Opinion | Kyle Rittenhouse’s Firearm Made Everything Worse – The New York Times


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Farhad Manjoo

The lead prosecutor in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial,  Thomas Binger, with the gun Mr. Rittenhouse used to shoot three people.
Credit...Pool photo by Sean Krajacic

Farhad Manjoo

Update: A Wisconsin jury on Friday acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of homicide and other charges.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks riveted by the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who shot and killed two people and injured a third during a night of Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis., last year.

It was a turbulent case. For many days the prosecution was on the ropes — some of the state’s witnesses seemed to bolster the defense’s case that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, while the crotchety judge frequently sided with the defense and blew up at prosecutors. After Rittenhouse began sobbing on the stand last week, it looked as if he’d be certain to walk.

But on Monday, the lead prosecutor, Thomas Binger, offered a meticulously documented closing argument that deftly summarized all the ways Rittenhouse acted unlawfully. We’ll see if the jury buys it, but to me, Binger’s argument had a power beyond this case.

That’s because it cleverly unraveled some of the foundational tenets of gun advocacy: That guns are effective and necessary weapons of self-defense. That without them, lawlessness and tyranny would prevail. And that in the right hands — in the hands of the “good guys” — guns promote public safety rather than destroy it.

In the Rittenhouse case, none of that was true. At every turn that night, Rittenhouse’s AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle made things worse, ratcheting up danger rather than quelling it. The gun transformed situations that might have ended in black eyes and broken bones into ones that ended with corpses in the street. And Rittenhouse’s gun was not just a danger to rival protesters. According to his own defense, the gun posed a grave threat to Rittenhouse himself — he said he feared being overpowered and then shot with his own weapon.

This is self-defense as circular reasoning: Rittenhouse says he carried a rifle in order to guarantee his safety during a violent protest. He was forced to shoot at four people when his life and the lives of other people were threatened, he says. What was he protecting everyone from? The gun strapped to his own body, the one he’d brought to keep everyone safe.

The shootings took place more than a year ago, in the pre-election, post-George Floyd, Covid-soaked summer of 2020. Near the end of August, a Kenosha police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake, leaving him partly paralyzed. The small city erupted in large protests that quickly turned violent and riotous.

The scene on the night of Aug. 25, 2020, had the makings of a classic gun-rights fantasy. An unruly mob had descended on private businesses. One such business was Car Source, an auto dealership with three locations in Kenosha. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and a resident of Illinois (his father lived in Kenosha), said he had come with a friend to protect Car Source on the invitation of the owner. He said he’d chosen a military-style rifle over a pistol because he believed he could not legally possess a pistol and, he conceded, in part because the rifle “looked cool.”

By the time Rittenhouse arrived, more than a hundred vehicles on a sales lot owned by Car Source had been set on fire. There were burning trash cans on the streets. Gunfire rang out often. Officers in riot gear and armed with tear gas were in control of much of the city, but there were sections where the police pulled back. It was here that the people with rifles took a stand against what they saw as a mob.

But as many witnesses testified, the rifles weren’t very helpful at all. Rittenhouse and others in his group said they didn’t intend to kill people that night; the main reason they brought the big guns, they said, was to deter attacks. That backfired. The guns seemed to invite conflict. Drew Hernandez, a right-wing internet personality who was covering the demonstrations, testified that when “rioters” spotted the men with guns, “they immediately attempted to agitate them, to try and start some conflict with them.”

Later that night, Rittenhouse left the car dealership and his armed peers and found himself in a crowd of strangers he suspected might be hostile to him. The prosecution says the killing began when Rittenhouse pointed his gun at Joseph Rosenbaum, an unarmed, 36-year-old protester, prompting Rosenbaum to run after him in an effort to stop a potential shooting. Rittenhouse denies provoking the attack; he says that Rosenbaum and another man, Joshua Ziminski, who was armed with a handgun, “ambushed” him, and chased him when he tried to run away.

Rittenhouse pointed his gun at Rosenbaum, but the man kept coming. In order to claim self-defense as a justification for shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse had to have believed that Rosenbaum posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to him. Binger asked Rittenhouse how he could have believed that — Rosenbaum “didn’t have any weapon of any kind, correct?”

“Other than him grabbing my gun, no,” he answered.

It’s a telling response — Rittenhouse’s main worry was his own firearm. As Rosenbaum closed in, Rittenhouse said it became clear to him that Rosenbaum wanted to take the rifle — and if he got it, Rittenhouse said, he would have “killed me with it and probably killed more people.” Rittenhouse fired four shots in quick succession, killing Rosenbaum, just as he said it seemed that Rosenbaum lunged for the weapon.

Chaos ensued. Rittenhouse ran, and people who had just seen him shoot Rosenbaum begin to go after him. At some point Rittenhouse stumbled, and while he lay on the road, an unidentified man jumped and kicked him in the head. Rittenhouse shot at “jump kick man” — as he was often called during the trial — but missed. A 26-year-old named Anthony Huber attempted to smash his skateboard on Rittenhouse’s head. Rittenhouse shot Huber in the chest. He died.

Finally, Rittenhouse was met by Gaige Grosskreutz, an E.M.T. who testified he firmly believed in the right to bear arms and prepared for that night like any other: “It’s keys, phone, wallet, gun.”

Grosskreutz said he had rushed to the scene to provide medical help; as he ran, he’d drawn his own gun, thinking that Rittenhouse was an “active shooter.” Rittenhouse and Grosskreutz squared up, face to face, each lethally armed. But Grosskreutz hesitated. After pointing his gun at Rittenhouse, he testified, he decided that he could not take another human’s life. Rittenhouse had no such qualms. He fired, hitting Grosskreutz in his right biceps.

After all this mayhem, all this death, what use were the guns that night?

The guns failed to deter attacks against their owners. According to the defense, Rittenhouse’s gun was a reason Rosenbaum pursued him. And Grosskreutz’s gun was the reason Rittenhouse shot him.

The guns failed any notion of proportionality or moderation. Prosecutors pointed out that Rittenhouse quickly fired four shots at Rosenbaum. Even if Rittenhouse felt genuinely threatened by Rosenbaum, why hadn’t Rittenhouse stopped shooting after the first shot, which could have immobilized Rosenbaum without killing him? (A defense “use of force” expert implied that the gun shot too quickly for him to pause and reassess the threat between shots.)

If you believe Rittenhouse’s defense, the gun also failed at a more basic level, that of ordinary product safety. Rittenhouse had his rifle strapped to his body but was still worried that it could be taken from him. How useful is a gun that can be pulled away from you by a guy who is also hitting you with a skateboard?

And finally, the guns failed at their most vaunted purpose, helping the good guys fight the bad guys. If Rittenhouse was your good guy, what good did his gun do him? How did it help anyone in the community he was trying to protect? It got two people killed, one person injured, and Rittenhouse himself facing charges of homicide.

On the other hand, it looked cool.

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