John Huber and Karen Bloom, the parents of Anthony Huber – one of the two men killed by Kyle Rittenhouse in August of 2020 – released a statement shortly after Mr. Rittenhouse was acquitted of all five charges against him in a courtroom in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday.
“Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son,” Mr. Huber’s parents said. “It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
Though the statement was intended to be an argument about the potential consequences of the jury’s decision, it instead read like a statement of fact about the conditions already in place because of open-carry laws in the United States. The reality is that in certain states, armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street. That’s why Mr. Rittenhouse’s acquittal was not only likely, but also legally just – even if, to casual observers, it might seem profoundly, morally unfair.
Consider the challenging task of the prosecution in this case: the defence didn’t have to prove that Mr. Rittenhouse was acting in self-defence when he travelled to Wisconsin from Illinois and shot three people during protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rather, the burden was on the state, and it had to disprove the claim that Mr. Rittenhouse feared for his life in the moments just before he fired his weapon.
Wisconsin’s laws on self-defence, provocation and the use of deadly force are complicated, but generally speaking, it didn’t matter if Mr. Rittenhouse was patrolling downtown Kenosha with a semi-automatic rifle that night looking for trouble (or if, as he testified, he was there merely as an extremely well-armed medic). It didn’t matter that he was clearly responsible for the deaths of two men, who would likely be alive today had Mr. Rittenhouse stuck with playing Call of Duty at home, instead of acting out a wannabe teen-militia fantasy. And it didn’t matter if the presence of his weapon raised the temperature of the scene in Kenosha, and potentially incited others to violence.
What mattered was whether the state could prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Rittenhouse did not believe he was at risk of serious injury or death in the moments before he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, who was shown in video evidence chasing Mr. Rittenhouse just before Mr. Rittenhouse killed him. The state also had to prove Mr. Rittenhouse didn’t fear for his life when he shot Mr. Huber – who hit Mr. Rittenhouse when he was on the ground with a skateboard – and when he shot Gaige Grosskreutz, who testified that he pointed his own weapon at Mr. Rittenhouse out of concern that he was an active shooter before Mr. Rittenhouse fired. If the jury accepted that Mr. Rittenhouse reasonably believed he could have been seriously injured or killed in any of those moments – or even if jurors simply didn’t know whether he genuinely feared for his life (i.e. they had reasonable doubt) – they could not return a guilty verdict.
The tragedy of the case is not necessarily that Mr. Rittenhouse escaped conviction; the jury followed the law. The tragedy, rather, is that a 17-year-old kid could wander the streets with a military-style semi-automatic weapon and not be convicted of even a misdemeanour, thanks to an absurdity in Wisconsin law that permits minors to possess rifles as long as the barrel exceeds a certain length. The tragedy is that Mr. Rittenhouse has been turned into a cultural hero by U.S. right-wing fanatics (who seem to have discriminating opinions on vigilante justice), when his actions have proven him to be more of an anarchic child who, by even the most charitable read of his intentions, is not nearly as brave as his gunslinging and past social media posts would suggest.
The tragedy is that two men are now dead and there will be no consequences. And the tragedy is that in a country where guns are so ubiquitous, and where they can be carried openly during tense and volatile situations, this same deadly scenario can be repeated over and over again. Someone can bring a gun to a rally, riot or protest, and raise the temperature of everyone present, and no one will be held responsible if someone is killed.
John Huber and Karen Bloom were right to decry a scenario where “armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.” But that was true long before Mr. Rittenhouse’s acquittal, and it will be true long after.
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