During the homicide trial against Kyle Rittenhouse, now 18, lawyers repeatedly turn to the facts surrounding the semiautomatic rifle that he used to kill two men and wound a third during the community unrest in Kenosha, WI last summer.
The Smith & Wesson M&P 15 in question can be seen in nearly all of the videos showing Rittenhouse that night, as he walks the streets of Kenosha with the rifle clearly dangling across his chest, or in his hands.
The general facts of the night are hardly disputed, a local ABC affiliate details.
Rittenhouse was armed with an AR-15 style rifle, fatally shooting protester Joseph Rosenbaum, and then shooting at three other people who confronted him.
Evidence shows Rosenbaum and another man, Anthony Huber, were killed, and another protestor, Gaige Grosskreutz, was wounded.
While Rittenhouse was on the stand Wednesday, giving his first public detailing of what happened the night of Aug. 25, 2020, the prosecutors raised questions about why he inserted himself at the scene — and his use of the deadly weapon.
Rittenhouse claims he used deadly force out of self-defense from an angry mob that was chasing him. Prosecutors disagree, saying Rittenhouse himself was the aggressor.
The question is less of guilt; rather, it’s about whether Rittenhouse’s actions are to be considered reasonable or criminal as he claims the shootings were the result of self-defense.
Because of this, attention is focused on the M&P 15—and the fact that a 17-year-old had a rifle in the first place.
According to the New York Times, one of the six criminal counts Rittenhouse faces is possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18. He has pleaded not guilty.
Wisconsin Gun Laws
Rittenhouse’s underage possession and open carry of a deadly Smith & Wesson M&P 15 has become a central topic of interest in the trial.
So, as an underaged teenager, how did Rittenhouse come to wield the rifle?
While on the stand yesterday, Rittenhouse revealed that back in May of 2020, when the beginning of America’s unrest following the death of George Floyd was reaching a crescendo, he had given his 18-year-old friend Dominick Black money to buy the rifle for him.
The pair would frequently take target practice together on Black’s family property.
They had planned to engage in a lawful transfer of gun ownership when Rittenhouse turned 18, according to the Washington Post.
It was revealed in his testimony on Wednesday that Rittenhouse was at Black’s house before heading downtown. Black’s stepfather had previously taken the family guns out of their safe and moved them into the house in case of a break-in.
On the day of Aug. 25, 2020, Rittenhouse simply took the M&P 15, and attached the rifle sling he bought at a sporting goods store earlier that day. Black says he did not say anything to dissuade him from bringing it, according to the New York Times.
Wisconsin state law clearly states that lawful gun owners can “generally open carry without a permit” as long as the person wielding the “dangerous weapon” is 18 or older. However, Rittenhouse’s defense attorney is arguing that his client was protected under a different “vague state law” that allows younger children to carry rifles for hunting.
Criminal defense attorneys who specialize in Wisconsin firearm law say it will be hard for the defense to get their perspective accepted.
“There are a variety of defenses to this charge; none of them are great or even rise to the level of good,” said Tom Grieve, a Milwaukee-based criminal defense attorney, who spoke to the Washington Post about the hunting law defense.
Legal Claim to Self Defense?
Some advocates have argued that Rittenhouse relinquished his right to self-defense by committing the crime of having carried a firearm while being under the age of 18.
But Racine-based attorney Patrick Cafferty who previously defended Jacob Blake in criminal court said that the legal basis for a self-defense argument “is sort of a moving target. It’s very fact-specific in each case.”
If somebody commits misdemeanor disorderly conduct by yelling at someone on the street, but then the person being yelled at retaliates by trying to stab the person yelling, the right to self-defense would be retained by the original aggressor who now is trying to avoid being stabbed, Cafferty told the Journal Times.
“It gets more complicated in the case of Rittenhouse,” Cafferty said.
He detailed that if Rittenhouse and his team can prove that he acted in self-defense in the killing of Rosenbaum, then the argument that he was defending himself from the other “mob” that was chasing him would have legs. However, if Rittenhouse is deemed to be the “aggressor in the situation” then he would not have the right to use deadly force.
“People have lost the right to defend themselves if they have provoked aggression against themselves,” Cafferty said.
In the shooting of Rosenbaum, “Rittenhouse is claiming ‘I didn’t commit a crime … Therefore (Rittenhouse argues) no one else had the right to disarm me,’” Cafferty said.
“That’s what this case comes down to.”
Supreme Court’s Perspective
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a major Second Amendment case that could settle once and for all whether the Constitution protects a right to carry guns — in public, according to CNBC.
The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Keith Corlett, No. 20-843, challenges that New York state law is “too restrictive” as it requires individuals to show “proper cause” in order to receive a permit for the open carry of a handgun, NY1 details.
The individuals who brought the suit, Robert Nash and Brandon Koch, argue that they were unlawfully denied self-defense handguns because neither faced “any special or unique danger to [their] life” yet they say the right to bear arms should grant them the ability to carry a gun “in public when a violent confrontation with a stranger could occur,” according to NY1.
“As this Court made clear in both Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, at its core, guarantees a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense,” Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote in their appeal to the Supreme Court. “Like the threats that might precipitate a need to act in self-defense, that individual and fundamental right necessarily extends beyond the four walls of one’s home.”
With the nation’s highest court now having a 6-3 majority of conservative justices over liberals, some advocates say there is a possibility New York’s strict gun law on concealed weapons could be shot down and deemed unconstitutional.
Additional Reading: Rising Gun Violence Threatens U.S. Democracy, Warns Researcher
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.