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It’s time to search our soul, Obama tells US after shooting of black teen

Protests sweep America as President calls for inquiry into Florida killing of unarmed youth

Barack Obama has stepped into the growing controversy over the death of Trayvon Martin, telling a news conference that America has some "soul searching" to do over the killing of the unarmed black teenager.

The President, who previously described Trayvon's death as a "local issue," said yesterday that he empathised with the parents of the boy, who was shot last month by a neighbourhood vigilante in suburban Florida.

"When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids," he told reporters at the White House yesterday morning. "If I had a son he'd look like Trayvon. They are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."

Mr Obama's decision to speak out about Trayvon's killing, in such personal terms, represents a calculated gamble. Although the case has sparked international outrage, it also risks widening racial divides in an election year.

Trayvon, who was 17 and had no criminal record, was shot on 26 March as he walked from a convenience store to the home of his father's girlfriend, in a gated community in the commuter town of Sanford, just outside Orlando.

Police failed to even arrest his killer, a local vigilante called George Zimmerman, apparently accepting at face value that he had acted in self-defence, and claiming that a "stand your ground" law enacted in Florida at the behest of the gun lobby would prevent his successful prosecution.

In the aftermath of the killing, it has emerged that they discounted the evidence of several witnesses, and misleadingly told the media that Mr Zimmerman, 28, was a "squeaky clean" individual with no criminal record.

It subsequently emerged that he had a previous arrest for battery and had been accused of domestic violence. In the past year, he had called emergency services almost 50 times to complain about "suspicious persons" in his neighbourhood. The majority of them turned out to be black.

During his 911 call on the night of Trayvon's death, he appeared to use a racial slur to describe his eventual victim as a "f***ing coon". And he was never asked why he had been forced to use a 9mm pistol to ward off a child who weighed at least 100lbs less than him.

Sanford's chief of police has resigned, pending a review of his department, which has faced widespread accusations of racial bias in this and several other cases. Mr Zimmerman, who was described by police as a "white male" but claims to be Hispanic, is now in hiding.

In his remarks, Mr Obama suggested that Trayvon's death ought to prompt states such as Florida to reconsider "stand your ground" laws, which have led to scores of murder cases being abandoned.

"I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative to investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together – federal, state and local – to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened," he said. "I think all of us have to do some soul searching... And that means we examine the laws, the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident."