July 16 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the nation’s largest civil rights group, said it’s time to “take a hard look” at state laws that allow individuals who feel threatened to respond with deadly force.
Addressing an issue that gained prominence with the killing of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot by George Zimmerman in February 2012, Holder said laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhood.”
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder said today at the NAACP’s national convention in Orlando, Florida. “We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.”
Holder’s remarks marked the first time he has spoken on the issue. They come just days after Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted of state second-degree murder charges by a jury in Sanford, Florida.
Holder now adds a high-level federal voice to the effort being pushed by civil rights groups around the country to roll back state laws that allow for individuals wide latitude to respond with force when they are threatened in a public place.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law enables individuals to “meet force with force,” rather than back away. While Zimmerman’s attorneys didn’t cite the law in their defense arguments, local officials said it prevented police from arresting Zimmerman immediately after the shooting because he said he shot Martin in self-defense.
Holder stopped short of pushing for any specific action, federal or otherwise, to challenge the laws. More than 30 states have enacted laws that implement some form of Stand Your Ground legal protection for those who respond with deadly force to threatening situations.
Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, said he and other civil rights leaders will gather next week in Florida for three days to plot a strategy to push back against the laws, which he said endangered more people than they saved.
“As long as Stand Your Ground is on the books, we will continue to have the potential for other Trayvon Martins all across this country,” Sharpton told reporters in front of the Justice Department.
Sharpton and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are among those who have called on Holder’s department to bring federal civil-rights charges against Zimmerman. An NAACP petition asking the Justice Department to file charges in the case has reached more than a million signatures, the group said today.
“The law says you must be able to show that race was a factor and that bodily harm was done,” Benjamin Jealous, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said today in a statement. “We believe there is enough evidence to satisfy this standard.”
Jealous, speaking after Holder’s speech to the convention, said his organization would begin pressuring state legislatures on Stand Your Ground laws, saying they “license vigilantism” and need to be repealed.
Current and former Justice Department attorneys in the civil rights division, the group conducting the investigation, have said charges may be difficult to bring in the Martin case due to limitations in federal civil rights statutes, as well its policies on federal prosecutions following a state trial.
Holder said today that a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting initiated last year is continuing.
“While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take,” Holder said.
Holder’s speech marks the second time in as many days he has publicly addressed the verdict in the Sanford, Florida shooting. He again called for it to spark a conversation “about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.”
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