Hero or vigilante? Kyle Rittenhouse verdict reignites polarised US gun debate

A jury found 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of reckless and intentional homicide and other charges stemming from the August 2020 shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Kyle Rittenhouse is seen carrying a weapon during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, 25 August, 2020.

Kyle Rittenhouse is seen carrying a weapon during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, 25 August, 2020. Source: AAP

Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal on murder charges on Saturday opened yet another front in America's longstanding fight over gun rights: Is it acceptable for a teenager to bring an assault-style rifle to a protest?

Conservatives hailed Mr Rittenhouse as a hero for exercising his right to self-defense when he fatally shot two demonstrators and wounded a third who he said attacked him last year at a racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Gun control advocates warned the jury's verdict could inspire a new wave of armed vigilantism, after Mr Rittenhouse travelled in August 2020 from his Illinois home to Kenosha after demonstrations erupted following the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.

Guns have long been a potent political issue in the United States, where permissive laws have led to the highest rate of civilian firearm ownership in the world. Mass shootings, which are far rarer in other wealthy nations, have plagued the country for decades.

People await the verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S., November 19, 2021.
Source: Reuters

Mr Rittenhouse's decision, at age 17, to roam the streets of Kenosha toting a weapon in the name of protecting private property from rioters struck a particular nerve about just how far gun rights should extend.

"As the tragic events on that night in August showed, a 17-year-old arming himself with an AR-15 makes no one safer," top officials at Giffords, the gun safety group, said in a statement.

"Today's verdict sends a troubling message that will encourage further vigilante violence and murder."

Gun rights organisations and Mr Rittenhouse's supporters celebrated the outcome as a major victory.

Within minutes of the verdict, the National Rifle Association posted on Twitter the language of the US Constitution's Second Amendment: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Brandon Lesco, who was standing outside the Kenosha courthouse holding a "Free Kyle!" sign, said the verdict was just.

"Someone needs to be there to defend the American towns that people try to burn. I respect that he was there, I respect he carried a weapon, he used it properly, he used it legally. The jurors agree," said Mr Lesco.

The trial judge earlier this week had dismissed a misdemeanor charge against Mr Rittenhouse for illegally possessing the rifle he used in the shootings, citing vagueness in the law.

Liberals denounced Mr Rittenhouse's acquittal as further evidence of a racially biased criminal justice system. Mr Rittenhouse, like the men he shot, is white.

"That a white male youth can travel across state lines, armed with an assault rifle, and engage in armed confrontation resulting in multiple deaths without facing criminal accountability, is the all too familiar outcome in a country where systemic racism continues to rot the system," Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a statement.

Some legal experts were careful to draw a distinction between the specific facts of Mr Rittenhouse's case and the broader message it might send.

Kyle Rittenhouse is comforted by his lawyer as he is acquitted of all charges at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Source: AAP

Prosecutors had a high bar to clear to convince jurors that Rittenhouse did not reasonably fear for his life at the time he fired, according to Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Under state law, he was legally permitted to carry his weapon openly.

But Ms Geske said she worried the trial will teach the wrong lesson: "When you're out protesting or counter-protesting, it is perfectly fine to bring loaded weapons to 'protect yourself.' We're going to have substantial issues of who's defending themselves, when you've got two people with a gun?"

That sentiment was echoed by Karen Bloom and John Huber, the parents of Anthony Huber, one of the men killed by Mr Rittenhouse.

"It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," they said in a statement.

Protests erupted throughout several US cities on Saturday following the verdict, including in Portland, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Police declared a riot in Portland on Saturday night after what they described as "a violent, destructive group" began to breach the gate into the Multnomah County Detention Center.

"The crowd, which was described as hostile, launched urine, alcoholic beverages, water bottles and batteries at deputies during the event," police said in a statement.

"Vandals broke the windows of the city print shop on Southwest Madison Street...A patrol sergeant vehicle's rear hatch window was shattered."

The New York Police Department took to Twitter to decry violent protests in the city that resulted in at least five arrests and some property damage in Queens.

Police tweeted a photo of vandalised vehicles, including a car with handicap plates that had “F–k you” graffitied on the back in black spray paint.

"The NYPD takes its responsibility to protect the 1st amendment rights of peaceful demonstrators seriously. Just as important is the safety of NYers & the protection of property from people breaking the law in the name of protest," they said.

"As seen tonight in Queens, they will be arrested."

Published 21 November 2021 at 8:35am, updated 21 November 2021 at 10:03am
Source: Reuters - SBS