A lot of controversy concerning how to talk about Kyle Rittenhouse. Initial reflections on some of the relevant issues below…
Something to clarify at the outset: I have very limited experience with guns myself. I have family members with guns, but I’ve never shot a gun. (I’m not opposed to doing this, and may do firearms training myself, just so I can be better educated.) And most of my experience with “gun advocates” is on social media and in a few conservative social circles. I don’t have direct access to debates within gun circles (to the extent there are such debates) about access, training, and use of guns. I should also say that I’m not against gun ownership per se. I am concerned, however, about access, training, use, and culture. Just a disclaimer to start.
Some of the key issues:
- There are a number of legal issues, as the kid broke the law in multiple ways, even before he shot anyone.
- There are significant issues related to American gun culture, and how guns are presented by people who promote guns (and the “2nd Amendment”)
- There are significant issues with American policing, both in its (positive) portrayal and in practice
- There are issues of racism, though they would largely not be identifiable for those who have not been educated on how to identify racism.
The legal issues may be the easiest:
1(a). He misrepresented himself as an EMT to people. You have to be at least 18 to be an EMT. He is 17.
1(b). He was in illegal possession of a firearm. (Again, he was 17.)
1(c). He illegally crossed state lines with an assault-style rifle.
1(d). Deadly self-defense usually only applies when you are faced with deadly force. This might include when someone has a gun pulled on you, but usually doesn’t include when someone merely possesses a gun. The fact that the individuals who ran after and hit him may have been in possession of a weapon is not enough to state that he legally acted in self-defense.
American Gun Culture
Some of the American gun culture issues:
2(a). American gun culture seems to me to be tied up with a pagan sort of heroism, a sort of pseudo-Christian martyrdom complex tied up with a self-appointed responsibility to be the arbiter of violence. People with guns often (though not always) express at some point a desire to enter into an endangered space as arbiter of the domain, appointing themselves as vehicles of justice and peace. The carrying of a gun is not seen as a grave and tragic necessity, but as an expression of power. They say that this expression of power is meant to be imposed on those who would do harm. This is how I’ve heard gun advocates defend, for example, open carry. But the effect is often to diminish everyone who occupies the same space as the gun. I, and many others, feel *less* safe when someone is in the room with a weapon, regardless of whether that individual has a license to carry.
2(b). I have never shot a gun. But it does seem to me that there is a sort of thrill associated with shooting it. Many probably do target practice with the aim at being more skilled (and thus more careful) with their weapon. However, there are also many who do target practice with a gun just for fun. This isn’t to say that such a thrill will motivate one to shoot another person. But it contributes to the American mythos of the gun and the gun carrier. The passion that makes this fun is dangerous and is often not sufficiently accounted for by gun advocates.
2(c). Gun advocates in situations like the one which Kyle entered don’t really want to assist the police, but, rather *be* the police. This is related to 2(a). The police in Kenosha did not want citizens with guns present. The county sheriff refused to deputize citizens and wanted citizens with guns to leave. The armed citizens did not do so. They considered their private judgement, as gun-carriers, superior to that of the police and state officials.
2(d). Situations like this, where deadly weapons are drawn tend to be very intense, with quick reactions often dictating what occurs. Reflex, panic, and immediate decision making are often what drives the action. This is the worst possible situation for a citizen (and especially a teenager) to be in possession of a deadly weapon.
2(e). Many gun advocates would state agreement with the much of above. However, it’s not clear what they’re doing practically and proactively to address these problems. Further “training” will not be sufficient. Gun advocates also fail to address that, while a small number of deaths are prevented by armed citizens acting in defense of themselves and others, the majority of gun deaths (including the deaths at issue here) would have been prevented if guns were simply not present.
2(f). Some gun-carriers exhibit an extreme degree of self-delusion. Kyle, for example, stated that he went to Kenosha to protect property and lives. However, when asked, he said that he was in possession of no non-lethal means of doing this. (He did say he carried a first aid kit, but he also falsely claimed to be an EMT, and thus we might question this as yet another further example of a kid who is out of touch with reality due to his idolized vision of American policing and gun carrying.)
2(g). Even though Kyle has clearly broken the law (and broken gun laws), many “2nd amendment,” “gun rights,” police, and “law and order” advocates are defending him, raising money for him, and holding him up as a leader. Ironically, the “law and order” advocates are promoting a kid who broke the law.
When it comes to American policing, the issues are so numerous that they can’t be captured in one post. But some of the most relevant issues:
3(a). The picture of the American police as essentially a strong man with a gun. This image attracts the last type of person who should be a police officer: someone who wants to exert power. This is promoted by law enforcement itself. When Kyle participated in a cadet program with the Antioch Fire Department and the Graylake Police Department, the program did not focus on being good community members, getting a high-quality education, and restrained leadership. Rather, the 14 to 21 year olds had the “opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement” primarily through two activities: ride-alongs and *firearms training.* This underscores that policing is half about patrolling and half about carrying a gun. Kyle was fifteen when he had this firearms training. (The internet pages describing the program have been deleted.)
3(b). The discriminatory actions of police. The Kenosha protests began because the police shot an unarmed black man in front of his children. In contrast, when police encountered armed (white) citizens who were violating the curfew, one officer in a livestream said, “We appreciate you guys.” In addition, Kyle wasn’t arrested or stopped, even after the shootings. Police just let him walk by with his big assault-style rifle, even though what they were responding to at the time were gunshots and gun injuries in the immediate vicinity. The way Kyle got arrested is that he eventually just turned himself in.
3(c). Don’t even get me started on the institutional issues in American policing. Anyone with familiarity with the institutional problems facilitating abuse in the Catholic church can spot them from a mile away.
On the issues of racism… This is something that many people simply won’t agree on. But if you want to make sense of why people are saying that Kyle is racist and has espoused racist ideology, you need to possess at least a basic understanding of racism and contemporary American culture. Some issues relevant to the question of racism:
4(a). Kyle traveled from out of state with a deadly weapon, openly visible, into a situation of intense protest and rioting and was confident that he would not be harmed by the police.
4(b). Kyle has promoted “Blue Lives Matter” on his social media
4(c). One point of clarification, as some have associated Kyle with the “Kenosha Guard Milia”: The “Kenosha Guard Militia” included a post that said: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out (sic) City tonight from the evil thugs?” This language is recognizably racist for anyone who has studied racism in America. However, Facebook clarified that they did not have evidence that Kyle followed the Kenosha Guard Militia page or was invited to their event. But this doesn’t mean that Kyle wasn’t being racist. Just as many Americans require video proof before they believe a black man was unjustly killed by police, they require explicit public and recorded statements by individuals before they will believe those individuals’ actions are racist. When considering harm, I often believe it’s important to focus primarily on the perspectives of those harmed, rather than on the perspectives of those defending the person who committed the harm.
In terms of active motivation, I suspect that Kyle really did go to Kenosha with the goal of “protecting” it. It seems to me that what he was most upset by is the damage to private property, and his immediate goal was to prevent it. But that doesn’t mean that his motivations weren’t also racist. That active motivation may also have had racist foundations.
I don’t believe these issues are simple. I believe they are complex. There are many simple things that could have prevented Kyle’s killing of three people (the first one being the police not shooting yet another unarmed black man). But the underlying issues are much harder to address.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.