Protesters confront each other outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Kenosha, Wis., during the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding a third during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
As Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in two killings that he said were self-defense, armed civilians patrolled the streets near the Wisconsin courthouse with guns in plain view.
In Georgia, testimony in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers showed that armed patrols were commonplace in the neighborhood where Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was chased down by three white men and shot.
The two proceedings sent startling new signals about the boundaries of self-defense as more guns emerge from homes amid political and racial tensions and the advance of laws that ease permitting requirements and expand the allowable use of force.
Across much of the nation, it has become increasingly acceptable for Americans to walk the streets with firearms, either carried openly or legally concealed. In places that still forbid such behavior, prohibitions on possessing guns in public could soon change if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a New York law.
The new status quo for firearms outside the home was on prominent display last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Local resident Erick Jordan carried a rifle and holstered handgun near the courthouse where Rittenhouse was tried for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle during a protest last year.
“I got a job to do — protect these people. That’s it,” said Jordan, referring to speakers at a news conference that was held in the hours after the verdict.
Speakers included an uncle of Jacob Blake, the Black man whose death in a shooting by a white police officer touched off tumultuous protests across the city in the summer of 2020.
“This is my town, my people,” Jordan said. “We don’t agree on a lot of things, but we fight, we argue, we agree to disagree and go home safe, alive.”
“That’s real self-defense.”
The comments were a counter punch to political figures on the right who welcomed the Rittenhouse verdict and condemned his prosecution.
Mark McCloskey, who pleaded guilty in June to misdemeanor charges stemming from when he and his wife waved a rifle and a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their St. Louis home in 2020, said the verdict shows that people have a right to defend themselves from a “mob.” He currently is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.
The verdict arrived as many states are expanding self-defense laws and loosening the rules for carrying guns in public. Both gun sales and gun violence have been on the rise.
At the same time, six more states this year removed requirements to get a permit to carry guns in public, the largest number in any single year, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In all, 30 states have enacted “stand your ground” laws, which remove a requirement to retreat from confrontations before using deadly force.
Wisconsin has a tougher standard for claiming self-defense, and Rittenhouse was able to show the jury that he reasonably believed his life was in danger and that the amount of force he used was appropriate.
Ryan Busse, a former firearms-industry executive who now supports moderate gun control as an author and consultant, said the case reinforced the normalization of military-style weapons on city and suburban streets.
“Reasonable gun owners are freaked out by this,” he said. “How is it that we see this and people are just like, ‘There’s a guy with an AR-15.’ That happens in third-world countries.”
He highlighted that a lesser charge against Rittenhouse as a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon was dropped before the verdict.
“There’s a facet of Wisconsin law that allows kids to take their hunting rifle out with their dad or uncle,” Busse said. “Well he’s not hunting. … The old gun culture is being used to cover up for this new, dangerous firearms culture.”
Gun-rights advocates seeking greater access to weapons and robust self-defense provisions argue that armed confrontations will remain rare.
Republicans including former President Donald Trump have been quick to applaud the verdict. They stand by Rittenhouse as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness and exercised his Second Amendment rights.
Discord over the right to carry guns in public places spilled over into state legislatures in the aftermath of a 2020 plot to storm the Michigan Capitol, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and other threats. States including Michigan and New Mexico this year banned guns at their capitols, while Montana and Utah shored up concealed-carry rights.
At the Supreme Court, justices are weighing the biggest guns case in more than a decade, a dispute over whether New York’s gun permitting law violates the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
Defenders of the law say that striking it down would lead to more guns on the streets of cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
During oral arguments this month, justices also appeared to worry that a broad ruling might threaten gun restrictions on subways and at bars, stadiums and other gathering places.
New York’s law has been in place since 1913. It says that to carry a concealed handgun in public for self-defense, an applicant has to demonstrate an actual need for the weapon.