ST. LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - Gun-rights activists at a National Rifle Association convention said on Friday that protesters who demanded the arrest of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin were ignoring the U.S. legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.
They said the protesters and the media had rushed to judge Zimmerman, a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, as guilty in the death of 17-year-old Martin, who was black, without having been convicted.
“I wish all those folks demonstrating and making the inflammatory statements would keep their powder dry,” said Owen Mills, an NRA board member, who runs a firearms training facility in Paulden, Arizona. Mills said he was not speaking for the NRA as an organization.
Martin’s shooting in February sparked a national debate about “Stand Your Ground” laws permitting the use of deadly force in self-defense. The laws, which have been enacted in more than 20 states, are strongly backed by the NRA.
Authorities in Sanford, Florida, where the shooting took place, cited the state’s Stand Your Ground law in deciding not to arrest Zimmerman.
Protesters said local police failed to aggressively investigate the case and many accused authorities of racial bias. Tens of thousands of people around the country took to the streets to demand Zimmerman’s arrest.
After days of protests, a special prosecutor was appointed to take over the case. This week, she charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Many in the overwhelmingly white and conservative crowd at the NRA convention blamed the media for playing up the racial aspect of the case.
Paul Hopkins, a retired computer engineer from Surfside Beach, South Carolina, said he was rankled by the media referring to Zimmerman as a white Hispanic, which he interpreted as blaming a white man for the shooting.
Mary Ann Reisinger from Oakdale, Connecticut, was particularly critical of civil rights leader and TV show host Al Sharpton, who she said was exploiting the issue by joining the marches for justice.
“They should not be out in the streets demonstrating about it,” she said.
NRA board member Mills pointed to the statement by a group describing itself as the New Black Panther Party last month offering a bounty of $10,000 for anyone who made a “citizens arrest” of Zimmerman.
“That is not the American way to put a bounty on someone’s head,” Mills said.
The bounty suggestion was roundly condemned by leaders of all political persuasions.
Editing by Eric Beech