Analysis: Laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground,” which authorizes armed self-defense, are multiplying in the United States under the influence of a lobby that drafts bills and offers them ready-made to local governments. A French visit to the “Gunshine
ORLANDO – George Zimmerman, the self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman who infamously shot down black high-school student Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, has plenty of critics. But he has plenty of people defending him too. "He's free? Of course he is: he was just doing his job!" says Frank Taaffe, Zimmerman's neighbor and patrol partner. Taaffe has been giving interview after interview in support of the gun-toting watchman, whose quick release by police has awoken America's old racial demons and sparked a huge protest movement.
"The teenager (Martin) was hiding something under his sweatshirt at waist height," says another resident in the gated community Zimmerman took it upon himself to patrol. "How was George supposed to guess it was a can of iced tea?"
Martin, it turned out, wasn't armed. But he could have been, argue Zimmerman's defenders. The affair reminds us that Florida, where nearly a third of the 19 million inhabitants own a gun, is not only the home of Disney's tropical paradise, but also the American state that has most normalized the carrying of firearms. According to some anti-violence campaigners, the so-called Sunshine State would be more aptly named the Gunshine State.
This pervasive firearm phenomenon has infiltrated every aspect of public life. In 2010 a law came into force forbidding adoption agencies from taking into account whether potential parents owned firearms. The following year another bill was passed preventing doctors from asking patients if they are armed.
But the recent death of Trayvon Martin has turned the public's attention to even older bills, in particular one that was passed in 2005 by state authorities in Tallahassee. The law in question offered a formidable level of protection for people favoring armed self-defense by exonerating from criminal or civil proceeding anyone who uses "force, including deadly force" to defend their right to stay "in any … place where he or she has the right to be."
"No duty to retreat"
Opponents say the law amounts to a "license to kill." If it had not been introduced, Trayvon Martin might still be alive. But even if events still played out the way they did, at least his killer would not be free.
The title of the law rings out like an order: "Stand Your Ground!" And George Zimmerman seems to have taken the order very seriously. According to the prosecutor in Sanford, the community where the killing occurred, it was this law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free without so much as undergoing a criminal investigation.
The bill received a lot of public support in the build up to its adoption. Its campaigners used the weight of public opinion following a related case to garner support. James Workman, 77 and living in a trailer since his house was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, killed a burglar. The case was dismissed, however, on the basis of the "Castle Doctrine," which protects a person's right to defend his or her home.
The 2005 bill took this doctrine and widened its field of application, stating that a person who believes his or her physical integrity to be threatened "has no duty to retreat." Under the Stand Your Ground law, a person "has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force" – including deadly force. The news was greeted with celebrations from National Rifle Association campaigners.
Jeb Bush, the Republican governor for Florida at the time and brother of the former-president, welcomed this "good, common-sense anti-crime issue." A fair number of Democrats were quick to follow suit, "so as not to reinforce the cliché of the liberal left," according to one Democrat.
But the dark predictions of those who refused to vote for the law has come true: Since the Stand Your Ground law was introduced, the number of "justifiable homicides," that is to say the number of killers who have escaped all legal proceedings thanks to the law, has jumped from 12 per year to 36 in Florida. These cases - which have gone completely unpunished – include murders committed during squabbles between neighbors, disagreements in bars, and brawls between motorists. In 2010, The Tampa Bay Times reported that 65 of the 93 cases in which the law had been invoked that year involved murders. Of those, 57 cases were dismissed or the suspect acquitted.
Half-way between tragedy and absurdity, the examples build up like scars on society. One night in 2009, a drunk Billy Kuch mistakenly chose the wrong front door when returning home. His error led to a bullet being fired straight into his chest. He almost died, but the killer, protected by the law, avoided any repercussions. Travor Dooley, 69, had also supposedly ‘stood his ground" when he killed a father during a disagreement about children skateboarding on a basketball court.
"Stand Your Ground appears to be giving suspects better protection from arrest and prosecution than increased security measures for the citizens that the law was originally intended to protect," said Christopher Smith, a Florida state senator who refused to vote for the law in 2005. "We can't keep turning a blind eye to the number of lives this law has claimed."
At the House of Representatives in Washington, Democrat Corrine Brown, who represents the district where Trayvon Martin was killed, described the situation in Florida as "just the wild wild west."
The shocking self-defense law evoked in the Trayvon Martin case is not, however, exclusive to the Sunshine State. Half of the country's 50 states have adopted similar measures in recent years. This reality, brought to light following the Sanford drama, has led campaigners and commentators to point the spotlight at an association that is as powerful as it is discreet: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
If "Stand Your Ground" is becoming the norm, it's thanks to ALEC's formidable efficiency. This lobby's methods demonstrate "the pervasive influence of corporate money and right-wing groups on the state legislative process," The New York Times explained in a February editorial.
ALEC presents itself as a forum for debate and apolitical action whose motto is based on three concepts: "limited government, free markets, federalism." Founded in 1973 from within ultra-conservative circles, the Washington D.C.-based association acts a lot more discreetly than most classic lobby groups. CEOs – although exactly which ones nobody knows as the list is kept secret – and about 2,000 congressmen and senators from local governments collaborate within ALEC to draft bills that they then offer ready-made to states for them to discuss and implement.
The approach has been remarkably successful. Every year, according to ALEC's website, state governments discuss more than 800 bills written by its members. In 2009, 115 of those bills were passed, reports the Center for Media and Democracy, an association that denounces the influence of money in political life.
The resulting laws promote the interests of the large companies whose financial contributions make up 98% of ALEC's budget, and whose CEOs are members of the institution. Companies linked to ALEC include Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, AT & T, Walmart, Kraft, UPS and Pfizer. Their policy goals include rolling back the power of unions, decreasing environmental regulations, tax reductions for businesses and high tax payers, and privatizing education facilities and prison services.
Promoting "crony capitalism"
In Virginia, a study by the left-wing organization ProgressVA shows that 60 bills written by ALEC have been adopted, word for word, with no modifications. The president of the Virginia statehouse is no less than a former president of ALEC. Of the 60 bills passed, one will undermine Obama's health insurance reforms by preventing the state from prosecuting people who refuse to take out insurance: a fundamental requirement of the president's proposal. A second bill has made the right to vote dependent on being able to show a piece of photo I.D., something which a lot of people in financial difficulty don't possess. Yet another text, which has been widely reproduced, offers…you guessed it, the right to use deadly force to defend one's home.
The use of this highly efficient activism to promote the propagation of the Stand Your Ground law makes one wonder if, instead of defending the immediate interests of its members, ALEC is thinking ahead to the long-term. According to Paul Krugman, columnist at The New York Times, the group exploits "the public's fears, especially those associated with racial tension," with the aim of "creating a political climate that will favor even more corporation-friendly legislation in the future." This Nobel Prize winner in economics believes that ALEC, which claims to defend the free market, is really promoting a sort of "crony capitalism" whereby the CEOs and legislators will each work for the benefit of the other.
The organization, which some critics accuse of being indirectly responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin, has decided to drop its previous silence on the matter. One of its press releases denounced the "conspiracy theories' put forward by opponent. Another criticized those who, by condemning its promotion of the Stand Your Ground laws, were "using this tragedy to further their political ends." Cautiously, ALEC states that "it is unclear whether that law could apply to this case at all." In an attempt to show a sensitive side, the lobby's spokesperson concluded soberly: "Trayvon Martin's death was a great tragedy that brings sadness to all of us."
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