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As NRA Hides from Public After Newtown, ALEC Ties Reveal Extensive Lobbying Behind U.S. Gun Laws

StoryDecember 18, 2012
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Since Friday’s mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 27 dead — 20 children and seven adults — the National Rifle Association has been silent. The powerful lobbying organization has long pressured lawmakers to maintain easy access to firearms in the United States, prompting many to say the NRA is standing in the way of reform. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA has spent more than $2.2 million lobbying Congress this year alone. By comparison, the gun control lobby spent just $180,000. We’re joined by Lisa Graves, who has extensively tracked how the NRA’s power and wealth has long thwarted gun control proposals. Graves documents how one of the key avenues used to exert its influence is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive group that helps corporate America propose and draft legislation for states across the country. Graves formerly served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, where she handled national gun policy. [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 27, 2012The United States of ALEC: Bill Moyers on the Secretive Corporate-Legislative Body Writing Our Laws
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Since Friday’s mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 27 dead—20 children, six women who tried to protect them, the principal, the psychologist, the teachers, as well as the shooter’s mother, and seven adults—the National Rifle Association has been silent. Its Facebook page has gone dark. The NRA has refused to give interviews. On Monday, more than 150 gun control advocates marched to the NRA’s Capitol Hill headquarters to call on the group to support enacting laws they say could save lives. Among them were people directly impacted by gun violence.

EDDIE WEINGART: My name is Eddie Weingart from Silver Spring, Maryland. My sign represents today how I was a victim of gun violence. My mother in 1981 was slain by her ex-husband, who was estranged, with a 12-gauge shotgun. That immediately ended her life, and I witnessed that. He then turned the gun on me. The gun malfunctioned, and that’s the reason why I’m here today. The peace that I’m looking for is by attending these rallies. Every time that we have a mass shooting or any type of gun violence in our country, it brings me out to this. I know all too well other people’s pain.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent more than $2.2 million lobbying Congress this year alone. By comparison, the gun control lobby spent just $180,000.

For more, we’re joined by Democracy Now! video stream by Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, formerly served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice, where she handled national gun policy, and was the managing editor of the National Integrated Firearms Violence Reduction Strategy. She recently has written a piece called “Backgrounder: The History of the NRA/ALEC Gun Agenda.”

Welcome back, Lisa, to Democracy Now! Talk about the power of the gun lobby. Are you surprised to see the Facebook page down right now of the NRA? Or it’s gone dark. And also talk about the power of ALEC and what it is.

LISA GRAVES: Well, thank you so much for having me on.

I’m not surprised to see the NRA duck in the face of this horrific massacre in Connecticut. But the fact is, is that the NRA has been working with ALEC for decades. And ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s an organization that describes itself as the largest membership organization for state legislators in the country, a voluntary membership organization. And really, it’s bankrolled by some of the largest corporations in the world. The NRA and ALEC were partners for decades on numerous gun laws, gun laws—bills, basically, that were voted on in secret through ALEC meetings, where the NRA lobbyist would cast a vote as an equal to a legislator at some posh resort event that ALEC would host.

And those bills are quite extreme. They include not just the bill ratifying Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that was in controversy earlier this year after being cited in the Trayvon Martin shooting incident in Florida, but also laws on the books and bills that would say—most recently, last December, ALEC passed a model resolution that they wanted to be passed in the states that said that cities could not bar machine guns. That’s how extreme their agenda is.

And earlier this year, in the wake of the controversy, the public outcry over Florida and Trayvon Martin and that law, nearly 42 corporations have left ALEC, but ALEC also announced that the NRA’s task force, the gun task force, was no longer going to be in business. And yet, this summer, at ALEC’s annual convention after this PR announcement, there was the NRA with the biggest booth at the ALEC convention and hosting yet another shooting event for legislators.

And I point this out because what ALEC is is a way to inculcate and train these legislators, thousands of legislators in the statehouses across the country, that it’s legitimate to give an equal vote to an organization like the NRA. Many of these legislators go on to serve as governors, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio. Many of them go on to Congress. The two most powerful men in the United States House of Representatives, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, are ALEC alums. They’ve been steeped in the notion that entities like the NRA are entitled to an equal vote on model legislation to change our rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Lisa Graves, about the transition from Clinton to Bush and your role, a very interesting meeting?

LISA GRAVES: Sure, I was on the gun task force during the Clinton administration after the Columbine shootings in 1999. I worked on it with a team of attorneys from across the department, from the ATF, FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and other offices within the department, that was spearheaded by the deputy attorney general’s office.

And so, when the Clinton administration ended and Bush became president and Ashcroft came in with his team, the gun meeting continued. My job was to help them with the orderly transition of government on gun policy. And immediately, it was a room of 12 white guys and me. Suddenly, they were—there were a lot of political appointees, people who had worked very hard on political activities for the Bush administration.

And one of the first things that that gun task force did was go on a shooting event, a secret shooting outing with the NRA. They didn’t invite me. They didn’t invite the career staff who were part of the Justice Department. This was a political maneuver to basically tell the NRA at the beginning of the Bush administration that things had changed, that they were partners, and that they were going to spend time with the gun task force actually going off to a secret event at a shooting range with their NRA buddies. At that same time, Ashcroft, the attorney general, had hidden his schedule from the staff within the Department of Justice, from the senior staff, who were the career staff, and he was secretly meeting with the NRA and working with them basically to advance their agenda in the Bush administration. So, it’s no surprise that ultimately the Assault Weapons Ban that was passed in 1994, weak as it was, was allowed to expire under the watch of John Ashcroft and the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Lisa, we don’t have much time, but Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California, says she’s introducing a modern-day version of that Assault Weapons Ban, with 900 exceptions. Have we reached a new time of thinking where actually a lot more could be accomplished, but people will sit back and just try to do what they attempted to do 10 or 20 years ago? How powerful will the NRA be right now, and the pro-gun legislators, like West Virginia’s Manchin, who now says all things are now on the table?

LISA GRAVES: Well, I think it’s a good first step, but her law—her bill clearly exempts far too many firearms. And quite frankly, allowing all the firearms that are sold on the day before the bill to be retained, including these enormously powerful weapons that lead to these sorts of massacres, should not be part of that—part of that bill. We need to have new thinking, and we need to go much farther than what was on the table in 1994 and what she’s planning to put on the table in her bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Lisa Graves, what happened in Michigan in the last election around gun laws? And how significant—what will happen at the state level?

LISA GRAVES: Well, we know that one of the things that happened last week was not just that the lame-duck Legislature in Michigan pushed through union-busting legislation, but also they pushed through part of the ALEC wish list, which was to expand the availability of concealed firearms in Michigan. And that’s part of the ALEC agenda, the NRA agenda, for many years, is to allow people to carry concealed weapons. And in the face of shootings, what they do is play offense. The NRA plays offense and says more people need guns. After the Virginia Tech shootings, they tried to remove the laws prohibiting guns on campus. They want people to be more armed rather than to deal with the real heart of this tragedy, these tragedies.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Lisa, for joining us. Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, formerly served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice, where she handled national gun policy. That does it for our show. For a collection of our reporting on gun control, go to democracynow.org and visit our new “topics” section.

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