Overview:

Common sense and law should tell us that it's crazy to allow kids to pack heat anywhere.

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FYI to my readers: My OnlySky essays are always informed by secularism, nontheism and humanism but do not always focus on patently irreligious themes. My essential aim is to investigate our world from the perspective that gods are nonexistent.

Blind justice, it turns out, can be too blind.

Take, for instance, then 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men and severely wounded a third with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle during 2020 protests and rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The deadly violence followed protests, rioting, and arson after the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white officer. It was just another in a continuing series of police killings nationwide of usually unarmed African-American men.

The judge in Rittenhouse’s murder trial ruled that Wisconsin hunting laws allow teenagers to legally and publicly use the weapon—its 16-inch barrel was deemed technically long enough to qualify, under the state’s hunting laws—which allowed him to kill and injure people at the protests and successfully claim appropriate, justifiable self-defense.

Persons under age 18 may not possess firearms for non-hunting purposes unless accompanied by an adult.

Wisconsin’s 2021-2022 hunting regulations

Even though the judge admitted he had serious issues with lack of clarity in Wisconsin’s gun laws pertaining to minors, he eventually sided with the defense and jettisoned the illegal gun-possession charge. However, to my reading, it seems pretty clear the law allows 17-year-olds to use lethal firearms only while hunting or target shooting and only under adult supervision.

Wisconsin’s hunting regulations for 2021-2022 read:

“Persons under age 18 may not possess firearms for non-hunting purposes unless accompanied by an adult, except that persons ages 14-17 who have completed Hunter Education can possess legal shotguns and rifles without being accompanied by an adult.”

Since this language is within the state’s hunting statutes, it seems logical to assume that the entire passage refers to specifically keeping hunting situations safe, not allowing kids carte blanche to carry weapons anywhere they please after proper training.

What was Rittenhouse hunting?

So, the interpretation would then be that 14-17-year-olds completing the hunting program are allowed to hunt with firearms without adult supervision. But it does not logically follow that these kids would also then be legally allowed to use firearms in any other situation — such as at a chaotic protest over the controversial killing of a black man by police, where deadly weapons and aggressive behavior reigned.

Common sense should verily shout to us that the law’s intent was never to have teenagers running around with assault rifles at protests. I strongly suspect if we asked the drafters of the legislation if that was their intent, they might laugh. I doubt that was the blind justice they were going for.

Still, Rittenhouse’s defense team interpreted the statute otherwise, and the judge acquiesced. Blind justice would prevail.

The existential problem with too-blind justice is these fundamental facts: Rittenhouse brought a deadly AK-14 to the Kenosha protest that fateful night, and was attacked as he brandished it. It is very reasonable to assume that the simple, arbitrary presence of his weapon that night led directly to these attacks against him and to his fateful decision to fire upon the eventual victims, and feel justified. His provocative decision (to carry a semi-automatic weapon at an emotionally charged protest) was what led to his feeling existentially threatened

When victims aren’t victims

An added puzzlement in the trial is that the judge prohibited the prosecution from describing as “victims” those killed and wounded in the melee, but the defense was allowed to refer to protesters as “rioters,” although most were peaceful. This could foreseeably have influenced the thinking of jurors.

So, if Rittenhouse, as the judge and defense claimed, was legally allowed to carry his weapon during the protests, it could be argued that others would not be allowed to take offense and feel unduly threatened unless he pointed it at them for no good reason. And if anyone attacked him, he could see it as unprovoked—and their acts as a provocation to him.

Except that firearms by their very nature are threatening and, in emotionally charged environments, just their presence alone can be dire provocation—which is exactly why some people at the protest came after Rittenhouse (but only one of them was armed with a firearm, a pistol, and he did not attempt to shoot Rittenhouse).

Rittenhouse, testifying that he felt attacked and extremely vulnerable that night, and fearful his attackers sought to take his gun and use it on him, fired away—pumping four bullets in rapid succession into his first victim, killing him.

Did blind justice unsee murder?

Yet, if the defendant was legally entitled to carry this powerful weapon and bystanders were not apparently entitled to be unduly alarmed by it, then self-defense became a legally valid excuse for Rittenhouse when their alarm resulted in physical altercations with him.

Which meant that, once illegal possession was off the table, the prosecution’s homicide and reckless endangerment case against Rittenhouse effectively collapsed, and the baby-faced defendant walked out of the courtroom free immediately after the verdict.

In the right-wing maelstrom, the nation now finds itself buffeted by, this verdict will surely be viewed by a great many wannabe vigilantes as a green light to show up at any highly charged incident armed to the teeth, and protected by self-defense laws if attacked by someone who feels threatened by them.

The verdict in Rittenhouse’s case may have “blindly” followed Wisconsin law in applying “justice,” but if it had opened its eyes to the broader horizon of actual reality and allowed for a common-sense appraisal, justice could have looked far different.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...