On Friday, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all five counts, including reckless homicide, attempted intentional homicide and recklessly endangering safety. Alongside Rittenhouse, however, the law of self-defense was on trial in Wisconsin. The law provides that a person is allowed to use deadly force here, if such force is necessary to prevent the threat of deadly force from another. And yet, the question of when killing another is justified is subject to a community standard. As we condemn or heroize Rittenhouse and his victims, we also give meaning to the law. In doing so, we are determining the value we give to the lives of others.
As a social media fire understandably rages, we might also consider what this case says about us.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a white law enforcement officer who shot a Black man seven times in the back was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in January. Racial anguish quickly erupted into protests. Demonstrators and police clashed. Property was destroyed. White men in body armor wielding AR-15s arrived to take up “posts” to “shout, shove, show and shoot.” Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17 year old, entered the fray, a kite in a hurricane. A man reportedly struggling with behavioral health issues chased Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse panicked. Within the next three minutes, the boy shot at four people, killing two and wounding one.
The incident hovered just below the most commonly used threshold of a “mass shooting.” The state charged Rittenhouse with multiple crimes, including intentional, reckless and attempted homicide. Some immediately lionized him. Some argued the victims deserved to die. Some argued they would have killed the surviving gunshot victim, who was armed but did not fire his weapon, counting him lucky. Some celebrated the boy’s shooting skills and discipline. Others wished him a life in prison. Still a kite, still a hurricane.
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As a social media fire now understandably rages over allegations of judicial bias, litigant strategy, and the character and testimony of the witnesses and Rittenhouse, we might also consider what this case says about us. The laws at issue, their application and their interpretation reveal an unsettled, troubling picture of who we are.
The core of Wisconsin’s statute is consistent with other jurisdictions. But what does its deadly force language really mean? It means what we say it means. Social media noise matters; as folks condemn Rittenhouse, or portray him as a hero and condemn the gunshot victims, the community standard takes shape. And how this standard evolves (or devolves) says much about our values.
With open-carry becoming more prevalent, the possibility that two people, each reasonably fearing great bodily harm or death, will (legally) shoot each other increases. And now that a jury in Kenosha might find Rittenhouse justified, we are contending with a view of self-defense that transforms an active shooter into a privileged actor.
I was particularly struck by the pretrial testimony of the defense’s use-of-force expert. When asked by the prosecutor whether Rittenhouse could have used deadly force against the first, unarmed victim if Rittenhouse was also unarmed, the expert opined, “no.” What is the basis of this reasoning, that an armed individual has greater discretion to use deadly force than an unarmed individual?
Not surprisingly, use-of-force experts typically testify in officer-involved shootings, and this use-of-force theory comes from police training. Police are trained that there is no such thing as an unarmed encounter, given that an officer carries a gun. At the hearing, Rittenhouse’s expert stated that “the firearm is a potential weapon for both parties.” Under this reasoning, Rittenhouse’s decision to arm himself theoretically arms anyone who advances on Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse having a gun gave him a right to kill that, unarmed, he would not have. Will we accept such reasoning, extending the privileges we give police officers at trial to armed civilians like Rittenhouse? This trajectory takes us to a very dystopian destination.
And a final note: A self-reflective gun owner might have considered the emotional trauma caused by roaming around with an AR-15 in a community grieving a Black man being mercilessly shot by a white officer. Maturity and empathy aside, most of us know that having a right does not mean you should always exercise that right. Turning the mirror on ourselves, Rittenhouse walked the streets, after curfew, with an AR-15 and was not once briefly detained by law enforcement to inspect his ID. His lawyer calls him a hero, and his expert contends — perhaps not incorrectly — that for an armed individual in Wisconsin, aggression is indistinguishable from self-defense. We have normalized the absurd.