The Truth About Kyle Rittenhouse’s Gun

A Kenosha Police Department detective picking up the semiautomatic rifle that Kyle Rittenhouse used the night of the shootings in August 2020. Photo courtesy of The New York Times

A Kenosha Police Department detective picking up the semiautomatic rifle that Kyle Rittenhouse used the night of the shootings in August 2020. Photo courtesy of The New York Times

The murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who shot and killed two people and injured a third during a night of Black Lives Matter rallies and civil disturbance in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, has held my attention for the past several weeks. 

It was a tumultuous situation. The prosecution was on the ropes for several days, as some of the state’s witnesses appeared to support the defense’s claim that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, and the crotchety judge regularly sided with the defense and yelled at prosecutors. It appeared as if Rittenhouse would walk after he began sobbing on the stand last week.

On Monday, however, the lead prosecutor, Thomas Binger, delivered a painstakingly documented closing argument that expertly detailed all of Rittenhouse’s illegal actions. We’ll see if the jury agrees, but Binger’s argument struck me as having significance beyond this case. 

That’s because it deftly dismantled one of the most fundamental beliefs of gun advocacy: that firearms are effective and necessary self-defense weapons. That if they didn’t exist, lawlessness and tyranny would reign supreme. And that, in the correct hands — in the hands of the “good people,” guns contribute to rather than detract from public safety.

None of this was true in the Rittenhouse case. Rittenhouse’s AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle made matters worse at every step that night, driving up the danger rather than quelling it. Situations that might have ended in black eyes and broken bones became ones that ended with corpses in the street thanks to the gun. And Rittenhouse’s gun posed a threat to more than just opposing demonstrators. The gun, according to Rittenhouse’s own defense, constituted a serious threat to him, since he feared being overpowered and then shot with his own weapon.

This is circular reasoning as self-defense: According to Rittenhouse, he carried a firearm to ensure his safety amid a violent protest. When his life and the lives of others were threatened, he was obliged to shoot four individuals, he claims. What was it that he was shielding everyone from? The rifle he’d brought to keep everyone safe was strapped to his own body. 

The shootings happened more than a year ago, in the summer of 2020, during the pre-election, post-George Floyd, Covid-soaked season. A Black man called Jacob Blake was shot by a Kenosha police officer near the end of August, leaving him partially paraplegic. Large protests erupted in the little city, swiftly turning violent and disorderly.

On the night of Aug. 25, 2020, the setting resembled a typical gun-rights fantasy. A riotous throng had encroached on a private enterprise. Car Source, a Kenosha-based vehicle dealership with three locations, was one such company. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and a citizen of Illinois (his father lived in Kenosha), said he came with a buddy on the owner’s request to safeguard Car Source. He said he chose a military-style rifle over a pistol because he didn’t think he could legally own a pistol and, he admitted, because the weapon “looked awesome.”

More than a hundred vehicles on a Car Source sales lot had been set on fire by the time Rittenhouse arrived. On the streets, trash cans were on fire. There was a lot of gunfire. Much of the city was under the grip of riot police wearing riot gear and using tear gas, but there were areas where the cops backed off. It was here that the gunmen took a stand against what they saw to be a mob.

However, as numerous witnesses stated, the weapons were of no use. Rittenhouse and others in his gang claimed they didn’t want to murder anyone that night; the huge guns were brought primarily to repel attacks, they claimed. That had the opposite effect. The guns seemed to be begging for a fight. When “rioters” spotted the men with firearms, “they immediately attempted to irritate them, to try to cause some conflict with them,” said Drew Hernandez, a right-wing internet personality who was covering the demonstrations.

Rosenbaum continued to approach as Rittenhouse aimed his gun at him. To use self-defense as a basis for killing Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse had to think that Rosenbaum was about to kill him or cause him significant bodily injury. Rosenbaum “didn’t have any weapon of any type, correct?” Binger asked Rittenhouse how he could have believed that.

He said, “Other than him taking my gun, no.” 

Rittenhouse’s only concern was his own firearm, which is a telling answer. As Rosenbaum closed in, Rittenhouse claimed it became evident that Rosenbaum wanted the weapon, and that if he had it, he would have “killed me with it and maybe killed more people,” according to Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse killed Rosenbaum with four shots fired in rapid succession, just as he said Rosenbaum rushed for the firearm.

The result was chaos. Rittenhouse bolted, and others who had just witnessed him shoot Rosenbaum began pursuing him. Rittenhouse tripped and fell to the ground, when an unidentified man jumped and kicked him in the head. Rittenhouse fired a shot at “jump kick man,” as he was dubbed during the trial. Anthony Huber, 26, attempted to slam his skateboard into Rittenhouse’s head. Huber was shot in the chest by Rittenhouse. He passed away.

Finally, Gaige Grosskreutz, an E.M.T., met Rittenhouse and testified that he strongly believes in the right to bear guns and prepared for the night like any other: “Keys, phone, wallet, pistol.” 

Grosskreutz claimed he raced to the area to provide medical assistance, drawing his own revolver in the process, believing Rittenhouse was a “active shooter.” Rittenhouse and Grosskreutz stood face to face, each armed to the teeth. Grosskreutz, on the other hand, paused. He testified that after pointing his gun at Rittenhouse, he realized he couldn’t kill another human. Rittenhouse, on the other hand, had no such reservations. Grosskreutz’s right biceps was damaged by the bullet.

What good were the guns that night after all this mayhem and death? 

The firearms were ineffective in deterring attacks on their owners. The defense claims that Rittenhouse’s gun was one of the reasons Rosenbaum pursued him. And it was Grosskreutz’s gun that caused Rittenhouse to shoot him.

Any idea of proportionality or moderation was shattered by the guns. Prosecutors showed out that Rittenhouse fired four rounds at Rosenbaum in a matter of seconds. Why hadn’t Rittenhouse stopped shooting after the first shot, which could have rendered Rosenbaum immobile without killing him, if he felt truly scared by him? (A “use of force” expert for the defense suggested that the gun fired too quickly for him to halt and reassess the threat between shots.)

According to Rittenhouse’s argument, the pistol also failed on a more fundamental level of product safety. Despite having his firearm strapped to his body, Rittenhouse was concerned that it would be snatched from him. How handy is a rifle that can be taken away from you by a skateboarder? 

Finally, the weaponry failed to perform their most lauded function: assisting the good folks in their fight against the bad guys. What good did Rittenhouse’s gun do him if he was a nice guy? What benefit did it provide to anyone in the community he was attempting to protect? Two persons were killed, one was injured, and Rittenhouse was charged with homicide.