Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, saying he wanted to protect private property. This was during unrest following an earlier incident in which a policeman repeatedly shot an unarmed black man. Confronted and pursued by demonstrators, Rittenhouse killed two and wounded another. He claimed his actions were self-defense.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo responded to Rittenhouse being found not guilty:
A few thoughts on this verdict. It’s probably obvious I think it was a bad verdict. But I think we have to look more broadly at the result. People disagree. Juries make bad decisions. There’s nothing new about that. But what we have in the country right now are three factors.
One is highly permissive self-defense laws. In some cases, the statutes are okay but they’re interpreted too heavily or entirely in the defendant’s subjective perception of danger. In other “stand your ground”-type cases, they’re just bad laws. But the upshot is similar.
You also have a situation where any yahoo is now allowed to bring a high capacity firearm into an already tense or potentially violent situation. Usually they come with a chip on their shoulder or a political agenda. Then if they get scared they can start shooting.
It didn’t get a lot of attention but the judge essentially threw out the law that bars minors from open carrying in Wisconsin. So literally a kid can now show up with an AR to “help” and that’s okay.
Finally we live today in a very polarized, very divided society in which some people’s lives and inner experiences count a lot more than other people’s. You can say that that really means white people’s count more. And that’s generally right. But it’s not only that.
As long as murder is okay as long as you were feeling the right thing at the moment you killed the other person, that makes something as foundational as killing wildly subjective and makes the decisions jurors make too dependent on their own private definitions of good guys and bad guys.
None of these factors are new exactly. But together they create something genuinely new in this political moment. Add in the increasingly public acceptability of political violence on the American Right and you’ve got a powder keg confluence of factors that will make resorts to violence and general murder safaris not only more common, but also acceptable under the law.
I’ll add two things. The first is that the extreme polarization in our society is the result of the right-wing’s descent into fantasy and authoritarianism. Countries with conservative political parties that are actually conservative, not insanely radical and not gun-crazy like the Republican Party, aren’t as polarized.
The second is that the judge dismissed the gun charge because the weapon Rittenhouse had wasn’t illegal, according to Wisconsin’s law. For whatever reason, “the law allows minors to possess shotguns and rifles as long as they’re not short-barreled. . . When [the prosecutor] acknowledged that Rittenhouse’s rifle’s barrel was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, [the judge] dismissed the charge (Associated Press). In other words, according to the letter of the law, it’s fine in Wisconsin for a minor to parade around with a dangerous weapon if its barrel is longer than 16 inches. The prosecutor could have appealed the judge’s decision, since it contradicted the spirit of the law, but didn’t bother. It wasn’t the prosecutor’s only mistake.