Politics

“Liberals Really Need to Look at the Fact That They’re Going to Need to Defend Themselves”

In the wake of the Rittenhouse verdict, a liberal gun rights activist explains why she thinks both sides got this trial wrong.

A person stands on a railing outside the courthouse holding a “Free Kyle” sign while a man in a hoodie walks in the foreground holding a folded American flag.
Outside the Kenosha County Courthouse hours after the Rittenhouse verdict was announced on Friday. Scott Olson/Getty Images

More than a year ago, Kyle Rittenhouse used an AR-15 to kill two and maim another in a messy scramble during an anti-racist protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As of yesterday, he can declare himself exonerated. Rittenhouse cried when he took the stand to testify about raising his rifle to kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and shoot Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm, but following his acquittal, he’s already set for an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Monday evening show. Counterextremists have voiced their concerns that the teenager’s vigilantism has become a cause célèbre for underground right-wing domestic terrorist groups. The rest of us are left grappling with what the jury’s decision means about how we define an “active shooter,” and what exercising one’s right to self-defense means.

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One of the biggest questions to come out of this trial is over guns’ place at protests and in public spaces. Lara Smith is an attorney as well as the national spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club, an alternative gun owners advocacy group and Second Amendment forum that doesn’t subscribe to right-wing rhetoric like the NRA’s. Smith believes that it’s time liberals—“America’s least likely gun owners”—embraced their right to defend themselves too. Smith, who sees the trial as a wake-up call, talked to me about her first impressions of the verdict, the threat of political violence, and the inevitability of a Rittenhouse copycat. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: How did you end up the national spokesperson for liberal gun owners?

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Lara Smith: I am kind of the stereotype. I am the upper-middle-class white suburban mom. I’m literally packing to take my child to a sport tournament out of town. I didn’t grow up with guns at all. And then I married a Marine. I believed guns are bad and dangerous, and my husband kept saying to me, “I’m good with you not wanting a gun if you have the facts right. But I don’t think you do. Will you please just go take a lesson? Go take one.” I took some lessons and I found out that I was good at it. It felt very empowering and it was fun, and that was not something that I had ever seen in the gun debate on either side. It was either “guns were for defending yourself” or “they will kill you if you had one in your house, period.” I Googled “women and guns” or “liberals and guns” and found two groups, the Liberal Gun Club and A Girl & A Gun, and got involved with both. Then I started really learning more about root cause mitigation and learning more about what does and doesn’t work, like how we could ban all the AR’s and statistically it wouldn’t do anything about gun deaths. I liked the club and I liked the people. I had some press background from being an attorney, and they asked me to do an interview and I said I would. I started being one of the people who talked about it a lot in the press from a pro–Second Amendment standpoint.

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Do you have any problems with the way the media covered Kyle Rittenhouse and his trial?

I had a terrible problem with how it turned into a morality question more than what had actually happened. I think that was really hard to see through. I think the discussion should have been about what on Earth are we doing when we say that it’s OK to arm a 17-year-old to go out and defend property against legal protests? But I also think that if you attack somebody, you might get shot. And self-defense is a real defense. And even if we don’t like the person who was defending themselves, it shouldn’t be about whether you like or don’t like the people involved. Being there doesn’t automatically get rid of your right to self-defense.

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As an attorney, did you have any thoughts on the way the trial was conducted?

I have my own law practice. They’re lucky there wasn’t a mistrial in the case. From what I was watching, I feel like the prosecutor didn’t believe in their case. The prosecution was doing a prosecution on moral values instead of law. That was a problem.

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When you look at the statistics for who owns guns in America, it’s very, very skewed. Fifty percent of registered Republican voters own guns, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats. If we’re talking the right to self-defense in the context of political protest, it seems like Republicans, by a factor of 3 to 1, will be more likely to be doing the self-defending. Doesn’t this spell disaster for our future?

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Liberals really need to look at the fact that they’re going to need to defend themselves. This verdict isn’t this great acquittal of Rittenhouse being absolutely right and now we can go shoot protesters. But it will empower a segment of the population to say, “Hey, look, we can go shoot legal protesters now without repercussion.” Liberals need to think about that. Liberals need to be aware that there is this right to self-defense. And one side shouldn’t be the only side that’s armed.

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Having said that, somewhere between 20 to 25 percent of independent households have guns. And if you put liberals and independents together, they way outnumber Republicans in gun ownership in the U.S., by a lot. It’s when you start putting them together as those two groups that you start going, “Oh, wait, maybe it’s not just old white Republican men that are armed in the U.S.” Other groups are much quieter about it. I’m not saying, hey, let’s go and start having a lot of armed conflict here. I don’t think this is going to lead to some civil war, but that’s how some people are taking this verdict.

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I see some people online imagining the future of liberal protest in a Kyle Rittenhouse world. It’s not implausible that a copycat will show up to a protest to “protect themselves.” Won’t more guns set the stage for political shootouts?

Well, it’s not inserting himself into the space that gave Kyle Rittenhouse the right to self-defense. Everyone has the right to self-defense in the spaces you’re in. The liberals who were there had the right just as much as he had the right. The question “Is it a good thing to let 17-year-olds who are armed insert themselves into these spaces?” is a different question than “Who has the right to self-defense?”

