Kyle Rittenhouse, an 18-year-old who killed two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020, was recently acquitted of murder. Following the ill-decided verdict, legal experts have solely focused on possible case errors or the rulings of Judge Bruce Schroeder, who presided over the case (NPR, 2021). However, they should actually be paying attention to the defense team’s argument, which symbolized the inherent danger of open carry. The defense team used its misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and the right to fire as its main arguments, which if used in other cases will increase gun violence on both sides if unchallenged (CBS News, 2021).
The self-defense claim is predictable if the defendant fires a weapon at another person, as Rittenhouse did. Rather than a “whodunit,” this trial was meant for the defense team to explain why the shooting of three people, resulting in two deaths, was not a crime. According to Rittenhouse, his need to use deadly force was justified, as one of the victims, Joseph Rosenbaum, allegedly put his hand on the barrel of Rittenhouse’s AR-15 rifle (Rev, 2021).
Rittenhouse’s argument is often heard in cases where police officers face trial for the murder of unarmed people. In such cases, officers often cite their fear of having their weapons used against them (The Marshall Project, 2019). However, the self-defense claim is different from the perspective of an armed civilian. Instead of distancing himself from the effect of his gun, Rittenhouse and his defense team built their case upon it. They argued that because Rittenhouse possessed a firearm, he found himself in a place where he needed to use it; in other words, his gun was the very reason for the escalation of violence (Rev, 2021).
Meanwhile in Georgia, Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael were convicted for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Travis testified that his fear culminated when Arbery, an unarmed Black man, reached for the firearm used by McMichael. “I shot again because I was still fighting,” Travis said. “He was all over me, he was still all over that shotgun, and he was not relenting” (The New York Times, 2021). Self-defense laws are essential checks on criminal prosecution, but states with weak gun safety laws like Wisconsin and Georgia give shooters a practically clear path to an acquittal (Giffords Law Center, 2021). Narrowing these laws seems like an obvious solution at first, but concentrating on whether they need to be broader or narrower misses the point.
With regard to broadening gun laws, the U.S. Supreme Court recently reviewed the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen case, which challenges a century-old law requiring New Yorkers to prove reasonable cause if they request a concealed carry permit. For the first time in over a decade, the Court may consider expanding the Second Amendment, potentially bringing monumental consequences to nationwide gun laws. 25 percent of Americans live in a place that restricts their right to carry a concealed firearm (The New York Times, 2021). The Rittenhouse and McMichael trials may act as precursors to the inevitable decision by the Supreme Court to expand the right to bear arms.
Usual briefs for Second Amendment cases like Bruen are generated by gun rights advocates, such as the National Rifle Association and Republican Party (SCOTUSblog, 2021). It is disheartening that prestigious, liberal New York public defenders have also supported the overturning of the current law. They argue that their clients, predominantly poor Black and brown Americans who need to carry guns for self-defense due to systemic racism, are often targeted by such laws and therefore oppose them (scotus.gov, 2021). They argue that it is easier for white people and the middle class to receive permits than racial minorities and the poor. Moreover, they claim that their clients should have access to guns like many other Americans.
Americans who are trying to discount the Rittenhouse and McMichael trials as conservative arguments given to conservative juries in conservative states should heed the bold position these New York public defenders take. If we begin to think of guns as a problem only if they are in the other side’s hands, we will avoid the fact that unregulated gun laws escalate violence regardless of political affiliation. Their mere presence creates a need for self-defense on both sides, which the law does not always mention. If Joseph Rosenbaum and Ahmaud Arbery did reach for the guns, weren’t they also acting in self-defense? Simply put, more guns, regardless of who carries them, will create more unnecessary standoffs and more unnecessary deaths.