- Lisa Gravesexecutive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, and publisher of PRWatch.org and ALECExposed.org. She formerly served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, where she handled national gun policy, and was the managing editor of the National Integrated Firearms Violence Reduction Strategy. She has written extensively about “The History of the NRA/ALEC Gun Agenda.”
The secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has used its network of money and influence to push for more pro-gun state laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which initially helped shield George Zimmerman from prosecution for the Trayvon Martin killing and was later used in the jury instructions at his trial. We discuss ALEC and the “Stand Your Ground” laws with Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, and publisher of PRWatch.org and ALECExposed.org. She formerly served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice, where she handled national gun policy. “Even though it’s popular wisdom to say 'Stand Your Ground' was not an issue in this case, in fact it was,” Graves says. “The exact instruction to the jury was that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground and meet force with force — including deadly force. Those jury instructions incorporate the Stand Your Ground law.” Graves adds that the Stand Your Ground law could now threaten efforts by Martin’s family to pursue a civil lawsuit against Zimmerman: “[The law] says the family of a shooting victim must pay the shooter’s legal fees and lost wages if the judge in a civil case grants that George Zimmerman had immunity because he had a right to stand his ground and that he was in essence justified in the killing. Basically the NRA and ALEC put their thumb on the scale of justice in favor of the shooter.”
AMY GOODMAN: The killing of Trayvon Martin is not just about race, it’s also about the regulation of guns in this country. We turn now to look at Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Under the Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has been copied in some form by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it’s possible. While George Zimmerman’s attorneys did not use the Strand Your Ground defense, the Florida law impacted the instructions to the jury. The law came up Sunday at one of the New York protests against the verdict in Zimmerman’s trial. This is a demonstrator named Jonathan addressing the crowd.
JONATHAN: [echoed by the People’s Mic] ALEC is a political lobbying group. They write laws and give them to Republicans. Stand Your Ground was written by ALEC. ALEC is funded by the Koch brothers. Who is funding us? All this money in this society, who is funding justice? I am Jonathan. I have two sons. I want my sons to live.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the Stand Your Ground laws and how the secretive right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has used its network of money and influence to push for the law, we’re joined, in addition to Phillip Agnew and Reverend Jesse Jackson, by Lisa Graves, via Democracy Now! video stream. Lisa is executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy, and publisher of PRWatch.org and ALECExposed.org, 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 has written extensively about the history of the NRA-ALEC gun agenda.
Lisa, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about Stand Your Ground? Most people probably think that that was the defense of George Zimmerman in the trial, though, in fact, it wasn’t. Why is it significant?
LISA GRAVES: Well, even though the defense in the Zimmerman case did not ask for the legal grant of immunity that that law would have potentially given him, the fact is that the NRA, through changing that law in Florida, through getting Stand Your Ground enacted in Florida in 2005, got the jury instructions changed. And so, even though it’s popular wisdom to say that that law was not at issue in this case, in fact it was, because the exact instruction to the jury was that Zimmerman had “no duty to retreat” and had a “right to stand his … ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.” That’s a direct quote from the jury instructions. Those jury instructions incorporate the Stand Your Ground law. And so, I think that’s significant.
It’s also significant that that law, which affects the definition of “justifiable homicide,” has been enacted in state after state in more than two dozen states at the urging of the NRA and at the urging of the American Legislative Exchange Council. And we’ve also seen during this time an increase in the number of claims of justifiable homicide.
But that’s not all the law does. That law, which was secretly voted on at a closed-door meeting in Texas in 2005, after it passed in Florida, ratified by an ALEC committee that was headed by Wal-Mart, who is the largest seller of ammunition in the country, retail ammunition in the world—that law actually also makes it extremely difficult for families to get justice in the civil courts, because what it actually does—and I think this is fundamentally immoral—is it says that the family of a shooting victim must pay the shooter’s legal fees and lost wages if the judge in a civil case grants—basically grants that George Zimmerman had immunity because he had a right to stand his ground and that he—that he was, in essence, justified in the killing. And so, basically, the NRA and ALEC put their thumb on the scale of justice in favor of the shooter. The notion that a grieving family would be required to pay the killer of their child if they don’t prevail in that civil suit, if the court rules on Stand Your Ground in favor of George Zimmerman, is just astonishing to me.
But it already, I think, affected this case, because clearly the jury was instructed that George Zimmerman had a duty to not retreat and had—had no duty to retreat and had a right to stand his ground—those are the express words—even though a law enforcement agency urged George Zimmerman to stay in his car and not pursue Trayvon Martin. That night in Florida, one man, in my view, was looking for trouble, and one kid was just looking for home. And that kid was trying to find a way home to his dad’s house, but another man armed with a deadly weapon ignored the police dispatcher request that he stay in this car. But he didn’t. And, in fact, Florida law, and the law in dozens of states in the country, has been changed to say that people like Zimmerman have no duty to retreat and have a right to stand their ground. And that puts many, many people in this country in danger.
