Stand-your-ground laws, which allow a person who believes he or she is in danger to use deadly force in self-defence, "sow dangerous conflict" and need to be reassessed, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in assailing the statutes that exist in many states.
Holder said he was concerned about the Trayvon Martin slaying case in which Florida's stand-your-ground law played a part.
"It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow conflict in our neighborhoods," Holder said.
George Zimmerman was acquitted over the weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin's 2012 death in Sanford, Florida.
Holder said the Justice Department has an open investigation into what he called the "tragic, unnecessary shooting death" of the unarmed Miami 17-year-old.
On Monday, Holder urged Americans to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. A day later, the message seemed to shift from the Zimmerman case to the debate over stand-your-ground.
"There has always been a legal defence for using deadly force if no safe retreat is available," Holder told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the group’s annual general meeting in Orlando, Florida on July 16.
The country must take a hard look at laws that contribute to "more violence than they prevent," Holder said during his speech at the NAACP convention, which took place about 30 kilometres from the courthouse where Zimmerman was acquitted three days earlier.
Martin's shooting has drawn attention to Florida's stand-your-ground law, which permits a person to use deadly force without having to first look for an escape if he or she is attacked in a place he or she has a right to be in.
More than half the states in the U.S. have a version of the stand-your-ground law known as the Castle Doctrine, which permits use of force to defend one’s home against an intruder.
Florida, along with 15 other states extend the right to not back down beyond the home.
"Stand-your-ground laws license vigilantism and we should all worry about that," said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous after Holder's speech.
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.
Though stand-your-ground was never raised during the trial, Judge Debra Nelson included a provision about the law in the instructions that allowed jurors to consider it as a legitimate defence.
The defence in Zimmerman’s case skipped a chance to ask the neighbourhood watch volunteer to submit to a stand-your-ground hearing before the trial. If the judge had decided there was enough evidence that Zimmerman acted in self-defence, she could have tossed out the case before a jury heard it.
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.
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Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has been one of the most vocal champions of a federal investigation, acknowledged Tuesday there are possible legal hurdles. Still, he said "there is also a blatant civil rights question of: Do the Trayvon Martins of this country have the civil right to go home."
Martin was on his way back to his father's fiancee's house after going to a store when Zimmerman saw him and followed him.
Saturday's acquittal has inspired protests throughout the U.S. Most have been peaceful, although vandalism and violence happened in Los Angeles.
Dozens of protesters carrying signs demanding justice for Martin crammed into the lobby of Florida Governor Rick Scott's office Tuesday and refused to leave until he addressed the state's stand-your-ground law. Many planned to spend the night in the Capitol building.