WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. President Barack Obama, saying “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” said Friday he’s considering a federal review of state and local laws including so-called Stand Your Ground statutes that may worsen dangerous confrontations.
Obama said the shooting death of Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida provoked “a lot of pain” among blacks because it reminded many of their own vulnerability to violence. “Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”
The president made his remarks in an unannounced appearance in the White House briefing room, where he spoke about the case for the first time since the shooter, George Zimmerman, was acquitted July 13 by a Florida jury. He said he wanted to talk about the context of the protests that have taken place since the verdict.
“It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a — and a history that — that doesn’t go away,” he said. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
Martin was shot in February 2012 by Zimmerman, who followed him and reported to police that the teenager was acting suspiciously. Martin was returning from a convenience store. Zimmerman, who was legally carrying a firearm, told police that when he got out of his truck he was confronted and punched by Martin, and shot him in self defense. He was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge.
Regarding the stand your ground law, Obama asked: If Martin were armed, could he have used a firearm to shoot Zimmerman first?
“Do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” Obama said. “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Obama’s remarks come three days after Attorney General Eric Holder questioned the intent and need for the Stand Your Ground laws that have been implemented in whole or part in at least 30 states.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Friday his Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on Stand Your Ground laws in September. The hearing will examine issues including the gun lobby’s role in promoting such laws, and whether the laws have encouraged unnecessary shooting confrontations, the senator said in a statement.
Such laws, and most law enforcement, are under the jurisdiction of state and local governments. The federal government is investigating possible criminal civil rights violations, which current and former Justice Department attorneys have said would be difficult to bring based on the evidence presented in the state case.
In addition to discussion about laws governing the use of force, Obama said the federal government can work with states on training programs that may help “reduce the kind of mistrust” that exists in the system. He said the nation needs to give greater attention to the situation of young black males, who he said are “painted with a broad brush.”
As the country’s first black president, Obama has frequently found himself in the center of the country’s thorniest racial issues.
As a candidate in 2008, he gave a speech on race that decried the “racial stalemate” the country has been “stuck in for years.”
He sparked a controversy during his first year in office when he declared on national television that the Cambridge Massachusetts police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Jr. He later calmed tensions by inviting Gates, the police officer for a “beer summit” on the Rose Garden patio.
When he first addressed the death of Trayvon Martin last year, he spoke passionately about the killed 17-year-old.
“If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” Obama said in March 2012. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
With assistance from Lisa Lerer and Phil Mattingly in Washington, D.C.
© 2013, Bloomberg News