AMY GOODMAN: Just let me read a little bit more the instructions to the jury in Zimmerman’s trial. They were told, quote, “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” That is what the jury was instructed. Now, this is very significant, what you’re saying, Lisa, because what we understand are the two legal resources that can now be had are possibly the Justice Department, though Eric Holder saying it would take a very high bar to bring civil rights charges, and the family of Trayvon Martin suing George Zimmerman. You’re actually saying that under this law, that if they do not win that suit, they could be forced to pay the legal bills of George Zimmerman.
LISA GRAVES: That’s correct. And I think it’s fundamentally immoral. And even though the defense attorneys did not ask for a grant of immunity in the criminal trial, there is nothing that precludes them from making that request in the civil trial, and there’s nothing necessarily that would preclude the judge from granting that request. That’s what NRA got the law changed to be in Florida, and that’s what ALEC ratified the law—you know, ratified as being a model bill for states across the country. And even though ALEC has tried to disavow its role, those laws are still on the books, and those laws remain in effect, and they put, I think, everyone in danger.
AMY GOODMAN: Right in the heat of all of the Trayvon Martin case, I want to turn to a clip from the NRA’s annual meeting in April: NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox vowing to defend Stand Your Ground laws.
CHRIS COX: The fact that other groups and other business entities and others have—are supportive of that concept as a constitutional freedom, whether they’re concerned about it from a Second Amendment standpoint or an economic freedom standpoint, that’s not—that’s not my position to—you can call them and ask them—that’s not my position to take or debate for them. But we stand in strong defense of any effort to allow law-abiding, good people to defend themselves against criminal attack. And so, we don’t, you know, apologize for that. It’s not a problem in this country. We will defend our efforts. We will—we will defend those laws. And if others want to join that fight, we welcome them.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the chief lobbyist for the NRA, Chris Cox. I wanted to ask Reverend Jesse Jackson—you live in a city of great gun violence. What, June 17th, gun violence was rampant. Just looking at one headline over the weekend, with the shootings of at least 36 people, seven were killed, the violence following the six-month anniversary of the Newtown massacre. I mean, George Zimmerman, if he hadn’t had a gun that night, who knows if he wouldn’t have even stepped out of his car? Maybe he would not have had the courage without a gun to do that, and certainly would not have been able to kill Trayvon Martin.
REV. JESSE JACKSON: More ignorance, more fear, more guns, more violence. In Chicago, over the first six months, a thousand people have been shot or killed the first six months of this year. In Chicago, there are no gun ranges nor gun manufacturers. Guns are made in the suburbs and downstate, so guns are coming in. We know where the guns are sold. We know the gun route. We know them. We know the store that sells half of all the guns across street and city line. Guns in, drugs in from across the border, jobs out, and the homes foreclosed. In some sense, violence becomes like the mosquito, but the swamp of unemployment, poverty, expulsion from school and the like, lends itself to a kind of—there is no plan for reconstruction. And so gun violence is an evidence of a deeper problem.
AMY GOODMAN: And final word to Phillip Agnew. What does your T-shirt—your hat says “power.” Your T-shirt says?
PHILLIP AGNEW: Mm-hmm. “Can We Dream Together?” I don’t know if you can see that.
AMY GOODMAN: We are moving into the 50—we are moving into the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Washington, D.C., of course, August 28th on the Mall, 1963. There is going to be a large gathering. Many are saying that Trayvon’s parents will be there, and people are going to coalesce around the killing of Trayvon Martin as well as the 50th anniversary of this historic address.
PHILLIP AGNEW: Mm-hmm. I think we have history as our compass, as I said before, and it’s behooving upon us to build upon that history and really build something new upon what has been built. What we see with what ALEC has done, what the NRA has done, what the Republicans have done and what the Democrats have allowed to be done is a rollback of our civil rights and a dehumanizing of young people. And so, what we must do as young people is take charge of our future, take the torch—if it isn’t being handed, take it—and get ready to move in a way that allows us to inherit America that looks like the America that we want.
AMY GOODMAN: Phillip Agnew—
PHILLIP AGNEW: When Dr. King spoke about it—
AMY GOODMAN: —I want to thank you for being with us—we have to wrap the show—of Dream Defenders, Reverend Jesse Jackson in Chicago, and Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy.
And today, a fond farewell to Martyna Starosta, who has been working with us as a fellow for the last year. We thank you for your persistence, your dedication, your creativity, and wish you very well in the future, look forward to working with you as we go on.