakers down to resorts to sit behind closed doors and actually vote, with corporate lobbyists, on model bills. And then those legislators go back into their state houses and introduce the bills, cleansed of any reference to the fact that they were already pre-voted on by corporate lobbyists and by legislators giving them an equal vote.

We've seen that in a number of areas, not just in the area of these gun laws that expand the use of guns, but also in the area of limiting worker rights, limiting the rights of people who are injured or killed by corporations, limiting the power of the government to regulate corporations and their pollution and changing our tax law to starve government of revenue while giving tax breaks to the richest Americans.

MARTIN: How is this any different from what Chambers of Commerce or groups like independent business groups, the NFIB, groups like that that are well known to the public already do? How is this different?

GRAVES: This is the first organization that we've come across in which corporations and politicians actually vote on these bills behind closed doors as equals in these ALEC task forces. That's an enormous change, in many ways, in the way government typically is conducted.

People who want to lobby their public officials, whether they're corporations or individuals, go to meet with members and ask for their support. This is an operationalized effort to give corporations an equal say to our elected officials in meetings that we don't get to see, behind closed doors at fancy resorts, that are paid for by these corporations.

MARTIN: How did you find out about this?

GRAVES: We had a whistleblower come to us last spring, but we had heard of them before. In particular, last spring, as the controversy rose in Wisconsin over the changes to the rights of workers, of state employees and unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere. And we saw similar legislation, like the voter ID bills, speeding across the country and these were cookie cutter bills. And then, when we got the tip from whistleblower, we realized that these bills were all coming from the same source and that source was ALEC, the corporate bill mill.

MARTIN: Why would this group be interested in this Stand Your Ground Law, which does not appear to have anything to do with corporate governance or taxes or the traditional issues that we associate with corporations, per se? And I do want to say again that we did invite them to join our conversation. They declined and they did send us a statement, which we read earlier. So why would they care about this? Why would this be part of their agenda?

GRAVES: Well, first of all, the NRA is both a special interest group that has members, as well as a group that basically lobbies on behalf of the gun industry. And so it does have a corporate connection and close ties to that enormously wealthy industry and the NRA has close ties to ALEC. It's a longtime member of ALEC. It even co-chaired the Criminal Justice Taskforce of ALEC. An NRA rep sat on the meetings in which voter ID bills that affect the right to vote in this country were approved, and in which bills that would change the rights of immigrants in this country - including ratifying the controversial Arizona law, as a model law - were approved.

So the NRA has a longstanding relationship with ALEC and, in fact, ALEC has submitted briefs to the Supreme Court defending the NRA's position and they are close buddies, I think.

MARTIN: Lisa Graves is the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. She also served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department, where she worked on gun policy. And we reached her by phone.

Lisa Graves, thanks so much for joining us.

GRAVES: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Up next, Brian Courtney Wilson thought he was fine putting aside his dream of being a professional singer, focusing on his job as a salesman and taking care of his family. But then he caught the eye of a mega-hit music promoter and the rest, as they say, is history. We'll talk about why he is so proud of his new gospel album. It's called - guess what? "So Proud." That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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