Kyle Rittenhouse speaks with his attorneys before the jury is relieved for the evening during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, U.S., November 18, 2021.
Kyle Rittenhouse speaks with his attorneys during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, U.S. Image Credit: Reuters

A US jury acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in the murder of two people during racial justice protests has ripped open a Pandora’s Box and reignited a fierce debate about gun rights and the boundaries of self-defence in America.

Jurors found Rittenhouse, a teenager, not guilty on all charges on Friday: two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide for wounding a third man, and two counts of recklessly endangering safety in protests marred by arson, rioting and looting during August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The decision has set in motion a fierce debate over race, policing and identity with many noting the glaring attitude of an otherwise robust US justice system that has now allowed an armed vigilante to go free. There are question marks over gun ownership and the laws protecting vigilantism as well.

Curiously Rittenhouse’s trial was not about race. All three men he shot were white, as is he. The defence argued that he was acting in self-defence when he fired the deadly shots. The task before the jury therefore was to weigh the facts of the shootings and decide if they amounted to guilt under Wisconsin laws.

The trial was held at a time of social and political polarisation in the US where many saw Rittenhouse as a vigilante and an embodiment of America’s out-of-control American gun. The pro-gun lobby too backed the accused, arguing for expanding the right of self-defence through “stand your ground” laws that give individuals a presumptive right to use force to protect their homes and themselves, rather than to back down from a confrontation.

While the debate around the case in not expected to settle anytime too soon, the verdict does send a rather disturbing message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.

In this case the jury failed to take into account that Rittenhouse travelled 15 miles from his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha armed with a loaded AR-15-style assault rifle to join a group of armed vigilantes who brandished their weapons at the protesters.

Surprisingly the court did not allow the jury to hear any evidence of Rittenhouse’s ideology, or actions before and after the shooting, which was in many ways key to this case.

Be as it may, the trial and acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse highlights the deep division of America over the gun issue.