Kyle Rittenhouse (Getty Images)
(*This column was updated at 5:04 p.m. on Thursday, 12/9/21 to correctly reflect that Jacob Blake was shot by police. An earlier version said Blake was shot and killed by police.)
Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three men at a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two of them, was acquitted of all criminal charges.
He has been hailed as a hero. He has been feted by politicians, including Donald Trump. He has been compared to John Wayne as a symbol of law-abiding people fighting back against lawlessness. When he took a rifle to a protest over the earlier police *shooting of Jacob Blake, Rittenhouse said his intention was to protect property against violence.
Rittenhouse was acquitted because of changes in the legal understanding of self-defense in recent years. Based on the Rittenhouse verdict, the rest of us are now unsafe around anyone with a gun.
Rittenhouse had been guarding an auto dealership at which several cars had been set on fire when he was confronted by Joseph Rosenbaum, the first man Rittenhouse killed. Evidence showed that Rosenbaum was aggressive and lunged for Rittenhouse’s rifle while cursing him. Rittenhouse testified that he feared that Rosenbaum would seize the rifle and shoot him. The jury found this fear to be reasonable and this may be a fair interpretation of the current law of self-defense in Wisconsin.
But that is precisely the problem. No one actually knows what Rosenbaum intended. Rittenhouse admitted that he pointed his rifle at him. Rosenbaum might have intended simply to disarm a dangerous man.
The acquittal means that the person holding the gun gets to decide who lives and who dies.
You can see where this interpretation of self-defense can lead in the trial of the three men who were convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger running through a suburb of Brunswick, Georgia. One of the men charged, Travis McMichael, said that Arbery lunged for his gun.
McMichael was convicted of malice murder, so this defense failed. But George Barnhill, the second prosecutor in the case, who later recused himself, refused to prosecute on just this basis: “at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun, under Georgia Law, [Travis] McMichael was allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”
John Wayne would not have shot a man he knew was unarmed, as Rittenhouse did. The Duke would have defended himself against non-lethal force by the use of his fists.
After Rittenhouse killed Rosenbaum, he made a phone call to a friend saying that he had just killed someone. He did not seek medical attention for the man on the ground. He did not call the police. Instead, he continued his armed patrolling.
Anthony Huber, the second man killed, considered Rittenhouse to be dangerous. Huber’s girlfriend said in an interview that Huber rushed Rittenhouse to protect her and others nearby. Huber struck Rittenhouse with a skateboard he always carried and reached for Rittenhouse’s rifle. That is when Rittenhouse shot him once, fatally wounding him.
Clearly, Huber was not trying to shoot Rittenhouse, but to disarm him. As the events of that night demonstrated, he was not wrong to fear that Rittenhouse was irresponsibly dangerous. Huber’s courage cost him his life.
John Wayne would not have fired his weapon at Huber, just as John Wayne would have led the police to Rosenbaum’s body.
Ironically, there was someone in Kenosha that night who embodied the grace and restraint of John Wayne—Gaige Grosskreutz, the man Rittenhouse wounded after killing Huber.
Grosskreutz, who was at the protest to provide medical care, and who was carrying a handgun, was told that Rittenhouse had shot someone and was trying to get away. He saw Rittenhouse fire at Huber and moved directly toward him with his own gun visible. He and Rittenhouse confronted each other. Grosskreutz did not fire. Rittenhouse did.
Rittenhouse did not hesitate to shoot, did not assess the situation, did not act like an adult who understood the responsibility of possessing a firearm.
Rittenhouse is alive today because Grosskreutz did not shoot. By the jury’s reasoning, he had every right to kill Rittenhouse as they pointed guns at each other.
This is where the madness of the current interpretation of self-defense has brought us.
Proponents of the second amendment right to bear arms applauded the Rittenhouse verdict. But they should not have done so. Kyle Rittenhouse has exploded the myth that guns make us safer. Two men are dead and one wounded only because Rittenhouse was carrying a rifle.
Conservatives sometimes assert that the violence of looting and arson at demonstrations is what provokes counter violence. The irony of Kenosha is that Rittenhouse did not protect property. He simply took life.
Here is what may happen next. Armed men will begin attending the rallies of their political opponents. They now have little to fear from any confrontation. They are now free to engage in intimidation. They now know that in any encounter in which it can be said that someone lunged for their gun, they are free to shoot.
This will lead, of course, to the arming of their political opponents, who will say they need to do this in pure self-defense. According to the Rittenhouse jury, in any resulting armed confrontation, the first one to fire is not guilty.
Proponents of gun rights do not understand that this situation will not be tolerated. Eventually, the right to bear arms in public will be severely restricted. If the Rittenhouse verdict represents the current law of self-defense, then banning guns is the only way for the rest of us to be safe at public events.
What happened in Kenosha was a tragedy. Obviously, it was a tragedy for the men killed and wounded. But it was also a tragedy for Kyle Rittenhouse, who is now a killer.
The adults who encouraged Rittenhouse to go to the protest and carry a rifle are equally responsible for this tragedy. It is too bad they were not charged.
The people who now praise what Rittenhouse did are also to blame.
The only good that can come from the events in Kenosha will be the curbing of the right to bear arms and the reform of the law of self-defense. Hopefully, that will transpire before there are any more shootings.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here. His latest book, “The Universe Is On Our Side: Restoring Faith in American Public Life,” is out now. His opinions do not represent the position of Duquesne University Law School.
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