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How can anyone expect to protest safely when everyone’s a new Kyle Rittenhouse, all entitled to defend themselves? Is the future of protesting really that grim?

Legal protests are legal protests. We have to, as a country, find a way to keep protecting the First Amendment. Police departments and the people who are responsible for public safety need to not enable vigilante justice. That’s a big problem, and if that’s happening, which there’s plenty of accusations that that’s what’s happened in Kenosha and that’s part of the civil suit, that’s a huge issue. That’s a separate issue from self-defense.

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Let me phrase it this way. Do you believe liberals need to bring guns to their protests?

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Carrying a firearm is a personal decision, and more people on both sides need better education about what it means to carry a firearm in the public sphere so that they can make those decisions for themselves. I’m not trying to get around that question. That is a big, complicated question. And my answer to that is everyone needs more training.

With laws in illiberal states making it legal to kill peaceful protesters with your car if they are in the road, and now with this decision in Kyle’s case, I worry the First Amendment right to protest is losing a lot of ground. The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about political violence from the right wing. There’s Paul Gosar’s tweets, Lauren Boebert calling Ilhan Omar “Jihad Squad” on the House floor, and Marjorie Taylor Greene calling her own Republican colleagues “traitors.” There’s also that Turning Point USA clip of someone extremely young asking, “When do we get to use the guns?” To Charlie Kirk’s credit, he denounced that right away, but the room gave an uproarious ovation. And with Jan. 6 being downplayed on the right, what position does that put liberals in, especially if they become armed?

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I think liberals are oblivious to that movement in the Republican Party and need to not be. I don’t think it’s Republicans, by the way. I go in plenty of rooms and I don’t think that most of the rooms are “When do we get to use the guns?” I think we’re looking at two different issues. The Rittenhouse verdict isn’t about that. It is not a blank slate for that kind of violence. Having said that, I think people are going to take it that way and it’s a problem. It’s a societal issue we’re going to have to address. Also, why is it that certain groups are being given preference by the police? That’s the issue we need to look at. Not even vigilantism, it’s vigilantism sanctioned by the state. That’s the issue we’re going to have to look at.

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One in 10 Republicans are OK with using violence to restore Trump as president, according to a recent poll.

Ten percent. Not everyone, but I think liberals need to be aware. It should not only be one political party in this country that’s armed. And you should not be so willing to give up your firearms because there are people out there who want to kill you for your political beliefs, like it or not. I think liberals are wrong to be saying “Let’s give up our firearms,” especially when there are people who want to kill you on the other side. It’s not everybody—and I have a problem when the press says, “Well, the Republicans want to kill Democrats.” That’s not true. But there’s a group of people who would happily kill people just for being liberal. And that’s a problem that liberals need to realize.

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I’m a journalist, and since Trump started calling us the enemy of the people, reporting in the field hasn’t always felt safe. I witnessed Trump supporters jump journalists in D.C. I look visibly Muslim, too. Should journalists like me be armed in this exonerated Rittenhouse world too?

I think you should get training. Go find a really good trainer, somebody you’re comfortable with. Go take some classes not just about how to fire a gun, but what it means to carry in situations like somebody might come after me because of what I do. Because there’s a lot that goes into defending yourself with a firearm that’s not “how do I fire the gun?” There’s a lot of mental and emotional and, frankly, for people who are religious, there’s religious aspects you need to consider. You need to get training and then you need to decide what it means for you.

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Does everyone armed, believing they’re the good guy—journalists and liberals and Republicans and the murderous 10 percent of them—complicate your belief in everyone’s right to self-defense?

It doesn’t complicate my ideas about it. It’s always been complicated. Who’s the good guy with the gun? Was Rittenhouse a bad guy who became a good guy? Was he always a bad guy? Were there bad guys and good guys in the crowd who were armed? I think the answer is always complicated. But I think it’s different than a mass shooting. It’s different than somebody who goes to the crowd with the idea that I’m going to kill people. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind, especially for people on the left, that he didn’t go there to kill people, even though him being there was just the worst judgment in the world and stupid and he never should have been allowed to be there. And it’s a true failure of our society that no one said to a 17-year-old kid, “You don’t go do this because you might shoot somebody. Even if you don’t want to. You don’t go do this.”

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But it is fundamentally different than somebody who goes to a mall or church or synagogue and starts shooting with the purpose of killing people. These gray areas are hard. And I don’t think it changes your right to defend yourself against the bad guy. It is tragic for Rittenhouse’s victims that they are dead, absolutely. Was he morally wrong? Absolutely. But I still think our legal system did its job. And, personally, do I like the outcome? No, but I’m still glad the system worked. I just wish it worked well more often.

I don’t necessarily like this verdict, and I want to be clear about that. But I understand this verdict. I don’t think this was exonerating a mass murder. I don’t think this was giving a carte blanche to shoot protesters. And I think that’s the two narratives that are being pushed. They’re both wrong. This was not about vigilantism. This was a whole series of horrible things. We never should have been having this trial. That kid should never have been there, and I think that’s the society’s failure. He just shouldn’t have been there at all.

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