President Barack Obama answers a reporter's  question about the death of Trayvon Martin, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, March 23, 2012.
President Barack Obama answers a reporter's question about the death of Trayvon Martin, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, March 23, 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama has commented publicly for the first time about the shooting death last month of an unarmed African-American teenager in the state of Florida.  The incident has stirred racial tensions and sparked new national debate over racial attitudes. 

Until Friday, President Obama had not spoken publicly about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he acted in self-defense.

That changed at the end of a White House Rose Garden event in which Obama announced his nominee to head the World Bank.

Obama noted that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the shooting in an Orlando, Florida suburb, saying he wanted to avoid impairing the probe.


But he called the incident a tragedy, saying it should cause Americans to ask questions and expect a thorough examination of every aspect of what occurred.

"I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen," said the president.  "And that means we examine the laws, and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident."

Undated handout photo released by the Martin famil
Undated handout photo released by the Martin family public relations representative shows 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Obama said when he thinks about Trayvon Martin, he thinks about his children. "If I had a son he would look like Trayvon [Martin]," he said. "And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."

A 28-year-old man, George Zimmerman, who in media reports has been identified as white and Hispanic, has not been arrested or charged.  Police say he told them he was attacked by Martin.

Martin's family members say that if Zimmerman were African-American he would have been arrested and jailed even if claiming self-defense in such a shooting.

A Florida grand jury is scheduled to meet April 10 to consider evidence.

'Stand Your Ground Law'

President Obama did not respond to a specific part of a reporter's question involving what is called a "Stand Your Ground Law" in Florida.  

Such laws have been enacted in various forms in 21 states.  They expand the right of persons to claim self-defense if they use deadly force against a threat beyond the confines of the home. 

U.S. lawmakers are urging a thorough investigation.   

Sheila Jackson Lee is a Texas Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus.  Mitch McConnell is the Republican minority leader in the Senate.

LEE: "We are not going to let this rest until we find some relief and rest for this family."

MCCONNELL: "Well it was an incredible tragedy of huge proportions and I am glad it is being investigated, and we will take a look at it as the investigation moves along."

The Florida incident has sparked demonstrations, attended by prominent civil rights leaders, and new national debate about racial attitudes and racial profiling.

As of Friday, an online petition by Martin's family calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman had at least 1.5 million signatures.