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Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of all charges on Friday after a jury determined that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not acting in self-defense when he shot and killed two people and severely wounded another last year during racial justice protests in Kenosha, Wis.
The verdict sparked a range of reactions, from anger and disappointment among those who saw Rittenhouse as a dangerous vigilante, to joy and relief among those who believed he was merely exercising his rights to carry a gun and to defend himself.
Rittenhouse was 17 in August of last year when he traveled to Kenosha to, in his telling, protect property and provide medical care during intense protests in the city in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. That night, carrying a AR-15-style rifle that had been bought and kept for him by a friend who lived in Kenosha, he became involved in a series of confrontations that ended with him killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and seriously wounding Gaige Grosskreutz.
At the end of the three-week trial, Rittenhouse was cleared of five felony charges, including murder. An additional misdemeanor charge, for possessing a gun while under 18, had been thrown out earlier in the trial.
Why there’s debate
The question of whether Rittenhouse will spend the rest of his life in prison has been answered, but the implications of the case — which raised controversy on issues from gun rights to accusations of media bias to self-defense to equal justice under the law — are still unknown.
Many liberal activists and lawmakers fear that the verdict will lead to more violence from activists on the far right who see Rittenhouse’s acquittal as license to “take the law into their own hands,” in the belief that they, too, can successfully plead self-defense. There are also concerns about the way Rittenhouse has been treated as a hero by some Republicans and among the far right, and what that could mean for conservative politics.
A number of conservative commentators have suggested that the case could result in a reckoning for Democratic lawmakers and left-leading media figures who, in their eyes, unfairly maligned Rittenhouse as a vigilante and white supremacist. “It shouldn't have been a political case. … And the ways people are twisting this, it’s just sickening,” Rittenhouse said in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Monday night. Some legal analysts say the trial could lead cities and states to consider stricter gun control laws and narrower self-defense statutes. Others argue, however, that it’s a mistake to expect such sweeping changes based on a single case that largely affects only the people directly involved.
Legal experts have drawn parallels between Rittenhouse’s case and the trial of three white men who were found guilty on Wednesday of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man whom they pursued and shot as he was running through their neighborhood. It remains to be seen how their case, in which they failed to convince the jury they were acting in self-defense, might influence responses to the Rittenhouse verdict.
More right-wing vigilantes will feel they have the freedom to do what Rittenhouse did
“The great threat, and real possibility, is that there are other Rittenhouses out there — young men who watched this verdict and saw how the right has embraced and celebrated a murderer, and now want to follow his lead. The worst thing for America would be that this case becomes exemplar and precursor.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times
Parts of the country may reconsider permissive gun laws
“If public concern about Rittenhouse’s conduct and its results leads to a re-examination of Wisconsin’s gun laws, that will be one positive thing to come out of this tragic episode.” — Jennifer Rodgers, CNN
Guns will be increasingly used as a means of suppressing political speech
“Gun advocates used to say that ‘An armed society is a polite society,’ by which they meant that we can all be forced into good behavior if we live in a state of constant terror, knowing that even the most minor disagreement could result in murder. The same horrific logic may soon be applied to political disagreements: If I offer up a vivid visual threat that I may kill you because we disagree politically, I may be able to shut you up.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post
The case was never going to be as impactful as the coverage made it seem
“There is always a letdown at the conclusion of a trial, even when the proper result has been reached. … The trial and its attendant litigation become our historical record. But in the end, a criminal proceeding settles only a very narrow point: Did the state present proof beyond a reasonable doubt to support the charges it alleged?” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review
The media could be in for a tough lesson over how the case was covered
“Whatever Rittenhouse decides to do, it is clear he has been the victim of a targeted campaign led by rabid leftists in the media who believed he was the villain from the get-go and are now trying to convince everyone they were right. ... Someone has to hold them to account. And if a defamation case is the best way to do that, Rittenhouse should lawyer up.” — Kaylee McGhee White, Washington Examiner
Protests will become even more volatile with more guns present
“A free Kyle Rittenhouse means we will now be met with two camps of armed protesters, possibly from around the country, each squad waiting for an opponent to twitch suspiciously in a way that will allow excuses to fly along with the bullets. A body count begins today with this verdict.” — George Chidi, Intercept
Cities and states may move to limit self-defense laws
“I suspect in many states, this will invite people to reconsider what self-defense is, the same way that after Trayvon Martin, we had big discussions about ‘Stand your ground.’ Obviously, that's going to invite a lot of conversation, [and] that conversation is generally very polarized.” — Steven Wright, University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor, to Politico
The country is too polarized for one incident to change entrenched attitudes toward guns
“Gun laws hit the headlines once again with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges for defending himself against assailants during a 2020 riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A peek at the tea leaves suggests it's highly unlikely that gun-banners will get mileage out of the high-profile case.” — J.D. Tuccille, Reason
The expansion of self-defense as a legal rationale for killing is dangerous for everyone
“With open-carry becoming more prevalent, the possibility that two people, each reasonably fearing great bodily harm or death, will (legally) shoot each other increases. And now that a jury in Kenosha might find Rittenhouse justified, we are contending with a view of self-defense that transforms an active shooter into a privileged actor.” — Ion Meyn, NBC News
Faith in the judicial system will erode even further
“Over time, the repeated failures to convict white defendants erode trust and legitimacy. A functional justice system will produce both convictions and acquittals, but the disproportionate burden borne by Black Americans is a sign that our justice system is not a functional one.” — David A. Graham, Atlantic
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