The executive director of Gun Owners of America Larry Pratt has hit the airwaves with a rare defense of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old man who shot and killed unarmed African-American high school student Trayvon Martin. Prosecutors and law enforcement in Florida have cited Florida's "stand your ground" (aka "shoot first") law, which was conceived by the National Rifle Association and ratified by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Pratt is a former ALEC board member and notorious for racially-charged rhetoric.
Pratt's Ties to ALEC
Pratt's relationship with ALEC began in 1978, when ALEC began an effort to oppose a constitutional amendment giving the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress. That debate began shortly after the District obtained some independence from congressional management through "home-rule," which allowed American citizens in DC to elect a mayor, but left them subject to taxation without representation in Congress. The debate over allowing DC residents to elect senators was tainted with racist objections due to the large population of African-Americans in DC, and the likelihood that the District would vote for Democrats if accorded representation in Congress.
To help promote its opposition to the amendment, ALEC forged an alliance with Pratt's Gun Owners of America. At the 1979 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, ALEC and Pratt's Gun Owners of America announced a plan the two groups had developed to thwart ratification of the amendment, involving states sending formal resolutions of disapproval to the federal government. Pratt was clear about their interest in blocking the measure. "The amendment would bring in two senators who would probably be minority and would definitely be liberal on gun control," he said.
ALEC's relationship with Pratt and his Gun Owners of America apparently remained mutually beneficial.
Pratt was elected to the Virginia State Legislature in 1981 and soon took a leadership position in ALEC. He sat on ALEC's board even after he left the legislature, serving as its treasurer in at least 1983 and 1984 and 1985, and perhaps longer (the records from this period are incomplete beyond these specific documents).
Justifying Martin's Death
Fast forward to 2012. Pratt appeared on Cenk Uygur's Current TV show "The Young Turks" on March 23 to assert that Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin as he returned from a trip to 7-11 with a pack of Skittles.
Pratt branded 17-year-old Martin as "an aggressor," based on the account of an alleged eyewitness who would only identify himself as "John," and described Martin as having knocked down his attacker and Zimmerman acting in self-defense. Pratt said:
"Trayvon Martin gave up his rights and shifted from being a victim to being an aggressor -- after he knocked Zimmerman down, [and] he did not run away from that situation."
Uygur replied: "Funny how the kid with no gun is the one who, in your mind, gave up all his rights. But Zimmerman, the ... stalker who called the police 49 times [in many cases] on black males, called this guy a coon, chased him down with a gun -- he has all the rights in the world." Uygur also noted that no other witnesses corroborated "John's" account.
Pratt's assertions seem to be part of a wider right-wing effort to claim the mainstream media has been inaccurately covering the Trayvon Martin shooting, and to attack the dead victim who cannot speak for himself.
But the law that is apparently keeping Zimmerman out of jail for killing the unarmed Trayvon Martin was conceived by the NRA and adopted by ALEC as a "model" bill in 2005. As noted above, Pratt and his organization were affiliated with ALEC for almost two decades.
Pratt's Ties to White Supremacists
Pratt told the Washington Post that he bought his first gun in 1968 when "there were some racial difficulties" in Washington DC. "I heard on the radio that the police weren't sure they could control the rioters coming north on 16th Street, so I went out and bought a shotgun."
Pratt founded Gun Owners of America in 1975 with H.L. Richardson, a benefactor of the Religious Right. Described as "eight lanes to the right" of the National Rifle Association, GOA was one of the early "New Right" groups to focus their political activity on the state level, rather than just on national issues. The group became a major donor to state legislative races, and "put the fear of death into a lot of Democrats" when the group helped defeat several powerful Democratic incumbents in California in 1982. GOA's focus on the states meshed well with ALEC.
But Pratt and the GOA were involved in more than just state politics. In the early 1980s, Pratt and the Gun Owners of America were outspoken supporters of the white rulers in South Africa during apartheid, calling a press conference in 1984 to present "evidence" that allegedly tied Bishop Desmond Tutu to an effort to violently overthrow the white minority regime in the country. "Bishop Tutu's idea of Christianity, rather than one of bringing reconciliation of the divisions within South Africa is one that would welcome the extension of the atheist slave state from Russia to his own country," Pratt said. Bishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.
At the time, Pratt was on the ALEC board.
Also in 1984, while he sat on the ALEC board, Pratt and GOA presented a plaque to notorious El Salvador death squad leader Robert D'Aubuisson in 1984 for his "continuing efforts for freedom in the face of communist aggression which is an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere." D'Aubuisson, known as "Blowtorch Bob" for his use of a blowtorch to torture political opponents, also was involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
In 1990 Pratt wrote a book titled "Armed People Victorious" based on his study of death squads in Guatemala and the Philippines, and advocated for similar "citizen defense patrols" in the United States. The idea reportedly caught on in 1992, when Pratt addressed a three-day meeting of neo-Nazis and Christian Adherents organized by white supremacist Pete Peters. He shared the stage with a former Ku Klux Klan leader and an Aryan Nation official.
Pratt's lengthy ties to white supremacists forced him to step down from his role as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign, after his racist connections were publicized by the Center for Public Integrity and others.
Many ALEC Bills Disparately Impact People of Color
Given Pratt's history, ALEC may wish to further distance itself from the Gun Owners of America director. But bills more recently approved at the behest of the NRA or with the NRA in a leadership role on ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force have been shown to have a racially disparate impact.
CMD has reported on how the corporations and state legislators on the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force in 2005 approved the NRA-sponsored "Castle Doctrine Act" as an ALEC model, which was then introduced in statehouses across the country (and has been cited to allow Trayvon Martin's killer to walk free). The ALEC model bill expands the common-law castle doctrine beyond the home to give criminal and civil immunity to a person who uses deadly force "anywhere they have a right to be," whenever they believe themselves to feel threatened.
As appears to have been the case with Trayvon Martin in Florida and Bo Morrison in Wisconsin, this opens the door for people who find young black men "threatening" to respond to that perceived threat with deadly force. Because the law goes beyond creating a mere defense against conviction (which already exists under long-standing American legal traditions), and instead establishes a presumption of innocence, in situations where there are few eyewitnesses other than the alleged killer and the person who is killed (as was the situation in the deaths of Martin and Morrison), the presumption of immunity can be very difficult to rebut.
As CMD has also noted, where the ALEC "Castle Doctrine Act" opens the door for racial bias to be protected under the criminal justice system, the ALEC model "Voter ID Act" may sanction racial prejudice in the electoral system. 34 states introduced bills containing elements of the ALEC Voter ID Act in 2011. A study from the Brennan Center found that approximately 5 million people do not have the state-issued IDs the ALEC model requires to cast a ballot, many of whom are people of color.
The racial impact of these bills and others approved by the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force over the years are perhaps less surprising given ALEC's past history of working closely with GOA and Larry Pratt.