In his campaign for Senate, Republican front-runner Dan Sullivan touts his history of protecting Second Amendment rights in the hunting-loving state of Alaska.
But a recent pro-Sullivan ad might have stretched the rifle and pistol expert’s record a little too far.
"As Alaska’s attorney general, Sullivan successfully fought to protect our Second Amendment rights and passed ‘stand your ground,’ " said a recent radio ad out of the Sullivan campaign.
In 2013, the Alaska Legislature passed a "stand your ground" law, which typically allows a person to use deadly force if they believe they face an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. More than 20 states have such laws. "Stand your ground" became a hot topic following George Zimmerman’s acquittal, after he claimed self-defense in his 2013 trial for killing Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
But Sullivan’s opponents -- Democrat and Republican -- have challenged his record, saying "stand your ground" legislation in Alaska wasn’t his doing. He’s running against incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and, on the Republican side, tea partier Joe Miller and Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. We decided to sort this out.
"Stand your ground" was first introduced in the Alaska Legislature in 2010. At the time, Sullivan served as the state’s attorney general, heading an office that reviews every law moving through the Legislature.
The original "stand your ground" bill failed to pass. A second iteration of the bill appeared and failed in 2011.
Sullivan left the attorney general’s office to become the commissioner of natural resources at the end of 2010 -- long before a final version of the bill passed in 2013. So even though "stand your ground" first appeared in the Alaska Legislature when Sullivan was in a position to put his support behind it, it wasn’t successful until he had moved on to other positions.
We came across one indication of Sullivan and the attorney general office’s position on "stand your ground," but it doesn’t help his case. His office sent a letter in March 2010 that attacks the heart of "stand your ground" law.
The letter uses strong language and primarily takes issue with the fact that the law would remove the then-existing "duty to retreat." "Duty to retreat" means that if a person believes that they are in imminent danger of death or severe bodily harm, but there is a safe way for them to get away, they are expected to retreat without assaulting or killing the person threatening them.
"Whatever source one thinks our laws should be drawn from -- the 10 commandments which say 'thou shalt not kill,' simple morality, utilitarianism principles of the greater good or simply the concept that life is sacred -- this bill would encourage the needless taking of human life," the letter reads.
Although the letter seems to make Sullivan’s position fairly clear, he now has a twofold defense:
First, his campaign says the letter took issue with the bill’s complexity, rather than "stand your ground" laws in general. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
When we read the letter, we found that nearly half of it criticized the bill for nearly eliminating the duty to retreat -- contradicting the core of "stand your ground," according to some experts. "Duty to retreat" and "stand your ground" laws cannot coexist, as the names suggest.
"Someone who opposes a self-defense statute that provides that there’s no ‘duty to retreat’ is also against a typical ‘stand your ground’ statute," said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
To be fair, we also found that the letter brings up problems with specific language and lack of clarity, and it never says outright that the Legislature should abandon its efforts to pass "stand your ground." But it does say that the bill "would promote violence and be a bad idea for (Alaska)."
Second, Sullivan says he did not pen or approve of the letter even though his name is included in the signature. (A then-assistant attorney general John Skidmore wrote it.) Sullivan’s name was included on any piece of paper that left his office -- even if he didn’t see it first.
There are nearly 200 assistant attorneys general, and a lot of legislation passes through that office, so it is conceivable that he wasn’t aware that the letter was going out, said Cori Mills, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law.
However, Skidmore wasn’t the only assistant attorney general who had problems with the bill. About two weeks later -- after some tweaks had been made in response to the letter -- three other assistant attorney generals (all from different divisions) gave similar complaints on behalf of the Department of Law at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
The updated version made "a bad bill better," said then-Assistant Attorney General Anne Carpeneti.
We asked Sullivan’s campaign to point to any public statement showing his support for the law. They could only provide this letter from state Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake. The undated letter briefly mentions the attorney general’s office as supportive of the 2010 bill -- despite the obvious lingering complaints expressed at the hearing.
The language in the final bill hasn’t changed since 2010, and the final bill still eliminated the duty to retreat in most circumstances.
A recent radio ad said, "As Alaska’s Attorney General, Sullivan successfully fought to protect our Second Amendment rights and passed ‘stand your ground.’ "
We found that evidence of Sullivan’s support for "stand your ground" is dubious at best. We couldn’t find any public proof of his support, and multiple attorneys under him spoke out against the law. Even if he had publicly shown support for "stand your ground," he wasn’t in a position to push the legislation forward when the law finally passed in 2013.
We rate this claim False.