On Friday, after four days of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse: It decided the teenager was not guilty of the murders of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and the maiming of Gaige Grosskreutz, or of any of the lesser charges stemming from last year’s massacre during an anti-racist protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As the prosecution’s closing presentation made clear, the verdict will prove a devastating blow for the notion of crowd safety in a culture awash in guns and would-be vigilantes.
In the weeks leading up to the verdict, the case became a litmus test in the conservative culture wars. The right celebrated Rittenhouse as an avatar of their notion of vigilante justice. But the trial’s closing arguments brought another narrative to the fore. In the final hours of the trial, the prosecution attempted to co-opt the language of the right and its popular pro-firearm motto that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. With their last chance at shaping the narrative of this case, prosecutors painted the men who confronted Rittenhouse as heroes trying to stop an active shooter, making clear that each had as much right as Rittenhouse to defend themselves. In response, the defense attempted to redefine the phrase “active shooter” to exclude Rittenhouse’s actions: firing an assault-style weapon at four different people, killing two and wounding another. Apparently their attempt convinced the jury.
The case started to go very badly for the prosecution after the testimony of its star witness, Gaige Grosskreutz, who survived Rittenhouse’s attack but had his right bicep blown off by the 17-year-old. The turning point came when Grosskreutz testified that he was aiming a gun at Rittenhouse when Rittenhouse shot him in the arm (though he also testified that he was incapable of killing). The defense seized on his testimony, pointing to it as key to the defendant’s claim of self-defense. The testimony went so poorly for the prosecution that following it, the prosecution proceeded to ask Rittenhouse a series of questions that so blatantly disobeyed earlier rulings by the judge that the defense argued it must be trying to induce a mistrial.
In closing arguments, the prosecution made the case that the men Rittenhouse shot and killed were not presenting a threat to him, but rather acting heroically by trying to stop a bad guy with a gun. This is when they deployed the appropriation of the right-wing myth of the hero vigilante who is forced to take violent action to save lives, and redirected it to portray Rittenhouse’s victims as the actual heroes. It wasn’t convincing enough. The jury deliberated for nearly a week, but ultimately reached its unanimous verdict acquitting Rittenhouse.
Under Wisconsin’s law of self-defense, you cannot use deadly force to stave off an attack if you yourself provoked the attack. The prosecution tried to argue that it was Rittenhouse who had provoked Joseph Rosenbaum, who had recently been released from a mental hospital and had confronted others using racial slurs during the protests in Kenosha, rather than the other way around. As the prosecution told it, Rosenbaum was the one reacting rather than provoking: He saw a man wielding a semi-automatic weapon and pointing it at someone he knew, which was backed up by video evidence, and he tried to put a stop to it. But the jury was not convinced, opting to side with the 17-year-old who fired four shots into the older man, including one in the back.
This is where the prosecution’s case became a bit easier and what probably caused the lengthy deliberations. After Rosenbaum was shot, multiple people at the protest site tried to confront and disarm Rittenhouse. Prosecutors pointed out that Rittenhouse did not stick around to surrender himself to the police, but instead continued to wander with his gun aimed at other protesters. Because Rittenhouse was an active shooter, then, the prosecution could paint those who were seeking to disarm him—including Huber who attacked Rittenhouse with a skateboard and Grosskreutz who approached him with a gun—as heroes trying to save lives.
The prosecution attempted to force the jury to decide: In a world where everyone is entitled to defend themselves, how can the victims of a shooting be classified as the assailants and the active shooter be classified as the one acting in self-defense? The defense apparently won out by claiming Rittenhouse’s shootings were all justified because he feared for his life during each attack, despite being the one attacking.
“The state wants to call my client an active shooter. And the reason they want to do that is because of the loaded connotations of that word,” Rittenhouse defense attorney Mark Richards argued in his closing. “Everyone has heard of the theater killings, the school shootings, and things like that. Ask yourself: If the definition of an active shooter is somebody with a plan to inflict multiple casualties usually out of anger, or animus towards a group, [in] this case what caused Kyle Rittenhouse to shoot somebody?”
Richards’ definition of an active shooter is not the real one. An active shooter, according to the Department of Homeland Security, is “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a conﬁned and populated area.” By this definition—and to the crowd that tried to disarm Rittenhouse— Rittenhouse should have qualified. But the defense argued that he wasn’t, in part because he walked two blocks between his first shooting and his second shooting.
Richards further redefined “active shooter” so that his client would somehow not meet the definition by adding another false element: that an active shooter has to shoot everyone in sight indiscriminately. “If he’s an active shooter looking to take as many people as possible, he’s laying waste to everybody who’s running,” Richards argued.
This argument worked on the jury. It could have a crushing impact on mass gatherings in the near future: The Supreme Court is poised to make open carry the law of the land for every state in the nation, including ones that ban it now like California and New York. What this ruling guarantees is clear: There will be more Kyle Rittenhouses.