The politics of ‘Stand your ground’ law

When Gov. Rick Scott’s Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection meets on Tuesday, the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law from State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, will be in the crosshairs of public scrutiny.

And for good reason. Following passage in 2005 in Florida, similar laws were adopted in approximately two dozen states, with the help of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association (NRA). These state laws, according to The Wall Street Journal, have resulted in an average 50 percent increase in “justifiable homicides” in the years after their passage, while other states experience little or no change.

But Baxley, a task force member, is not simply a member of the Florida Legislature with expertise or interest in policies related to “citizen safety and protection.” A closer review of his relationship with the gun lobby underscores that he should be considered a representative of the National Rifle Association (NRA) on the task force, not of the voters that place him into office.

Baxley himself doesn’t make the distinction, recently telling CNN, “I feel like I’m responding to my constituents when the NRA sits at the table with me.”

The NRA is no stranger to Florida politics. Since 1998, the NRA and pro-gun interests have donated almost $400,000 to Florida candidates and parties, largely to Republicans. In addition, the interest group has spent heavily on independent expenditures to elect favored candidates or defeat enemies. Over the 2008 and 2010 election cycles alone, the NRA spent nearly $1 million to influence Florida state races, including $35,000 in campaign spending to support Rep. Baxley in the 2008 election cycle, according to Mother Jones.

These figures may sound like small potatoes compared to the super PAC spending during this presidential election, but it’s real money in state races.

For Baxley’s part, he has pushed legislation backed by the NRA and developed a close relationship with the organization’s Florida lobbyist and board member, Marion Hammer. (Hammer is credited with exporting the Florida law through ALEC.) In fact, Baxley called her “a tremendous inspiration.” The group bestowed him with the “Defender of Freedom Award” in 2004.

Clearly, the money-in-politics problem is not confined to the gun lobby, nor is it confined to Florida. Nationwide, since the 1998 cycle, the NRA and gun interests have given at least $9.1 million directly to state-level candidates or parties.

At the federal level, it’s the same story. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the NRA and its employees have given $9.1 million to members of Congress, and spent a staggering $26.7 million on lobbying since the 1998 cycle. As for independent expenditures at the federal level, the organization spent more than $8 million in targeted federal races since 2009.

Just last week the money proved to be well spent. The U.S. House of Representatives, in an effort led by Republicans, voted to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not cooperating with an investigation into the “Fast and Furious” program. The NRA waded into the debate, urging House members to support the contempt measure.

So far this cycle, the NRA’s PAC has given $295,850 to House members, according to CRP. While many Democrats voted with their feet and protested the vote by walking off the House floor, the 17 Democrats who voted for the contempt measure have all taken NRA money.

So what does this mean for Tuesday’s hearing of Gov. Scott’s task force?

For starters, Floridians must trust that members of the task force are serving in the public interest of all of Florida, not just those who make campaign contributions or spend heavily to elect lawmakers.

What’s at stake truly is the public trust we are supposed to have in those we elect to pass laws. That public trust has been damaged by a campaign-finance system that resembles a cash-and-carry democracy more than one based on “one person, one vote.”

That is why a task force review of policies that purportedly are to protect citizens and promote safety ought not to stop at a review of the policies themselves. Citizens should be raising questions not just about what laws are passed but how they were passed.

It’s obvious to note that there are no super PACs for victims of “justifiable homicides.” Their voices deserve to be heard just as loudly as those with money. At some point, we ought to stand our ground for that.

David Donnelly is the executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates for changes in campaign finance laws.