Holder: It's Time To Examine 'Stand Your Ground' Laws

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was speaking at the NAACP's annual convention in Orlando, Fla., a short distance from where unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed last year. More than two dozen states have laws that allow people to use deadly force to defend themselves if they believe they are under attack.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Attorney General Eric Holder says it is time to take a hard look at so-called Stand Your Ground laws. These are laws that allow people to use deadly force to defend themselves, if they believe they're under attack. Holder delivered that call to action yesterday in a speech to the NAACP in Orlando, Fla., a short distance away from where unarmed, black teen Trayvon Martin was shot and killed last year. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The country's first black attorney general is under pressure from the NAACP and other civil rights groups, to bring a federal hate-crime case against George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin and was acquitted on state charges. Eric Holder didn't want to talk much about the status of that investigation, but he did make this new observation to the audience in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAACP SPEECH)

ERIC HOLDER: Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON: Florida's Stand Your Ground law passed in 2005 and since then, more than two dozen other states have passed their own versions. It's a dangerous trend, Holder said.

HOLDER: By allowing - and perhaps encouraging - violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent.

JOHNSON: Defenders of Stand Your Ground laws say they're associated with a drop in violent crime rates, but an urban institute researcher says the laws contribute to inequality in the justice system, and produce many more findings of justifiable homicide when whites take aim at black people. The attorney general told the audience at the NAACP convention that he's had personal experience with racial profiling: getting stopped twice on the New Jersey turnpike when he was going the speed limit, and this incident...

HOLDER: Well, when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to catch a movie at night, in Georgetown - in Washington D.C. I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor.

(GASPS FROM AUDIENCE)

JOHNSON: The Martin killing spurred Holder to have a tough conversation last year with his own teenage boy about what to do if he's ever stopped in public.

HOLDER: This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. I am his father, and it is my responsibility not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world that he must still confront.

JOHNSON: The attorney general traced the long history of the NAACP and the struggle at the ballot box. And he called a recent Supreme Court ruling that tore out a key part of the Voting Rights Act, a disappointing and flawed decision. Holder said he directed civil rights lawyers at the Justice Department to enforce parts of that law still on the books; and he urged Congress to take steps to make sure every eligible American has equal access at the polls.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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