Kyle Rittenhouse did act in self-defense. That’s the problem.

13 mins read

On the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2020, seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled from Antioch, IL to Kenosha, WI to help volunteers clean graffiti off of a high school near the Kenosha County Courthouse. The graffiti was left in the wake of citywide demonstrations protesting the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, at the hands of the police just days earlier. Hours later, Rittenhouse would travel back to Kenosha amidst more protests with the intent of providing medical assistance to anyone who needed it. He came armed with both his med kit — for aid — and a military-style assault rifle — for protection. By the end of the night, Rittenhouse found himself at the door of the Antioch police station with his mother, where he would turn himself in to the authorities after shooting three people and killing two earlier that night.

The question of how a child could arrive at a scene with the intention of providing medical aid and protecting businesses but leave having done just the opposite was at the core of Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense trial. The jury’s answer? A textbook case of self-defense. 

When Kyle Rittenhouse arrived in Kenosha, there was no question that he suspected it would be a chaotic scene, hence the self-determined need for protection. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of public protests against police brutality were peaceful, media outlets nevertheless plastered violent images of rioting and looting across television screens and social media, instilling a sense of concern among those not actively participating in the demonstrations.

Unfortunately for Kyle Rittenhouse (and far more unfortunate for those he shot), the weapon he brought invited some of that chaos. Video footage shows Rittenhouse wandering across empty streets with a military-style assault rifle slung across his back — an item much more visible than the medkit hanging on his waist. As Rittenhouse meandered through the scene, it was a terrible coincidence that Joseph Rosenbaum allegedly mistook him for someone he had had a dispute with earlier in the evening and attempted to chase him away. That coincidence, however, led to a conflict that ended with Rittenhouse firing four shots into Rosenbaum’s body. The gunshots immediately alerted a nearby crowd, who began chasing Rittenhouse yelling “That’s the shooter!” and “Get him!” Minutes later, Anthony Huber is shot and killed by the same scared, trigger-happy child. Shortly after that, Rittenhouse also severed the bicep of Gaige Grosskreutz, who (though armed himself) was cautiously approaching RIttenhouse with his hands raised. 

What apparently began with a mistaken identity ended in the death of two innocent people and a severe injury. Amidst the confusion of a night marked by high emotions and spontaneous action, the question of who carries responsibility depends on who you ask, though it is most likely that blame can at least be partially spread among multiple actors. This should not distract from the fact that some of those actors are now unlawfully dead and only one came out completely unscathed. What is true of any answer, however, is the presence of a gun in an emotionally-charged, chaotic situation

Let me be clear that I do not agree with the jury’s decision. Kyle Rittenhouse needlessly killed two people and forever changed the life of a third, as well as their numerous family and community members. His not-guilty verdict is the product of a racist judicial system, a biased judge, and a poor prosecution strategy. Altogether, it is a miscarriage of justice. 

A classic argument from the staunchest defenders of the Second Amendment is that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. To argue likewise would be like saying that a pen writes an essay and not the author. My response would be to ask them to write their name down for me. When they ask me for a pen, I would fold my arms and rest my case. 

As an outside observer with no personal stake in the Rittenhouse case other than an intellectual curiosity in its outcome and a genuine concern for the safety of others, the question of who is responsible for a shooting such as this becomes less important than why the shooting occurred in the first place. As we have seen, responsibility, motive, and momentary passions are all clearly subjective. What is not subjective is the fact that two people are dead. Moreover, their deaths were unequivocally enabled by a minor’s easy access to a firearm and a broader gun culture that clearly allowed him to wield it (after all, Kyle Rittenhouse was accompanied by members of the far-right militia group, the Boogaloo Bois, despite being seventeen-years-old, and was thanked by police officers for his presence). 

Most important to this case, however, is the legal structure that vindicates this type of vigilante behavior. Wisconsin is one of over 30 states that have some version of a “stand your ground” law, which provides extra protections for individuals who feel they are acting in self-defense. In these instances, Wisconsin specifically allows deadly force if the person has “exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.” This holds even when there is a reciprocal fear of “death or great bodily harm” for the other person, which essentially creates a lose-lose incentive structure. 

For example, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and injured Gaige Grosskeurtz because he believed Grosskeurtz was going to shoot him. Why was Gaige Grosskeurtz approaching him with a pistol in hand? Because he was suspicious that Kyle Rittenhouse, after shooting two other people, was going to shoot him. Whoever shoots first in this instance has an equally reasonable claim to self-defense. The law, therefore, has been structured in a way that virtually guarantees someone is shot with zero consequences. 

I should note that I am no legal expert, but that folds precisely into my point. Many legal experts saw this verdict coming from a mile away because they know just how heavy the prosecution’s burden is for proving that Kyle Rittenhouse was in fact not fearing for his life and had not exhausted every other option available to him. The law worked as the law was intended. To the defense team, the judge, and the jury, the entire encounter was lawful; to the victims’ families and many others, it was lawless. The irony is gut-wrenching. 

The negative impacts of this verdict do more than frustrate outside observers. Most obviously, it sends a message that armed vigilantes will suffer no consequences in certain conditions. Occam’s razor might suggest that they didn’t need this verdict in the first place; Rittenhouse was accompanied by other gunmen who veiled the provocative actions of an armed mob in constitutional arguments for the need of a well-regulated militia of minutemen (even though in a Revolutionary context, these minutemen were still under the authority of the president or state governor).

Perhaps more importantly, however, the verdict clearly defines who can and can’t be a child in America. The judge repeatedly chastised the prosecution for being too aggressive with Rittenhouse, a White boy who had become a legal adult by the time of the trial, when he cried hysterically while testifying. This is undoubtedly supported by the racial dimensions of the case. Not only was Rittenhouse acquitted for killing two people and wounding a third, but he was allowed to approach a police car during a massive protest with an AR-15 strapped to his back. Their response? “We appreciate you guys. We really do,” as they offered him a cup of water. It’s not difficult to imagine how the trial might have gone had Rittenhouse been Black, assuming he lived long enough to even see a trial (for a comparable case, Google Chrystul Kizer). 

Thankfully, we have seen some limitations of the self-defense argument that dovetail with some optimism for racial justice. Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers were recently convicted on multiple counts of homicide despite making a similar legal argument, and they now await a federal trial for alleged hate crimes. To celebrate the failure of a self-defense claim by three armed White men who quite literally hunted down an innocent Black man with a shotgun, however, feels like a Pyrrhic victory. 

With regard to the broader legal landscape of our nation’s open carry laws, the future is not so bright. The Supreme Court is currently poised to gut a restrictive New York law requiring “proper cause” for carrying handguns in public, which would essentially invent a constitutional right to carry weapons outside the home. It is no surprise that during oral arguments the Court focused specifically on the practicality of self-defense despite the overwhelming empirical evidence against their claims (they wondered, for example, why permits are harder to get in more densely populated cities where self-defense might be more necessary — the apparently-not-so-obvious answer is that guns are more dangerous when there are more people around, as exemplified by the Rittenhouse shootings). 

Ultimately, history shows that we cannot rely on the courts to enforce a safer, more responsible environment when the laws they interpret incentivize dangerous and reckless behavior. Instead, the answer must be driven by data and a commonsensical approach to the actual realities that guns create. Legislation must be passed to undo these archaic legal structures and the questions we ask in the wake of these shootings must be broader in scope. Yes, people kill people. But clearly, it’s easier for people to kill people when they have unfettered access to guns. This verdict emphasizes that the courts will allow it when they do. 

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