ORLANDO — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged NAACP members convening in Orlando on Tuesday to help overturn "stand your-ground'' laws that "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense."
Rather than prevent violence, Holder said, laws such as Florida's can encourage it.
"We must stand our ground," Holder said to loud applause, "to ensure our laws reduce violence."
Holder said his office is examining all available evidence before deciding whether to pursue charges against neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, but he gave no indication of a possible timetable.
He told NAACP members attending the group's 104th annual convention to peacefully confront "the unfortunate stereotypes" that sometimes lead to police suspicion and private misjudgment. Holder praised the relatively peaceful reaction to Saturday's acquittal of Zimmerman and the dignity of Martin's parents.
But he also recounted the personal incidents of racial profiling he had faced as a young man, including being stopped on the New Jersey turnpike for no reason and being questioned by an officer one night while running to catch a movie in Washington's trendy Georgetown district.
"I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor," Holder noted.
In a rare public disclosure, Holder also shared how, when he was a teen, his father had instructed him on how to conduct himself if he were ever stopped by the police — and how Holder found himself having the same talk with his own 15-year-old son after Martin's death.
"I am sure that my father felt certain that his generation was the last that would have to worry about such things for their children," Holder said.
Stand your ground laws that allow a person who believes he is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense "sow dangerous conflict" and need to be reassessed, Holder said.
Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday night of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin's death Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford. Holder said the Justice Department has an open investigation into what he called Monday the "tragic, unnecessary shooting death" of the unarmed Miami 17-year-old.
On Monday, Holder urged the nation to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. A day later, he seemed to shift away from the specific case to one of those issues — the debate over stand your ground.
The country must take a hard look at laws that contribute to "more violence than they prevent," Holder said. Such laws "try to fix something that was never broken," he said.
Martin's shooting shined a light on Florida's stand your ground law.
Before Florida enacted stand your ground in 2005, people could not use deadly force to defend themselves if it was reasonably possible to retreat.
The stand your ground law says a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground'' if he or she thinks deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony like robbery.
Sanford's police chief cited the law as his reason for not initially arresting Zimmerman in February 2012. Zimmerman told police Martin was beating him up during the confrontation and that he feared he would be killed.
Holder on Tuesday only briefly touched on a possible federal civil rights case being brought against Zimmerman. Legal experts say such a case would be a difficult challenge. Prosecutors would have to prove that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animosity to kill Martin.
Despite the challenges of bringing a federal civil rights case, some NAACP members said they wanted swift action.
Tony Hickerson, an NAACP member from Seattle, said he would be disappointed if he doesn't see the Justice Department taking action within a month.
"I heard what he (Holder) said, and I don't question his sincerity, but I'd like to see swift action in this case, and I haven't seen that yet," said Hickerson. "His words were eloquent but I need to see some action before I get enthusiastic."
Information from the Orlando Sentinel and Associated Press was used in this report.