What if the law hadn’t told the accused that it was his legal right to carry a semi-automatic rifle anywhere he wanted – including into the middle of a volatile, late-night protest-cum-riot? What if dozens of other people, on both sides of that protest, had not had every legal right to arm up, and come on down?
How differently might things gone on the night of Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin?
We all know the answer. You experience it every day. It’s called Canada.
The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse wraps up on Monday. The accused, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, is facing six criminal charges in connection with the shooting of three people – one wounded, two killed.
The facts of the case, and their interpretation, are the messy stuff of most criminal trials.
On Aug. 23, Kenosha police responded to a 9-1-1 call about a domestic dispute and shot Jacob Blake, a Black man. Protests began later that day. There was also widespread looting and arson in the city, which continued the following night. On Aug. 25, in response to a Facebook call from a local alderman, dozens of heavily armed men took to the streets at the same time as protesters. Mr. Rittenhouse, who wasn’t from Kenosha, was among them. He was carrying an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
In the U.S. media, almost everything that happened in that small Midwestern city, including the Aug. 25 shootings, tends to be viewed through the prism of race. And there are good reasons to examine the incident with that lens. It aligns with some sad realities of American history.
But all of the people central to the case at trial – the accused and the three people he shot – are white. To understand the tensions that summer in Kenosha, you have to talk about race. But to understand how one person ended up in hospital and two ended up in the morgue, you have to talk about something else: Guns.
Take away the American constitutional right to bear arms, and this becomes a very different story, with a different ending.
On the night of Aug. 25, there were lots of guns on the streets. The most visible were in the hands of counterprotesters like Mr. Rittenhouse, but some protesters were also armed. The fatal chain of events started when Joseph Rosenbaum began chasing Mr. Rittenhouse across a parking lot; suddenly, someone behind them brandished a handgun and fired into the air.
In less than three seconds, Mr. Rittenhouse turned, struggled with Mr. Rosenbaum, and shot him fatally.
Mr. Rittenhouse then continued running, pursued by others, and after being knocked to the ground he shot two more people, one of whom was brandishing a handgun. It was all over in a flash. Many videos captured some of what happened; in the background, other gunshots can be heard, unconnected to this incident.
Mr. Rittenhouse then walked toward police, his hands in the air. Police initially ignored him, perhaps with good reason: Wisconsin, like many U.S. states, is an “open carry” jurisdiction. You can openly carry firearms, pretty much anywhere. All else equal, a man walking down the street with an assault rifle is legal. Even in the middle of the night and the middle of a riot, Mr. Rittenhouse was hardly the only civilian in Kenosha doing that.
In the Canadian context, all of the above is utter madness. It is also completely illegal.
Yes, several million Canadians own firearms, and hunting is a popular and legitimate activity. There are hurdles to be cleared before owning a rifle, including a safety course and background checks. There are additional hurdles to acquire restricted weapons, such as handguns.
But if a Canadian goes to a public place while carrying a firearm – if they take their legal rifle anywhere other than hunting or to the shooting range – they are going to be arrested, charged and convicted so fast it will make their head spin. Every legal gun owner knows that, and the vast majority have no problem with it. There are strict rules on storing and transporting guns – and a ban on carrying in public, whether openly or concealed. That doesn’t end all crime or prevent the smuggling of illegal weapons, but on balance, it makes interactions with our fellow citizens less fraught with danger.
That’s the Canadian verdict on Kenosha.
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