It's big news when one of the largest corporations in the world changes its policy. And, today, the really big news is that Wal-Mart announced it was leaving the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been called "a corporate lobby masquerading as a charity."
The Center for Media and Democracy launched ALECexposed almost a year ago to shine a spotlight on ALEC. CMD's analysis and ongoing investigation have fueled hundreds of news articles and other reports exposing deeply troubling information about ALEC's operations and extreme agenda. And, CMD has served as a research engine that has helped empower hundreds of thousands of people to speak out against ALEC's agenda and activities. Through ALEC's task forces, corporate lobbyists are voting behind closed doors as equals with legislators on templates to change our laws.
That sunshine has illuminated not only ALEC's legally questionable claims that it "does not lobby," despite hard evidence to the contrary, but also the ways ALEC has been advancing the objectives of the gun industry's front group, the National Rifle Association (NRA). CMD has documented how just last year the NRA got ALEC's "Public Safety and Elections Task Force" to approve its "model" amendment to bar cities from banning machine guns, literally. CMD has also thoroughly debunked claims by Koch Industries that it has nothing to do with ALEC's gun agenda despite its long-time leadership and funding of ALEC, which has also promoted efforts to make it harder for Americans to vote and make it more difficult for Americans harmed by prescription medicine to hold drug manufacturers accountable, among other parts of the ALEC blueprint to rewrite Americans' rights.
Leaving ALEC Is the Right Thing to Do
The fact is that the decision of Wal-Mart to leave ALEC is not just the right thing to do, it's also a major defeat for the NRA and a major victory for public safety.
Because Wal-Mart is the largest retailer of firearms in the U.S., the NRA will probably try to punish the corporation for its decision to leave ALEC. But, the fact that Wal-Mart dumped ALEC underscores just how reckless the NRA's Shoot First/Stand Your Ground laws are. Because this ALEC "model" legislation actually makes our streets less safe by protecting vigilante wannabes, law enforcement leaders have opposed these laws in state after state even as ALEC legislative members advanced them. Per the NRA's wishlist, the bill also changes the legal rules to make it harder to prosecute people who shoot others and claim self-defense; the model bill even requires the victim's family to pay the killer's wages and attorney's fees if a civil jury does not unanimously find the shooter at fault, a finding made more difficult by the way the NRA got the laws rewritten.
The Shoot First/Stand Your Ground laws -- along with the NRA's recent effort to ensure that cities cannot ban machine guns -- show just how far outside of the mainstream the gun lobby has become.
Standing Up to the Gun Lobby and for Corporate Responsibility
Wal-Mart deserves credit for standing up to the bullying of the gun lobby, which it has courageously done before. In 2008, Wal-Mart adopted the "Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership," which was developed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The NRA attacked that voluntary agreement, which included a commitment by Wal-Mart to properly train employees, ensure strict controls on the inventory of guns in stores, and videotape sales of guns (that is, not exempt the gun department from the ubiquitous store cameras).
As CMD has documented, ALEC has also opposed voluntary agreements by gun retailers to act more responsibly. ALEC at the NRA's behest has even opposed free market negotiations by law enforcement to favor purchasing contracts with gun makers that adopt better codes of conduct for the manufacture and sale of guns.
This is not the only way ALEC has attacked the free market and legitimate, non-regulatory ways to hold the market and companies accountable through the power of the purse. For example, ALEC opposes socially responsible investment practices like those that helped end Apartheid in South Africa. And, ALEC's screeching apologists have even claimed that the public campaign to speak out about ALEC is (absurdly) an anti-free speech effort, in true Orwellian double-speak. Meanwhile, ALEC has pushed the widely discredited view that money is speech and corporate spending to influence elections should not be regulated or even disclosed.
Plenty of Good Reasons to Say Good-Bye to ALEC
Make no mistake, ALEC's agenda is extreme. That's why almost 75 ALEC public or private sector members have left ALEC. And that's why across the country, legislators are launching efforts to repeal Shoot First/Stand Your Ground laws, including states in the deep South such as Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama and North Carolina. Other states have also refused to pass the ALEC/NRA model bill in recent months, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska and Washington.
But it's not just ALEC's NRA agenda that's out of step. The way it operates raises legitimate questions about the legality of its activities. For example, it's difficult to believe that ALEC fully informed its corporate members that it was reporting to the IRS that it engaged in "0" lobbying -- literally zero -- even though open records requests by Common Cause as well as the Center for Media and Democracy, DBA Press, and other investigative reporters have turned up numerous emails from ALEC staff lobbying for bills.
And, it seems highly unlikely that ALEC informed its corporate members in advance that it was going to tell state ethics officials, such as in Wisconsin, that the income and expenses for its tax-exempt "scholarships" for legislators were being handled by ALEC, not by legislators, and that meanwhile ALEC was telling the IRS the opposite: that it gives no scholarships but that such funds were merely held in trust for legislators to handle and so need not be disclosed.
Accordingly, CMD has asked Wisconsin's ethics board to investigate this material contradiction in how ALEC scholarships have been explained to regulatory overseers. And, just this week the Minnesota ethics board announced it would investigate Common Cause's complaint about ALEC lobbying without complying with state law.
So, corporations actually have a lot of good reasons to get out of ALEC.
Wal-Mart Deserves Credit for this, amidst other Calls for Needed Reforms
Wal-Mart is the 18th corporation to distance itself from ALEC, and the 22nd private sector member to do so. Wal-Mart is also the fifth member of ALEC's corporate board to leave the organization in the wake of the controversies surrounding the group. Its departure follows the defection of 55 state legislators -- including both Republicans and Democrats -- who have said so long to ALEC, too. ALEC has attempted to deflect criticism and media attention by announcing it was disbanding the crime task force that has advanced the NRA's agenda, but the last legislative leader of that task force said the task force's work would continue through ALEC in other ways.
To be clear, progressive organizations and numerous consumers have raised an array of concerns with Wal-Mart's business practices that warrant attention and are part of ongoing conversations or negotiations. But Wal-Mart does deserve credit for breaking up with ALEC and for standing up to the NRA.
Lisa Graves is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (PRWatch.org and ALECexposed.org). She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice where she handled gun policy and was the Managing Editor of the National Integrated Firearms Violence Reduction Strategy. She also served as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, as Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts, and as an adjunct professor of law.