Laws like "Stand Your Ground" undermine the safety of innocent Americans "by allowing - and perhaps encouraging - violent situations to escalate in public," Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday afternoon, three days after George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager spurred civil rights protests across the United States.
Delivering remarks to the NAACP's annual conference in Orlando - 30-something miles from where Zimmerman, claiming "self-defense," fatally shot Trayvon Martin - Holder acknowledged that "as passionate civil rights leaders, as engaged citizens and, most of all, as parents," his audience members remained "deeply - and rightly - concerned about this case."
A Florida jury's ruling Saturday that found Zimmerman not guilty of state
charges has rallied civil rights groups to call on the Justice Department to act. While reiterating President Obama's statement following the verdict that "we are a nation of laws, and the jury has spoken," Holder assured that his team will consider "all available information" in the teen's "tragic and unnecessary" death to determine whether to pursue federal criminal charges against Zimmerman.
"Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention," though, Holder said, "it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods."
Holder continued to raucous applause: "It is our collective obligation - 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." Though Zimmerman's defense did not use Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law in trial, Sanford, Fla., police cited it as a reason the community watch captain was not immediately arrested.
"These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if - and the 'if' is important - no safe retreat is available," he continued. But, he argued: "The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent."
Calling back to a conversation with his father when he was a child about how a "young black man" should conduct himself if ever authorities treated him in a way that was unwarranted, Holder said he's "sure my father felt certain - at the time - that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children." Alas, he lamented, Martin's death "caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me."
Last year, the president called Martin's death a "tragedy" and remarked: "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Holder said "as important as it was" to have a conversation with his own son, he remains "determined to do everything in my power to ensure that... isn't the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events."
Another hot-button topic in the news that's reason for Americans to engage in "respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality," Holder transitioned, is the Supreme Court's decision last month to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling having weakened a tool the federal government has used for nearly five decades to block discriminatory voting laws, Holder vowed - "so long as I have the privilege of serving as attorney general" - to uphold the right to vote for all Americans.
"Let me be clear: this was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision," he said. "It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights - and, like all of you, I strongly disagree with the Court's action."
The section deemed unconstitutional provides the formula for determining which states must have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department's civil rights division or the D.C. federal court. Nine states are required to get pre-clearance, as are certain jurisdictions in seven other states.
"It is clear that our work is anything but complete; our cause is not yet fulfilled. And, for all the progress we've made over the last 104 years - our nation's journey along the road to equality and opportunity is far from over," Holder drove home.
"Let us pledge that we will honor heroes like Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Vivian Malone - and so many others who have struggled, sacrificed, and died for the freedoms we now enjoy - by zealously guarding the progress they achieved, and matching their contributions with our own."