How Americans’ views of self-defense have changed

By Mark Guarino

6:23 a.m. 

Kyle Rittenhouse has become a Rorschach test for the United States’ culture wars, and at the center of the competing characterizations is his gun.

According to Rittenhouse’s handlers, the teen is “an honorable person who was forced to shoot people in a matter of self-defense,” said branding expert Tim Calkins, who teaches marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. “As a result, he represents all the good things about our country, such as taking responsibility and standing up for what is right.”

On the other hand, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger has depicted Rittenhouse as a violent vigilante who was armed with an AR-15-style rifle because he “was hunting humans, not deer.”

As jury deliberation begins in Rittenhouse’s case, the 12 people who are determining his fate probably will be more accustomed to the idea of legal self-defense than jurors in the past, said Gabriel Chin, a criminal law expert at the University of California at Davis. Courts, policymakers and advocacy organizations such as the National Rifle Association have made self-defense arguments more palatable in recent years.

“There’s a much wider window for use of deadly force than there used to be,” Chin said. The actions of armed vigilantes can be justified if there is reasonable belief they will be subject to deadly force, he said.

“You can’t take the law into your own hands and appoint yourself the police officer of your neighborhood, but you can say ‘I’ll strap on a gun and if the lawful use of force arises, I’m going to use it.’” Chin said. “Forty years ago, the courts might have deprived you of your right to use force as self-defense, but now much less so.”

If Rittenhouse is acquitted, it will not set a legal precedent for loosening self-defense laws further, he added, because context is critical in establishing reasonable doubt.

“For those who do believe Kyle Rittenhouse had a great idea, if they emulate him, they could wind up getting convicted even if [he] doesn’t,” Chin said. “It would be extremely risky for people to say this is a good path to follow.”

Regardless of the verdict, people will interpret it in divergent ways, predicted Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who now teaches law at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“Was he a young kid with a serious weapon taking out people or, alternatively, with the rioting and looting on the other side, was he helping save the community?” she said. “Clearly people are going to see things in this case that are political versus factual or legal because our country is so divided politically and somehow this case has lined up on that same partisan path.”

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