The Rittenhouse lesson for Montana — and beyond

If you’re going to carry more guns in public, tighten up the laws about when they can be used

November 19, 2021 6:16 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Kyle Rittenhouse remains a free … man, if such a term can be used for a teenager.

Nonetheless, he was a teenager who traveled across state lines with a weapon of war to defend a used car lot Kenosha, Wisconsin from vandalism. No car on that lot, no matter how luxuriously equipped, was worth the health and lives of the two people who died because they were on the wrong side of Rittenhouse’s gun.

Plenty will be written about the racial dynamics and the courtroom drama that is flowing from the Rittenhouse decision, delivered on Friday, which cleared him of all five felony counts in connection with the shooting, including murder. It has likely come as a shock to approximately no one that a clean-cut White kid can go free while shooting those protesting the unjust treatment of people of color.

Spare me any inane conspiracy conjectures about the dangers of critical race theory. If ever there were a textbook example of the disparities and dynamics of color and power in America, Rittenhouse is the poster child. And Rittenhouse is the reason that urgent attention to race and inequities must be paid in this country, where it’s unlikely that a Black teenager firing a gun, killing two and wounding another, would have seen the same jury outcome.

But more on that from other people and on other days.

What still remains baffling to me is that a boy can carry such a weapon – anywhere – and for it to seem not just normal, but acceptable when Rittenhouse did what guns are designed to do, fire live ammunition.

I own guns. I have a concealed carry permit. I am not some snowflake who is ready to melt at the first sight of a bullet.

But I am a reporter that has also looked under the sheet at a crime scene and stepped over the blood at another. Don’t for a moment tell me how benign these weapons are. They’re deadly. They’re powerful. And they don’t come with their own judgment.

This notion that guns belong everywhere from churches to schools to bars to college campuses is nothing more than paranoia being fomented by the gun lobby, which stands to make a killing off selling more guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile, states including Montana continue to make laws easier and easier for anyone to carry anywhere, but in order to make the argument work, leaders first have to convince you that the world is only becoming more and more dangerous – something that isn’t necessarily borne out by statistics.

My request, though, is simple: If we’re going to make it so easy for kids to protect used car lots with assault-style weapons, then politicians need to make sure we have better laws. Tighten up the laws that define use of deadly force and when it can be used.

Someone like Rittenhouse shouldn’t be able to go looking for a fight, carrying his gun with him, traveling another state away, then get to claim his life was in danger. You shouldn’t be able to pick a fight with the intent of using the gun without consequence. And if Rittenhouse was really so worried, he could have stayed at home in Illinois.

You want to carry a gun? Fine. And while you carry it, would it help if we all cower and look impressed?

But using a gun? That should be something different entirely.

And lawmakers should revisit the issue of the duty to flee. In some states and circumstances, residents have a duty to flee and call authorities rather than to open fire. If the law-and-order conservatives are really such big supporters of law enforcement, for example, Blue Lives Matters, then why don’t we trust them enough to protect our lives and property when we need them most?

Yes, I understand the Castle Doctrine, which says that I have the right to protect my family and property, even if that means the possible use of deadly force. But, I should also have an equal obligation to call the police; or, I should have an equally compelling duty to get my family to safety, then worry about an intruder.

Regardless of the Rittenhouse trial outcome, what remains undisputed is that the guns in Kenosha didn’t make the community safer, they only made it more deadly – and the full effect of that destruction may yet play out as Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has activated the National Guard to thwart any likely civil unrest.

The easiest thing in the world would be to blame this entire situation on racial tensions. And, surely that’s part of it. But it’s hard to imagine any situation like Kenosha that is made better by a gun.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.