I don’t know if Kyle Rittenhouse was just a scared kid, trying to “help” people, when he shot three men, killing two of them, on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Or whether Rittenhouse was, as I admit I suspect, a would-be vigilante who had come from nearby Illinois carrying what he called his “cool” gun — an AR-15 style weapon, the weapon of choice for many of your more infamous mass murderers that a friend had brought for him — to “protect” businesses that had been, or could be, vandalized by protesters. In that case, he would have brought his gun to, well, protect and serve — in his mind — as if he were a cop and not a kid carrying a dangerous and fully loaded weapon illegally in a state in which you can’t shoot at a person for destroying property.

He was 17 at the time, which made carrying that gun illegal, although some argue the point. He’s now 18, and it would be perfectly legal for him to carry the gun, not unlike, you may remember, those heavily armed militia types in Michigan who came to intimidate state lawmakers who had the effrontery to lock down the state during the worst stages of the pandemic.

Mike Littwin

The fact that no one ever, at any point, shot at Rittenhouse and the further fact that only in one instance was anyone other than Rittenhouse — and, of course, the well-armed police on the scene — carrying a gun seem strong points in favor of conviction.

Rittenhouse fired his gun eight times that night, four shots at an unarmed Joseph Rosenbaum, two shots at an unarmed unknown individual, one shot at an unarmed Anthony Huber and one shot at an armed Gaige Grosskreutz.

But, as it turns out, many of the experts who watched the trial — I watched Rittenhouse testify, but hardly qualify as an expert — think that, under Wisconsin law, he may have effectively shown he was scared for his life and therefore could legally fire in self defense. One victim apparently grabbed for his gun. Another hit him with a skateboard.

So let’s assume for the moment that he was, in fact, scared — that his tears on the stand were real and not rehearsed, that he had gotten himself into a situation in which he either panicked or assumed that shooting at and killing people was the proper response to his situation.

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Let’s put aside, for the moment, the ugly certainty — a certainty at least in my mind — that to many people Rittenhouse would be, if convicted, a martyr and, if found not guilty on all counts, a hero. You may remember that former would-be hero, George Zimmerman, whose life after killing unarmed Trayvon Martin hasn’t seemed quite so heroic.

And let’s just settle on one thing, which becomes even more important before there’s a huge gun-control case before the Supreme Court that may answer some of these questions for future would-be martyrs or heroes.

For me, the question is: What is this guy — or any guy — doing carrying such a provocative weapon down a public street and particularly during a volatile situation when everyone was already on edge?

When I see the video of Rittenhouse walking past protesters to, he said, help put out a fire while carrying an assault-style weapon, that’s what I see — a nation crazy enough where this could be commonplace and not an affront to civilization. This is America in 2021 and it might just get worse.

You may remember the story of Naomi Bettis and Noah Harpham in Colorado Springs back in 2015. Bettis saw Harpham walking down the street with a rifle, looking, she said, distraught. She called 911. The police asked her if he was doing anything concerning, other than carrying a gun and looking distraught. She said no, and the 911 operator explained that Harpham wasn’t breaking any law.

Then, carrying an AR-15 and a revolver, Harpham shot and killed three entirely innocent people — people the shooter did not know — before police arrived at the scene and killed him in a shootout.

The Colorado Springs police knew it was legal to carry a gun in such circumstances because a few years earlier, they had arrested someone for open carrying in a park, which used to be illegal, but hasn’t been since 2003. He sued the city for an illegal arrest and won $23,000. It’s legal in most places in Colorado, an open-carry state, with certain Denver laws being an exception. 

Of course, we remember Aurora police stopping and arresting Elijah McClain, another unarmed Black man, who was reported to be acting strangely, despite doing nothing even remotely illegal, and how McClain died at the hands of police and EMTs. 

And there’s the trial now taking place in Georgia in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, who was Black and unarmed, was chased by three white men who said they thought he might have been involved in a break-in and were going to make a citizen’s arrest. There’s no evidence that Arbery was involved in a break in. His crime was twofold — running while Black (he was a dedicated runner) and running while Black in a neighborhood where, in parts of America, that can get you killed.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court just heard arguments in a key New York gun case, in which two men sued the state for denying them a license to carry a handgun in public. The law requires something called “proper cause,” and, after listening to the justices, it appears they’re siding with the idea that no proper cause is needed.

This from Chief Justice John Roberts: “You don’t have to say, when you’re looking for a permit to speak on a street corner or whatever, that, you know, your speech is particularly important. So why do you have to show in this case, convince somebody, that you’re entitled to exercise your Second Amendment right?”

As gun violence increases across America, as homicide rates are skyrocketing, as the evidence shows that the more guns there are in circulation, the more gun homicides there are, the Supreme Court may well gut laws like those in New York and in California. 

In other words, whatever happens in the Rittenhouse case, our national response to the homicide contagion could very well go beyond the normal response — which is, of course, to do nothing — and instead, ensure that we put even more guns in play.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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