Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict: a Tragic Outcome of Vigilantism

Justin Fan ’24

The recent Kyle Rittenhouse court case has stirred controversy. Many feel that the line separating self-defense and murder is blurred. Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, was in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a local BLM demonstration. Although not the first case of self-defense turned fatal in America, it has touched nearly every single hot button issue in American politics: Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, gun control, white privilege, and the double standards in the U.S. legal system.

In the U.S., racial diversity is one of our most espoused values. However, many of the current social issues resulted in rising racial tension and discrimination. The BLM movement erupted like a volcano: years of untold police discrimination and social injustice came to light following George Floyd’s murder. Despite noble goals and good intentions, BLM was plagued by opportunistic people that tarnished its reputation. Social media and subsequent violence led many local community members to seek vigilante justice for protection. Vigilantism is the actions of a self-appointed group of people to undertake law enforcement without legal authority. I must note that generally, a vigilante is neither inherently bad nor good. Unfortunately, this vigilantism took a dark turn after the deaths of two men and a fatally wounded third resulting in the court case we saw recently. The shooting was not because Rittenhouse became trigger happy; it was because of self-defense where he fired after being confronted by three men in separate interactions.

A man holds a “Free Kyle” sign near Bradford High School during President Donald Trump’s visit on September 1, 2020 – By Lightburst via Wikimedia

This case raises many questions that fall into a gray spot in the law. The law neither defends nor directly punishes vigilantism, leaving the verdict to evidence and a jury. Vigilantes must rely on the moral justification and circumstances of their crimes. In this case, Kyle intended to protect local businesses and their property by using his rifle. Historically, this event nearly mirrors the ideas that birthed America’s gun tradition: the right to protect property, a distinctly American phenomenon. Yet in the past, it was muskets and flintlocks, now, an assault rifle. The fact that a seventeen-year-old teenager, not even an adult, was able to get his hands onto a firearm, highlights the growing proliferation of guns on America’s streets. An armed seventeen-year-old adolescent boy in that high-stress situation was a disaster waiting to happen.

This case also sends a multitude of different messages. I’m worried that the acquittal conveys that Rittenhouse did nothing wrong. Governor Gavin Newsom of California said the verdict served as a message to “armed vigilantes” that “you can break the law, carry around weapons built for a military, shoot and kill people, and get away with it.” The idea that a person can bring a gun to an event of civil discourse threatens the foundation of our democracy: the freedom of speech. A gun is a tool to both defend and fight, but as demonstrated by the assault on the capital, it is also a tool to silence and intimidate. While the right to bear arms is as American as apple pie, so is the freedom of speech and the ability to speak out without fear. 

The future is something we can never predict but it is guaranteed that the issues of race and social discontent will remain. There will be many tense public events in the years ahead. The presence of guns is something that we should fear. No one brings a firearm to a protest to further civil discourse. As the Kyle Rittenhouse case shows, it is all too easy for the presence of guns to encourage chaos and violence.