Learning from the Rittenhouse verdict

How should we respond to the “not guilty” verdicts in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial?  Is the shooter a hero? Did he get away with murder?  Did the jury, eleven-twelfths white, deliver a racist verdict?

The simple answer to all these questions is “no”.

The Rittenhouse case was shaped by Wisconsin’s awful gun laws

The jury in the Rittenhouse case was controlled by Wisconsin law.  They were serious about their work.  We know that because they deliberated for twenty-six hours.  Jurors may have concluded that the underage defendant should never have insinuated himself into a chaotic scene armed with an AR-type weapon.  They may have believed that his decision to fire his weapon was tragic, unwise and flagrantly irresponsible.  They may even have believed that Rittenhouse showed a shocking disregard for the lives of his victims.

It wouldn’t have mattered.

That’s because Wisconsin gun law renders these considerations moot.  Click on the link in the previous sentence and you will find page after page of legal provisions riddled with qualifications, definitions, and fuzzy distinctions.  The law has evolved through repeated amendments, most of them generated by special interest groups like the National Rifle Association. 

Two considerations are of particular relevance to this case: the definition of self-defense, and the provisions related to the underage possession of firearms.

According to Wisconsin law (which is fairly typical in this regard), citizens are justified in using lethal force if they perceive that their life is threatened.  The perception of threat doesn’t have to be reasonable; if Rittenhouse (in this case) perceived that his life was in danger, he was legally justified in pulling the trigger.

The Scene

We have to remember how chaotic the situation in Kenosha had become.  Like most American cities, -local residents had been on the streets protesting the killing of George Floyd.  Then a police officer pumped several rounds into Jacob Blake, a Kenosha resident, as the victim’s children looked on.  That sparked three days of rioting. 

Rittenhouse came to Kenosha in response to calls from vigilante groups eager to exploit the volatile situation for their own purposes.  Rittenhouse says he was primarily interested in providing first-aid assistance to anyone injured protecting their property.  He picked up his automatic weapon from a friend’s house.

Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, threw a plastic bag filled with toiletries at Rittenhouse.  Rosenbaum had recently been discharged from the Hospital (which is why he was carrying the bag).  No one knows why he was on the street at the time.

A second man, Anthony Huber, hit Rittenhouse with skateboard while allegedly reaching for his gun.  If he perceived the skateboard attack as life-threatening, under Wisconsin law, he was justified in using lethal force.

Both Rosenbaum and Huber died of their wounds.

Rittenhouse also fired at Gaige Grosskreutz, a paramedic who, like Rittenhouse, was drawn to the scene in hopes of rendering assistance to anyone injured in the unrest.  Grosskreutz pulled his concealed handgun because, he says, he perceived Rittenhouse to be an active shooter.  Rittenhouse saw Grosskreutz’s weapon, perceived a threat to his life, and fired.  Grosskreutz was wounded in the arm.

Rittenhouse and his victims were all white.

The tangled web of self-defense law

Now, imagine that one of the men Rittenhouse shot that night, had killed Rittenhouse.  The best example here is Grosskreutz.  If he had shot the defendant dead after witnessing the shooting of Mr. Huber, it would have been very difficult for a jury to convict.

That’s because self-defense and stand-your-ground laws are written to protect shooters.  The central issue is whether the shooter perceived a threat to his life.  The subjective aspect of these laws is exacerbated by open-carry laws that allow people to walk around brandishing semi-automatic weapons.  Suppose two armed citizens meet on the street.  Both perceive the other as a threat to their lives.  It doesn’t matter who kills who, it’s legally justified.

Obviously, a law this subjective will not be applied evenly.  A recent study shows that white shooters arguing self-defense are 281% more likely to succeed than Black shooters making the same argument.  

That’s where we are. 

But wasn’t Rittenhouse underage?

Yes, he was.  Wisconsin law clearly states that persons under 18 cannot legally carry firearms unless under the supervision of an adult.  If that stipulation was the end of it, Rittenhouse could have been found guilty on at least one count.

