Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal spurs strong reactions from both sides of the US gun debate – ABC News

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As the last of five "not guilty" verdicts was read aloud, Kyle Rittenhouse shook with sobs and collapsed, nearly falling out of sight of the television camera fixed on him in a Wisconsin courtroom.

Key points:

  • Conservatives hailed Mr Rittenhouse as a hero for exercising his right to self-defence
  • Gun control advocates warned the verdict could inspire a new wave of armed vigilantism
  • Mass shootings have plagued the United States for decades

It was instantly the defining image of the 18-year-old's murder trial, which became such a subject of passionate debate about guns and justice that major broadcast and cable news networks set aside regular programming to reveal the jury's decision.

There was no shortage of strong opinions in the verdict's wake.

"I knew this case was big," Mr Rittenhouse's lawyer, Mark Richards, said after the trial during a news conference carried live by cable news networks.

A protester holds a placard reading 'Kyle was guilty'

Gun control advocates warn the jury's verdict could inspire a new wave of armed vigilantism.(AP: Ringo HW Chiu)

"I never knew it was going to be this big," he said.

Demonstrators gathered in a number of US cities, including Kenosha, Los Angeles, New York and Oakland, to protest against the verdict.

"[We're feeling] real anger and devastation about the fact that young black men, young black boys like Trayvon Martin, are shot dead because they are carrying around Skittles and someone like Rittenhouse is not guilty in all verdicts when he shot two people and went across state lines and used a violent weapon to murder people," Natalia Marques, a protester in New York, said.

"I mean, it's just it's absurd to me and it really reveals how broken the system is."

Demonstrators protest against the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict in New York

Civil rights advocates say the verdict would have been different if the shooter was black.(Reuters: David Dee Delgado)

President Biden says he will 'stand by' jury's decision

American conservatives hailed Mr Rittenhouse as a hero for exercising his right to self-defence 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 — armed with an AR-15-style rifle — travelled in August 2020 from his Illinois home to Kenosha after demonstrations erupted following the police shooting of black man Jacob Blake.

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The shootings took place during the third night unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

US President Joe Biden said he would "stand by" the jury's decision to acquit Mr Rittenhouse.

"While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken," Mr Biden said in a statement.

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 more rare in other wealthy nations, have plagued the country for decades.

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.

Judge Bruce Schroeder listens as a woman reads the verdict.

Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed all charges after the jury's verdict was announced in court.

"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.

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

Within minutes of the verdict, the National Rifle Association (NRA) tweeted the Second Amendment, which speaks of the right to keep and bear arms.

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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 misdemeanour charge against Mr Rittenhouse for illegally possessing the rifle he used in the shootings, citing vagueness in the law.

US congressman Madison Cawthorn, a Republican representative from North Carolina, said on Instagram: "Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty my friends. You have a right to defend yourselves. Be armed, be dangerous and be moral."

Congressman Paul Gosar suggested that he would offer Mr Rittenhouse an internship.

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Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said on Twitter the verdict was no surprise.

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Some commentators sought to separate that debate from the mechanics of the trial.

"You were seeing this play out in America online in a very different way than it played out in court, when you were watching every single detail," said Sara Sidner, a CNN reporter.

People hold placards including one that reads 'the whole system is guilty'

The US has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world.(AP: Noah Berger)

'Open season on human rights demonstrators'

Mr Rittenhouse's shooting of three people made him either a vigilante who was out to make trouble or a young man who defended himself from a mob, depending upon an observer's perspective.

Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump tweeted that the outcome "would be starkly different" if the shooter was a black man.

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Former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro agreed, voicing his opinion on Twitter.

“You know damn well that if Kyle Rittenhouse were Black he would have been found guilty in a heartbeat – or shot dead by cops on the scene," he wrote.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president and CEO Derrick Johnson tweeted that the trial was "a reminder of the treacherous role that white supremacy and privilege play within our justice system".

The Black Voters Matter Group tweeted: "Disappointed but not surprised. This is not justice. This is not accountability. However, this is America."

Mr Rittenhouse's acquittal created fear that protesters against racial injustice and other causes would be in danger from right-wing causes that already deemed Mr Rittenhouse a hero after the shootings.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader and activist, said the verdict suggested "it's open season on human rights demonstrators".

You view a man of African American descent sitting on a white hospital bed in a green spotted gown.

The shooting left Mr Blake paralysed from the waist down.(Twitter: Ben Crump)

"The concern over this verdict is compounded by the fact that [Jacob] Blake, who was originally the issue, was shot by a policeman seven times in the back," Reverend Jackson said.

"He's in a wheelchair today, paralysed forever. And that policeman is walking the streets of Kenosha, on the force today."

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Posted , updated 

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