In early October, a Florida state senator introduced legislation to repeal the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law allowing individuals to use deadly force in self-defense outside their homes. Florida was the first state to enact such a measure, and in the 18 years since its passage, studies have shown that more Floridians are dying because of it.
“The data is clear: homicide rates and gun deaths are higher where these discriminatory, dangerous policies are on the books,” Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-34), the bill’s sponsor, told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).
What’s less widely known is the pivotal role the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has played in ensuring the widespread adoption of such laws.
Since its founding 50 years ago, ALEC has brought together Republican state legislators and corporate donors to draft model legislation repealing labor protections, rolling back environmental regulations, and encouraging the privatization of education. Yet one of ALEC’s ugliest efforts has been its collaboration with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to legalize an individual’s right to shoot to kill in public — the bloody legacy of its Stand Your Ground model legislation.
From Castle Doctrine to Stand Your Ground
Stand Your Ground laws are an expansion of what’s known as the “Castle Doctrine,” the common law principle that people are entitled to defend their own homes, even with lethal force. While the Castle Doctrine is legally upheld in most jurisdictions, applying that same principle to public spaces is more controversial. Individuals in states that have not passed Stand Your Ground laws are generally obligated to retreat from a public danger or threat — real or perceived — as long as they’re able to do so, whereas in states with these laws people are allowed to use force to meet the threat.
“A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force,” the 2005 Florida statute reads, “does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground” as long as that person is in a public place and is not engaged in any criminal activity.
Applauded by the NRA and ALEC, the law has proven to be a game changer, enabling people to use deadly force in public with impunity.
Former NRA president and lobbyist Marion Hammer conceived of that first bill and worked with two Florida legislators who were members of ALEC at the time, State Sen. Durell Peaden and Rep. Dennis Baxley, to get it passed. Baxley, a far-right legislator who is a member of a neo-Confederate organization, had won the NRA’s Defender of Freedom award the year before. “Disorder and chaos are always held in check by the law-abiding citizen,” he said when the bill passed.
The NRA considered the legislation as the “first step of a multi-state strategy,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told a reporter for TheWashington Post. And ALEC was the perfect front group to execute that strategy.
Shortly after Stand Your Ground was signed into law in Florida, Hammer proposed that ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force adopt it as a model bill. A month later, ALEC’s board approved it. Since then, the language of ALEC’s model legislation — misleadingly dubbed the “Castle Doctrine Act” — has been incorporated into law in 29 more states, with some adopting especially broad versions of the legislation.
Stand Your Ground proponents like the NRA and Rep. Baxley claimed that these bills would reduce violent crime and make citizens feel safer. Yet countless lives have been lost due to the lethal force they permit. A study published last year in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association found a significant increase in homicides in states with Stand Your Ground laws. An earlier study found that in Florida alone, the rates of homicide increased 24% and gun-related homicide increased 32% between 2005 and 2014. A meta review of 16 previous studies on the impact of Stand Your Ground also concluded that these laws lead to increased rates of homicide, especially due to deadly gun violence.
The American Bar Association called for the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws in a 2015 report, noting that they are racially biased and provide “a low-cost license to kill.”
The Two Faces of ALEC
In the wake of George Zimmerman’s murder of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, the tides appeared to turn against ALEC and its legislation supporting gun violence. Given the state’s Stand Your Ground law, Florida police had refused to make an arrest, spurring national outrage. At the time, research by CMD traced the bills back to ALEC and the NRA. When the civil rights group Color of Change called for a corporate boycott of ALEC, multiple corporations — including Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo — pulled out from the organization. In a statement, ALEC called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and attempted to distance itself from the Florida legislation.
Yet when ALEC announced that it would disband its Public Safety and Elections Task Force in 2012 (formerly the Criminal Justice Task Force) — which had shaped Florida’s law into a cookie-cutter Stand Your Ground model bill — the chair of the task force made quiet assurances that the work would continue through other channels. “ALEC’s decision won’t impact the important issues we’ve worked on,” former Texas State Rep. Jerry Madden told The Christian Post. Since 2012, Stand Your Ground laws have continued to surface across the country.
ALEC has never repudiated its support for Stand Your Ground laws or pushed to undo any of the legislation. And as recently as 2021, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson assured concerned members that although the organization no longer explicitly pursues social policies, it’s able to push its agenda through other means.
Justice Delayed, Justice Denied
Just 80 miles north of the luxury hotel in Orlando where ALEC held its 50th annual meeting, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law came into national focus again in June when Susan Lorincz, a 58-year-old white woman, shot and killed her 35-year-old Black neighbor, A.J. Owens, through Lorincz’s closed front door. She later admitted to having used racial slurs in verbally harassing Owens’ four children.
Although Lorincz was inside her home when she killed Owens, the local sheriff cited the state’s Stand Your Ground law as a reason to hesitate making an immediate arrest. “We have to rule out…whether this deadly force was justified or not before we can even make the arrest,” Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods told the press on June 5.
What makes Stand Your Ground laws especially insidious is that they flip the burden of proof. “Now police and prosecutors must prove a negative — that a shooter was not in fear for their life — to even bring a case,” Reveal reported. “According to legal experts, that’s an almost impossible standard to meet, meaning that many shooters won’t face charges for crimes as serious as murder.”
“‘Stand Your Ground’ laws threaten public safety, encourage armed vigilantism, and promote a culture of ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’” Sen. Jones told CMD.
“The National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council have a stranglehold on Republican lawmakers here in Florida and across the country,” he continued. “These entities have traded campaign checks in exchange for fealty from legislators, and as a result, our communities are less safe.”
Lisa Graves and Arn Pearson contributed to this article.