By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin left President Barack Obama trying to dial down tensions on Sunday while reassuring supporters he still stands against discrimination and gun violence.
Obama called for calm as activists outraged by the verdict planned rallies and urged the administration to pursue civil rights charges against Zimmerman. On the other side, Republicans said he inflamed tensions by wading into the issue in 2012, when he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
"I know this case has elicited strong passions," the president said Sunday in a statement. "And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."
Critics charged that some of those tensions were of his own making: the president's willingness to comment on the case may have highlighted the racially charged nature of the trial.
"The president engaged in this and turned it into a political issue that should have been handled exclusively with law and order," Republican Representative Steve King said on Fox News Sunday.
The clearing of Zimmerman by a six-person jury in Florida has also stirred disappointment that justice may not be served and raised fears that unhappiness about the verdict could lead to civil unrest.
Critics contend Zimmerman wrongly suspected 17-year-old Martin of being a criminal because he was black, making it a civil rights issue. Rallies were planned for New York, San Diego, Sacramento and elsewhere on Sunday.
Zimmerman's lawyers argued he acted in self-defense the night of February 26, 2012, when he and Martin met inside a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
In the wake of the trial, civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), urged the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
The Department of Justice said it is reviewing its options but indicated that its scope may be narrow given its ability to bring civil rights cases and limitations on the heels of the Florida court's acquittal.
"Zimmerman was not a state actor," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Much of the civil rights law only applies to state actors. This is a private individual."
Martin's family could bring a civil lawsuit for wrongful death or negligence, Levenson said. The Justice Department could conduct an investigation into whether local law enforcement officers treat people of color differently than whites, she said.
Even as Obama called for the public to respect the court's decision, he also sought to channel the emotion surrounding the case into support for efforts to strengthen controls over gun ownership.
"We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis," he said.
Obama's campaign to curb gun violence after the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre of 20 children and six adults in December was defeated when the U.S. Senate rejected a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers.
(With additional reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington and Ellen Wulfhorst and Barbara Liston in Sanford, Florida; Editing by Stacey Joyce)