Rittenhouse is latest symbol of a nation divided on guns, crime and protest

Three days after his acquittal in a polarizing case in Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse is now a teenaged avatar for a nation divided over the nature of justice, the societal role of guns and violence in political discourse.

The sight of Rittenhouse, 18, walking free on Friday after shooting dead two men and wounding another last year in unrest sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, also opened a fresh debate over state laws on self-defense and the concept of vigilantism.

The case’s political reverberations are already rocking a tense political environment ahead of 2022 elections and even the 2024 presidential race.

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, for instance, thaat the incident in the city of Kenosha shows Americans must not be allowed “weapons designed for battlefield use.” Meanwhile, ex-President Donald Trump, who appears to be preparing another run for the White House, has been praising Rittenhouse, who inserted himself into a volatile situation, as the “poster boy” for the right to self-defense.

The debate on Sunday talk shows and elsewhere about Rittenhouse came hours before an SUV plowed into a holiday parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, striking more than 20 people. Officials said multiple people were killed but gave no exact figures as relatives of those lost are notified. Police gave no details on the motives of the attack but said they had a person of interest in custody. After the tragedy, politicians from both sides of the aisle expressed condolences and offered prayers for the dead and first responders.

The extreme politicization of the Rittenhouse case has only increased since he was found not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and four other felony charges on Friday. The jury was bound to make its evaluation not on political considerations but on the narrower questions of Wisconsin’s law and video evidence and testimony presented at trial. It appears to have accepted Rittenhouse’s testimony that he fired after he felt that his own life was threatened during standoffs with two White men who died and one who was wounded and that he was acting in line with his right to self-defense.

If the jury system is to survive, verdicts must be respected by those who disagree with them — something President Joe Biden affirmed on Friday saying, “I stand by what the jury has concluded.” That, however, has not stopped an explosion of political reactions since Rittenhouse walked free from court that look certain to become even more controversial as he is made into a hero by conservative media, with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson securing exclusive access to him and members of his defense team during the trial for an upcoming documentary.

Democratic politicians, including Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Congress, have registered various levels of disappointment with the verdict, though some refrained from criticizing the jury outright. Others have been much more outspoken. New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called for a federal review of the verdict, tweeting: “Justice cannot tolerate armed persons crossing state lines looking for trouble while people engage in First Amendment-protected protest.” Rittenhouse, however, did not cross state lines with the weapon, according to testimony in the trial.

Gun control groups and civil rights activists have warned that the outcome of the case could trigger an outburst of vigilantism — of Americans deciding to take their vision of justice into their own hands and to enforce their will with firearms in a way that could let loose anarchy and threaten the First Amendment right to protest. And some prominent African American leaders have questioned whether a Black defendant in Rittenhouse’s shoes would have received similar treatment or would have lived to even have their day in court after a history of police shootings of Black men.

Case provides immediate test for O’Rourke on guns

The new campaign from O’Rourke, who came within three points of defeating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, was always going to cause a new kerfuffle over gun control.

In a Democratic debate in September 2019, the former congressman said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” calling for a government buy-back scheme for such weapons following a mass shooting in West Texas that killed seven people and wounded 22 others.

“Yes, I still hold this view,” O’Rourke told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday, trying to turn the conversation to his claim that permit-less carry laws signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would make the lives of the state’s police officers more dangerous. O’Rourke’s position draws him into a direct confrontation with the GOP incumbent, who has presided over a loosening of restrictions on firearms in an already heavily pro-gun state. The Rittenhouse verdict, however, effectively fast-tracked scrutiny of O’Rourke’s position only a few days after he announced his run for the governor’s mansion.

“This entire tragedy makes the case that we should not allow our fellow Americans to own and use weapons that were originally designed for battlefield use,” he said. “That AR-15, that AK-47 has one, single solitary purpose, and that is killing people as effectively, as efficiently, in as great a number, in as little time as possible. We saw that in Kenosha. We saw that in El Paso, Texas, where 23 people were murdered by someone with an AK-47 just in a matter of minutes. This is crazy.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is increasingly criticizing Trump’s election lies and could run for president in 2024, made a contrary case, choosing not to comment on the matter of guns but on what he views as the politicization of the case from the left.

“Justice was done … and the jury system works,” Christie said on Fox News Sunday. “I think those people on the left are just attempting to continue to tear our country apart for political gain. Anybody who looked at the videos of this could tell that this was an act of self-defense. Anyone who knows the law would know that,” Christie said.

The former New Jersey governor said he hoped Rittenhouse would be able to go on and live his life and “not become a political symbol for anybody.”

Given Rittenhouse’s cooperation with the behind-the-scenes Fox News documentary, even while the trial was going on, and the way he is being made a hero figure on the right, that possibility already seems to have disappeared only three days after his acquittal.

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