The verdict in Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial in which he shot three men in street unrest in Wisconsin is set against the backdrop of deep political divisions in America and increased access to guns in the United States. Some fear that this could lead to more dangerous encounters.
After being attacked during a night of protests against racial inequalities in Kenosha, in the summer 2020, the 18-year old testified that he fired in self defense, killing two men and injuring another. Prosecutors claim Rittenhouse started the tragic chain of events by moving from Illinois to arm himself with an AR-style semiautomatic rifle.
Although legal experts agree that Rittenhouse's details provide a strong case for self-defense, others worry about the wider signal an acquittal might send. The jury that heard the case deliberated for a full day Tuesday, but did not reach a decision. They return Wednesday.
"It's simple to see how an exoneration could send the message that showing up armed anywhere you want is fine, and that when things get out of control, you can pull the trigger and let it go," stated Nick Suplina (senior vice president for law & policy at Everytown for Gun Safety).
This case comes as many states are expanding self defense laws and loosening regulations for public carrying of guns. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court seems to be poised for a repeal of a stricter New York gun permitting law. Gun violence and gun sales are both on the rise.
The people on the opposing side of the gun debate believe that armed confrontations are rare and will point to political divisions, rather than weapons. Alan Gottlieb, founder and president of the Second Amendment Foundation, said, "We've seen people express things publicly at events which are, quite frankly speaking, off the chart these days."
However, the availability of powerful weapons has increased in the U.S. over recent years. This is a very different situation from the time when the American legal concept for self-defense was created hundreds of years ago. Sam Buell, a Duke University professor of law, stated that this is a significant improvement on the situation. It is a basic principle that people can use deadly force when they feel threatened for their lives, but not if the aggressor is involved. In an earlier time, it was easier to determine who started the fight. But that is no longer true.
Buell stated that "that's kinda the exact issue that the sides seem like they are fighting about in the trial." "Clearly, law doesn't know the answer."
He said that the most significant change in U.S. self defense law in recent years has been the introduction of "stand your ground" laws. These laws remove the requirement to retreat from confrontations and allow for deadly force to be used.
Despite being under fire after high-profile shooting deaths such as that of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager from Florida in 2012 - they are now in effect in over half of the U.S. According to the Giffords Law Center for Prevent Gun Violence, Wisconsin does not have any, but there are three other states that have them: North Dakota, Arkansas, and Ohio.
Six more states have relaxed requirements for carrying guns in public. They no longer need to obtain a permit. This is the most recent change, according to Allison Anderman (the group's senior counsel).
She said that "in certain states, it seems like legislators are using 2020 to expand the power for people to threaten other people with guns and to kill them and escape from justice."
Gottlieb is one example of someone who argues that guns are necessary for self-protection in situations like protests, where emotions run high, and violence can be possible.
Buell warns against taking too much from a legal standpoint, regardless of the verdict in Rittenhouse.
He said, "It's a mistake for people to think that a jury verdict for one criminal case is the only way to solve these questions in society." It can't support that much weight. That weight is impossible for any case.