At the gun store and firing range about 15 minutes from my front door in New Jersey, you get a little bit of everybody. I’ve been going for a while now—I’ve taken my older brother for his birthday; friends have taken me. The place reflects the wide range of people you get of all backgrounds and persuasions within a few dozen miles in Jersey, all of whom come together here to shoot at things. On the main floor, there is a large display of Black Rifle Coffee, the Trump-cheerleading brand that famously aligned itself with the Muslim ban. A few steps away, the range’s employees never give even the slightest hesitation before handing us bearded brown men loaded weapons to shoot at our purchased targets.
Inside, you can feel the muted pops from guns being fired behind a soundproof wall in your stomach. The air is crisp and the guns are neatly presented behind glass display cases. One day last week, an enthusiastic employee was helping two customers pick out a shotgun. “Anyone in the world will recognize that sound. This is the type of gun you’ll never need to fire,” I overheard him saying, pumping it over and over.
I’ve never felt much need to interrogate why I come here. Shooting is fun—that’s it. But watching the Kyle Rittenhouse trial over the past few weeks, and particularly how it’s become a flashpoint for American gun culture (just ask that coffee brand), I wondered what would happen if I actually talked to some people here about it. Do they really believe this kid is a hero? Late last week, as the trial wound down, I decided to stop in and ask a few.
Fernando, a white gun owner in his 30s who I discovered lives only a few blocks away from me in Newark, darkened a bit when I told him I was a journalist.
“I believe in freedom for all, but I don’t believe in the freedom for the bullshit press. People shouldn’t able to use the press as a mouthpiece for a political party,” he said.
“I’m a conservative guy, but I’m not watching Fox or any of that,” he said, apparently to clarify. Politics, he told me, has rotted the news “on both sides.”
On Rittenhouse, he said, “I don’t make judgment calls. I’m not privy to all the facts like the defense attorney and the prosecutor. They have all the facts and videos. I’ve seen a couple things, and I take what I hear on the radio or what I see on TV with a grain of salt. I don’t trust shit.”
“If this young man was attacked, and he used a gun to defend himself, that’s his Second Amendment right. It’s in the Constitution,” he continued. “Going back to the times of the Revolution, a man needed a gun to protect himself.” But did Rittenhouse need to carry his gun into a protest in another state? “I got an AR in this bag,” he said, softening. “I don’t believe people should use guns for violence. I like to target practice. That’s what I have them for, to tell you the truth.”
Jason, a white Republican gun owner in his late 40s, took some convincing to talk to me, but he eventually said it was clear to him what had happened.
“Everyone saw the film. The film I saw over the summer looked like self-defense to me,” he said. “They would have killed him.”
I mentioned that, while on the stand, Rittenhouse told the court that he purchased an AR-15 because “it looked cool.” Jason shrugged. “I think that’s an attraction for the AR-15. It does look cool. People trick them out. That’s what they’re for,” he said. “It’s fun.”
He’d like to see a mistrial with prejudice, but can see Rittenhouse getting convicted, if only on a lesser charge. “He was 17,” he said in a soft voice.
Willy, a new gun owner in his 30s, was carrying his Glock 43X inside with him when we spoke. A native of Haiti who came to New Jersey as a child, he told me he wanted guns for self-defense. He already has his eyes on a second one.
But Willy, the first nonwhite shooter I spoke to that day, had a different view of the case. “He’s at fault. He’s 17, not in his state—what exactly is he defending?” he asked. “A gun should only be for when danger comes to you. I’m not going to look for something and try and be a hero. If someone screams for help, I might help them, but I won’t act like it was self-defense.”
He also found Rittenhouse’s behavior on the stand offensive. “He’s pulling his white card. This guy has some nerve. I’m like, ‘Yo, you did all that, and you thought you would get away with it?’ ” he said. (Still, he believes Rittenhouse will win: “It’s America.”)
Willy encouraged me to stop renting guns when I come to the range, and buy one to keep for my own protection. He said he thinks the Rittenhouse case is a good example of why someone like me should become a gun owner. “I think everybody should go and get yours,” he said. “Just for self-protection. Get you something. Those two people he killed, I bet if he knew more people had guns, he wouldn’t have been so cavalier.”
Lloyd, another Black visitor in his 30s, was also skeptical of Rittenhouse. He’s been paying close attention to the trial and says all the evidence needed was available on video since last summer.
“I think it’s bullshit. They are giving him too much leeway,” he said. “To me, it’s premeditated because he brought a gun to a protest. I can’t go to your house with a gun to get you—I’m getting locked up for a long time.” (Lloyd, like Willy, did not volunteer his political leanings.)
Lloyd, who owns at least three guns, bought his weapons not to protect his home but his family. He was careful to make the distinction. “I got insurance to replace everything. I can’t replace my family. That’s all it is. It’s a tool just like any other tool,” he said. If things were to ever go wrong, he told me he can’t imagine himself being treated the same as Rittenhouse. (“They took that white boy who shot up a Black church to McDonald’s. You think they’d take me to McDonald’s?” he said. I unfortunately knew what he was talking about.)
Lloyd has a concealed carry permit, but keeps his gun locked in his trunk. He doesn’t like showing it off. He worries that the Rittenhouse case makes all gun owners look reckless. “Think of the responsibility of how it reflects on you as a gun owner,” he said. “I think it’s OK to want to protect yourself, but I don’t believe your right to own a gun is just a right. It comes with responsibility.”