When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of two murders he believed were self-defense, armed civilians patrolled the streets near the Wisconsin courthouse with guns in plain sight.
In Georgia, testimonies in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers showed that armed patrols were the order of the day in the area where Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was chased by three white men and shot.
The two proceedings sent surprising new signals about the limits of self-defense as more guns come out of homes amid political and racial tensions and the advance of laws that relax licensing requirements and expand the permitted use of force.
In much of the country, it has become increasingly acceptable for Americans to walk the streets with firearms, whether openly or legally concealed. In places where such behavior is still banned, the ban on owning guns in public could quickly change if the US Supreme Court overturns a law in New York.
The new status quo for outdoor firearms was featured prominently in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week. Local resident Erick Jordan carried a rifle and holstered pistol near the courthouse where Rittenhouse was tried for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle during a protest last year.
“I have a job to do – protect these people. That was it,” Jordan said, referring to speakers at a press conference held in the hours following the verdict.
Speakers included an uncle of Jacob Blake, the black man whose death in a shooting by a white police officer in the summer of 2020 sparked tumultuous protests in the city.
“This is my city, my people,” Jordan said. “We disagree on many things, but we fight, we argue, we agree to disagree and go home safe, alive.”
“That’s real self-defense.”
The comments were a blow to political figures on the right who welcomed the Rittenhouse verdict and condemned his prosecution.
Mark McCloskey, who pleaded guilty in June to felony charges that arose from him and his wife brandishing a rifle and pistol at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their St. Louis home in 2020, said the verdict shows. that people have the right to defend themselves from a ‘crowd’. He is currently a Republican nominee for the United States Senate in Missouri.
The verdict came as many states are expanding self-defense laws and relaxing rules for carrying guns in public. Both gun sales and gun violence are on the rise.
At the same time, six other states this year scrapped requirements to get a permit to carry guns in public, the largest number in a single year, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In all, 30 states have enacted laws to stand firm, eliminating the requirement to withdraw from confrontation before using deadly force.
Wisconsin has a stricter standard for claiming self-defense, and Rittenhouse was able to show the jury that he reasonably believed his life was in danger and that the amount of force he used was appropriate.
Ryan Busse, a former director of the firearms industry who now serves as an author and adviser to moderate gun control, said the case bolstered the standardization of military-style weapons on city and suburban streets.
“Reasonable gun owners are shocked by this,” he said. “How come we see this and people think, ‘There’s a guy with an AR-15.’ That happens in third world countries.’
He stressed that a lower charge against Rittenhouse as a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon had been dropped before the verdict.
“There is an aspect of Wisconsin law that allows children to take their shotguns with their father or uncle,” Busse said. “Well, he’s not hunting. … The old gun culture is being used to cover up this new, dangerous gun culture.”
Gun rights advocates seeking greater access to weapons and robust self-defense provisions argue that armed confrontations will remain rare.
Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, were quick to applaud the verdict. They stand behind Rittenhouse as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness and exercised his Second Amendment rights.
Disagreements over the right to bear arms in public places have spilled over to state lawmakers in the wake of a 2020 plot to storm the Michigan Capitol, the January 6 U.S. Capitol Uprising, and other threats. States, including Michigan and New Mexico, have banned guns in their capital cities this year, while Montana and Utah have strengthened rights to covert transportation.
Supreme Court judges consider the largest gun case in more than a decade, a dispute over whether New York’s gun law violates the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear weapons.”
Defenders of the law say taking it down would lead to more guns on the streets of cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
During pleadings this month, judges also seemed concerned that a broad ruling could threaten gun restrictions on subways and in bars, stadiums and other gathering places.
New York law has been in effect since 1913. It states that in order to carry a concealed gun in public for self-defense, an applicant must demonstrate that they actually need the gun.