Kyle Rittenhouse trial showed the dangers of carrying powerful weapons on our streetsCST Editorial Boardon November 19, 2021 at 8:03 pm

Protesters fight on the steps of the Kenosha County Courthouse on Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

We fear too many people will see the acquittal as support for those who want to pick up guns and insert themselves into highly charged situations of unrest. That dangerously undermines the idea that we are a nation with respect for institutions and the rule of law.

Now that the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is over, let’s ask ourselves: What might have happened had numerous people on both sides of the political divide showed up at the Kenosha protests that night with military-style weapons?

That’s the risk we as a nation now run. Rittenhouse’s “not guilty” verdict could easily embolden and encourage gun-toting civilians to carry frighteningly powerful weapons on our streets and at gathering places, under the guise of supposedly protecting “law and order.”

This is more than playing with fire. It’s a situation that could, at it worst, invite incendiary immolation of the social order should protests turn into firefights across our country. Wiser heads must step in.

Last year, Rittenhouse took an AR-15-style assault rifle and a medical kit to Kenosha, Wisconsin. He crossed state lines from Antioch, Illinois, saying he did so to protect businesses and give first aid after protests and unrest reached their third night after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Rittenhouse, then 17, shot and killed two people and wounded a third. On Friday, Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts.

It was alarming that so many people announced ahead of time they would not accept a verdict unless it matched their favored outcome. People overlaid the trial with their own opinions, ranging from seeing a vigilante who went to Kenosha intent on hunting people, to a hero who used a weapon to stand up to violence. The trial was yet another example of how hard it has become for Americans to bridge their differences along the political spectrum.

Adam Rogan/The Journal Times via AP
Kyle Rittenhouse, left, with backward cap, walks along Sheridan Road in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25, 2020, with another armed civilian.

Armed warfare on our streets?

Wisconsin, like 20 other states, is “open carry,” meaning most people can walk around with guns in public at will. People with guns have begun showing up with firearms at public protests across the country. This time, it was Rittenhouse carrying an AR-15-like rifle.

What if, next time, many more gun-toting people show up at a violent demonstration displaying their own firearms? Is open warfare between civilians our future?

Advocates of widespread gun-carrying would have you believe the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. How does that apply to the Rittenhouse case? To judge by social media, a number of people saw him as the “good guy” with the gun. They refuse to acknowledge that if he hadn’t brought a weapon to Kenosha, in all likelihood no one would have been shot or died that night.

They apparently think it’s OK for armed mobs to share public spaces with peaceful protesters. They’re wrong. People can claim they are shooting in self-defense, but they might easily be seen by others as active shooters — which is what prosecutors alleged happened in the Rittenhouse case.

How safe did Rittenhouse’s gun make him or anyone else? How safe did Gaige Grosskreutz’s — the man Rittenhouse wounded — gun make him? Had he not drawn it, he might not have been shot in the arm. When everyone is armed, everyone’s life is at risk.

We’ve seen police make deadly hair-trigger mistakes time and again over the years, even with all their experience and training. What makes anyone think an untrained minor could do a better job? Why would anyone think armed individuals with their own agendas will follow the law faithfully? What will happen if self-appointed guardians of justice arm themselves with military-style weapons and roam the streets? Will they set up their own checkpoints, like occupants of nations with broken governments? Will they battle other groups? Or police?

What will happen if self-appointed guardians of justice arm themselves with military-style weapons and roam the streets?

These are not exaggerated questions. Given America’s gun-toting culture, they are more than valid.

Respect for the rule of law

Legal observers have for months warned us not to be surprised if the jury returns a verdict of not guilty on the most serious charges. Now that the jury has acquitted Rittenhouse on all counts, we fear too many people will see the verdict as support for those who want to pick up guns and insert themselves into highly charged arenas of unrest.

That dangerously undermines the idea that we are a nation with respect for institutions and the rule of law.

We have already heard a man at an Idaho political event ask, “This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns? No, and I’m not — that’s not a joke.” We already saw a Missouri couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters show up outside the Rittenhouse trial. So did a demonstrator carrying an AR-15 rifle.

Guns, except in the hands of sworn officers, should never be carried to places of public disturbance. Unless all of us follow that rule, we fear for the safety of our nation’s future.

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