In the coming months, state legislators are likely to find a bill crossing their desks that requires law enforcement agencies to auction guns confiscated in crimes rather than destroy them, as many do now.
The proposal is the brainchild of the National Rifle Association, and it was adopted last week by a task force at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Republican-leaning policy group that brings together state lawmakers, advocacy groups and corporations to write model legislation.
The gun bill, which was passed 12 years ago in Kentucky and recently championed by the NRA in nearby states, provides an example of how a law in one state can be taken up by an interest group, passed on through ALEC and spread across the country to create quasi-national policy and momentum for an issue that eventually could emerge in Congress.
“ALEC has, for the last 40 years, been incredibly influential in advancing pro-corporate legislation in the states,” said Douglas Clopp, deputy director for programs at Common Cause, a Washington-based policy group that works to reduce the influence of money in politics.
“Given the results of the 2010 midterm elections, many states are now one-party controlled, Republican legislatures. Once ALEC model legislation is introduced, there is really no opposition, and little public debate, before the legislation is enacted as law,” Clopp said.
Iowa state Representative Linda Upmeyer, a Republican who sits on ALEC’s board, disputes that. After an ALEC-drafted model bill is introduced in the state legislatures, it still has to be debated before it becomes law. “It goes through committees and subcommittees and hearings,” she said. “There is no voice getting shut out of the process.”
ALEC takes credit for the similarly-worded laws or proposals aimed at curbing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit carbon emissions and block implementation of President Barack Obama’s health-care law that were acted upon in state legislatures earlier this year.
The gun seizure bill was one of several proposals approved at ALEC’s 38th annual meeting in New Orleans last week. ALEC doesn’t make its model legislation public. Bloomberg obtained meeting agendas and copies of ALEC model bills from people who attended the sessions.
The model legislation was drafted and approved by ALEC’s public safety task force, which included representatives from stun-gun maker Taser International Inc., energy conglomerate Koch Industries, the American Bail Coalition, and the NRA, according to ALEC documents. Corporate and special interest group members seeking to serve on task forces charged with writing legislative language can pay as much as $35,000 or more to get a seat at the table, according to ALEC’s web site.
“This is a really great way for police to get money and for people to get firearms,” said Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the NRA. She said the law takes weapons out of the hands of criminals and gives them to law-abiding citizens.
The Fraternal Order of Police, an association of 335,000 police officers, isn’t a member of ALEC and wasn’t at the table when the NRA’s proposal was discussed, said James Pasco, executive director of the group’s legislative center.
Pasco said the FOP would prefer to allow police departments to choose whether to sell, use or destroy seized guns based on their needs rather than having disposal mandated by the state.
“For a variety of reasons, we’re not really communicating very well with Republican state legislators right now,” he said, referring to the FOP’s effort to defeat or rollback new state laws that reduce or eliminate their members collective bargaining rights. ALEC didn’t draft those laws, according to Raegan Weber, the group’s spokeswoman.
The legislative drafting procedure at Washington-based ALEC is drawing criticism from Democrats, government ethics groups and some Republicans, who say it allows special interests an unfair advantage.
“It’s such an insidious thing that they’ve gotten together here,” said Brett Bonin, a Republican who serves on the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana and is opposed to some ALEC model legislation on education.
“They present these bills in their statehouses cleansed of the fact that they were pre-approved by corporations,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a Democratic-leaning, Washington-based group that tracks news sources.
The effort to pass the gun seizure bill began more than a decade ago.
Kentucky state Representative Robert Damron, a Democrat and ALEC member, in 1998 proposed the bill to stop police departments from destroying guns seized in crimes and instead require that they be auctioned. Damron represented a rural area where local police officers were looking to upgrade their body armor and other equipment.
Under his law, local police are required to turn over confiscated weapons to the state police within a month and they are auctioned to licensed gun dealers. The money generated from those sales is deposited into a fund to buy more police gear.
“I had police coming to me and saying, ‘I’m destroying better guns than what my officers have in their holsters,’” Damron said in an interview.
Opposition to the measure came from police departments in Louisville and Lexington, which dealt with more street crime than their rural counterparts and didn’t want to put seized guns back in circulation.
“We have a city that’s saturated with firearms and we’ve had way too many deaths by firearms,” said Kentucky state Representative Jim Wayne, a fellow Democrat who represents Louisville. “We don’t need any more guns on the street.”
The bill passed, and NRA representatives visited Damron to check on how the law was working. Damron informed them it was working well. His relationship with ALEC was deteriorating, though, and he ultimately stopped attending their meetings.
ALEC has “become, in the last few years, so partisan,” Damron said. “The last meeting I went to, they spent all their time bashing Democrats. I don’t particularly care for an organization that’s so partisan.”
With success in Kentucky, the NRA went to neighboring Tennessee and encouraged former state Representative Douglas Jackson, a Democrat who doesn’t belong to ALEC, to propose a similar bill. It was approved in 2010. The new Tennessee law differed from Kentucky’s in that it allows the police departments to keep the guns for their own use.
A similar measure was passed in Alaska and proposed this year in Alabama, where it became ensnared in a broader partisan power struggle and didn’t pass.
The NRA, through ALEC’s online legislative library, can make the model bill available to state lawmakers across the country with just a few clicks on the Internet.
ALEC, which has been in existence for almost 40 years, is drawing more attention because of its growth and the rise of Republican state House and Senate legislators who can advance its model bills.
In last November’s election, Republicans won from Democrats more than 675 state legislative seats, and now control both chambers in 26 states’ legislatures, up from 14 before the election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
ALEC’s legislator membership topped 2,000 for the first time in June, and the number of corporate sponsors of its annual meeting increased to 82 from 46 in 2010. Attendance at the annual meeting was about 25 percent higher this year than last, according to Weber.
Upmeyer dismissed accusations of being too cozy with corporate and special interests. “These are the same people that are in my state,” the Iowa lawmaker said. She meets with constituents, interest groups and business lobbyists every day when her state’s legislature is in session. “This is not very different in my mind,” she said.