Unfortunately, every facet of Wisconsin gun law has been amended and re-amended over the years in response to pressure from the gun lobby. One amendment states that the under-age provision only applies to firearms under 16-inches in length.  This contradicts the clear intention of the original statute, of course, but, in the eyes of the law, both provisions carry equal weight.  In baseball, a tie goes to the runner.  In the courtroom, according to prevailing wisdom, if two laws conflict, the issue should be settled in the interest of the defendant.  Which is why the judge threw out the under-age possession count.

Once again, if the jury followed the law, they didn’t have much wiggle room.  They could have found Rittenhouse guilty.  If he had been Black, statistics suggest they might have.  But the jurors probably got it right.  That doesn’t mean Rittenhouse isn’t morally culpable for his lamentable behavior; it just means he isn’t legally culpable.  Don’t blame the jury or the judge; blame the law.

The practical upshot of the judge’s ruling is that, going forward, underage kids are free to walk the streets with AR-type weapons.  And nobody can stop them.  We are in this pickle largely because the NRA long ago decided that putting guns in the hands of children was good for their brand.

Rittenhouse is neither hero nor villain

When the verdict was announced, Texas governor, Greg Abbott, issued a rapturous tweet.  Congressman Matt Gaetz says he’d like to hire Rittenhouse as an intern.   Alt-right television personality Tucker Carlson sent a documentary film crew to Kenosha to cover the trial.  Rittenhouse’s lead attorney is now saying the crew was given inappropriate access to his client. 

These responses aren’t just inappropriate, they are downright vile.

Alternatively, liberal commentators who insist that Rittenhouse came to Kenosha with murder on his mind are saying more than the evidence allows.  We can’t know what was in the young man’s mind, full stop.

Also of bounds is the suggestion that Rittenhouse cried and sniveled on the witness stand in a conscious attempt to sway the jury.  Nonsense.  Rittenhouse cried and sniveled because he’s a scared kid.  Young men his age are half Superman and half “I want my mommy”.  That’s why they should never be allowed to carry firearms outside the supervision of trained adults under any circumstances.

Crying on the witness stand is standard behavior in cases like this.  When we indict a young man for showing emotion, we indict ourselves.  We can’t know what was going on in Kyle’s head, any more than he could know if his life was truly threatened by the men he gunned down.  Both are entirely subjective calls.

We should be praying for Kyle Rittenhouse, even as we pray for the families of his victims.  As odd as this may sound, this isn’t really about him.  Rittenhouse is a victim of a broken and paranoid society. “Property owners are overwhelmed by looters and need your help”, that’s the message he heard.  He took it at face value.  Maybe he had been watching too much Fox News.  Maybe he hadn’t chosen his Facebook friends wisely.  But he didn’t create the us-them divisions in American society; he is a victim of that division. 

Rittenhouse will now be elevated to celebrity status by the radical right.  It might well kill him.  An impressionable boy walks into a riot scene with an automatic weapon.  What could go wrong?  The worst decisions an impressionable boy will ever make are celebrated by adults who should know better.  What could go wrong?  Everything. 

Guns and race

Why are white nationalists, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis militias and standard issue Republicans so enamored of guns?  Simple.  They feel threatened by the demographic shifts that will make America a majority-minority nation within a decade.  Knowing they can’t reverse this trend through democratic elections, folks on the radical right take comfort in the rhetoric of armed revolution.  Not all conservatives feel this way, of course.  But the folks currently in control of the Republican Party do feel this way.

Let’s shift the focus

There is a tendency for partisan Americans to personalize every issue.  But the Rittenhouse tragedy isn’t about the shooter; it’s about America’s insane gun laws.  It is now possible to walk into virtually any public venue toting a semi-automatic weapon and shoot anyone who confronts you.  In cold blood.  Without legal consequence.  That needs to change.

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