The Problem With the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial is the Intersection of Open Carry and Self Defense Laws
I’m not a lawyer. And very likely, neither are you. That means we interpret high profile trials like the recent Kyle Rittenhouse trial through the lens of every Law & Order episode we’ve ever seen combined with a rudimentary understanding of the situation.
And to those of us that saw a 17 year old cross state lines with an AR-15-style rifle to protect businesses and a community that he wasn’t actually part of, it seemed pretty clear that he murdered two people and wounded a third.
Of course, we were all proved wrong last week when Rittenhouse’s crocodile tears secured him an acquittal. And now we’re faced with a society that has emboldened vigilantism. It left many of us scratching our heads and wondering how in the holy hell it wasn’t murder when he shot a person armed with a plastic bag.
The answer is that he feared for his life. As Wisconsin’s self defense law states:
“A person…may not intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.”
Translation: You can kill somebody if you feel like they are going to kill or hurt you.
This was the sentiment that convinced the jury to return not guilty verdicts on all accounts. Kyle Rittenhouse interpreted the actions of Gaige Grosskreutz, Anthony Huber, and Joseph Rosenbaum as potentially life threatening so he shot them.
A Person’s Life Shouldn’t Be Subject to a Teenager’s Judgement
I don’t know about you, but I was pretty stupid when I was 17 years old. You can’t vote, you can’t join the military, you can’t even go to a strip club when you are 17 because your decision making skills simply aren’t refined enough.
But apparently you can decide if another person lives or dies.
Snap judgments are very difficult to deconstruct after the fact. There’s so much going on in an intense situation that people often resort to animal instincts. As stated in Smithsonian Magazine:
“While caught up in the event itself, your brain strips down to its most basic fight-or-flight response. Oftentimes, this helps the victim think clearly enough to find an escape route — at the cost, though, of processes like memory-making. Adrenaline starts pumping, helping the victim to react quickly and giving him extra strength to escape his predicament.”
We focus on survival and deal with the specifics later. And unfortunately, teenagers simply aren’t at the top of their game when it comes to making decisions. The University of Rochester Medical Center states:
“Good judgment isn’t something they can excel in, at least not yet. The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.”
This is an unfortunate truth when it comes to picking a major in college or selecting a romantic partner. This is a travesty when it comes to interpreting a situation you put yourself in and deciding the only way out is to shoot and kill multiple people.
We Need to Consider the Product of Open Carry and Self Defense Laws
But like many problems in our society, it all stems from the system in which our courts operate. Rittenhouse could legally carry the gun because the barrel was 16 inches long, making it technically a hunting rifle which is legal to carry from the age of 16.
Combine that with the self defense law stated above as well as the state’s open carry law, and you have an upstanding member of society that was completely justified in killing two people.
I’m not here to debate gun laws. We’ll just leave it at a basic agreement that there are arguments for both of these laws. However, we need to consider how these laws add up to create potentially dangerous situations.
Take alcohol, for instance. It’s perfectly fine to drink 100 beers in your house. It’s also legal for those with a proper license to drive a car. However, it’s illegal to drink 100 beers and then drive a car. One legal act makes the other legal act illegal.
So what is the solution? How do we create a drunk driving version of open carry? As I said earlier, I’m not a lawyer. I’m just a guy who’s watched every episode of SVU.
But here’s what I do know:
“It Felt Appropriate at the Time” Isn’t a Good Reason to Shoot Somebody
This is especially true if the shooter is 17 years old. The problem is that this case is going to be held up by those on the right as a patriot standing up for himself and his community. They’ll ignore the fact that he had no reason to be there in the first place, had multiple other ways to get out of the situation without murdering two people, and shouldn’t be able to claim self defense for consciously agreeing to put himself in a situation that had a high likelihood of becoming violent.
But it was legal. The problem here isn’t Kyle Rittenhouse and his immature decision-making skills. It’s the system that made his actions not only legal, but admirable (to some). If you give people the ability to make their own judgement call on what they “reasonably believe” then you open the door for anything and everything.
Reasonable belief isn’t concrete. And if you look around at what’s happening these days, you could argue it’s in short supply. A group of people recently gathered in downtown Dallas because they had a reasonable belief that JFK Jr. was going to come back from the dead to run as Trump’s vice president. Seriously.
So you make it okay for people to have high capacity guns, you give them the ability to make a judgement call on when it’s justified to use them, and you make it perfectly acceptable for them to bring those guns into highly populated public areas.
We shouldn’t be mad at the verdict. The court simply abided by the short-sighted laws that look great to a certain demographic of voters, but terrible when they walk off the page and in front of a random storefront during a protest.
I have a reasonable belief that situations like the Rittenhouse predicament are not only predictable, but inevitable.