Dick Durbin Lets His Inner Joe McCarthy Out

Stand Your Ground laws are still in the news as debate has raged over how heavily these types of laws were involved in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The truth is that they were not involved at all in this particular case, and in fact weren't brought up in trial, but some members of Congress are thinking with their reelection drive instead of their heads. (In fairness, a juror did comment later that Stand Your Ground laws influenced her decision to acquit, but such laws were never invoked by the prosecution or defense.)

A proud leader of this migsuided group is Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin holds what is traditionally seen as the second highest leadership position in the Senate, just under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Sen. Durbin's targets are the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and the NRA. He has accused them of spreading Stand Your Ground laws across the country which have done harm to the judicial process and lead to greater gun violence. He has announced his intent to hold Senate hearings on both organizations this fall.

Sen. Durbin does have one fact straight: Both the NRA and ALEC have advocated for Stand Your Ground laws, which appear in two dozen states. Thirty-eight states in total have a Stand Your Ground law or a Castle Doctrine, the latter of which dictates that one has no duty to retreat in a physical confrontation or on one's property. ALEC has made public that they no longer directly back legislation involving Stand Your Ground laws, but that hasn't taken them off the list for the latest witch hunt.

So far, Durbin has displayed a willful ignorance of facts, a vindictive and misguided sense of justice, and careless abuse of his position, but he hasn't violated the Constitution or truly broken any laws by promising to hold hearings. His lawbreaking came slightly later, when he sent out a message to 300 companies that may or may not have contributed to ALEC in the past, questioning their involvement and funding during those years: “I write to seek information regarding your company’s position on ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation that was adopted as a national model by an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)...I am seeking clarification whether companies that have funded ALEC’s operations in the past currently support ALEC and the model 'Stand Your Ground' legislation.” 

It's not exactly McCarthy's "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party," but it's a bit too close for many many corporations' liking. The Goldwater Institute fired back a charged letter that began with the phrase, "Have you no decency?" This was the famous phrase used by Joseph Welch in response to McCarthy's witch hunt.

Several other business or nonprofit organizations have written scathing letters to major newspapers directed at Durbin that show the questioned are not going to easily submit to the interrogator. Cato Institute CEO John Allison writes, "Your letter represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances...your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion. We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes."

In case these attacks weren't enough, over 300 legislators have signed a letter addressed to Sen. Durbin expressing their discontent and anger at Durbin's decisions. The entire situation smacks of the Red Scare, where blacklisted professionals never found work due to their beliefs, or where businesses were persecuted in violation of the First Amendment over which candidates they supported

Senator Durbin is ready to break out the pitchforks and the flaming torches and go to work in Washington, scaring people away from ALEC so he can dismember it on the witness stand, but Americans have learned a few lessons since the Red Scare in the 1950s: Your beliefs are your own and you can't be persecuted for them based on an arbitrary morality established by a few elected representatives.

Hopefully the American people, regardless of their stance on Stand Your Ground laws or gun violence, can recognize and reject these unconstitutional tactics and can fight the political equivalent of a playground bully.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Max Conger

Max is a 1L student at the University of Missouri School of Law. The only topic he can discuss with authority is firearms, so expect to hear a lot of that from him.

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