Was the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial About Race, the Second Amendment or Neither?

The verdict in the highly politicized Kyle Rittenhouse trial erupted into a free-for-all as racial justice, gun control and gun rights advocates all tried to claim the jury's decision as a way to push their respective causes.

The events leading up to the shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, 2020—when Rittenhouse fatally shot two men and injured a third—were heavily intertwined with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd's death and regained momentum following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

As racial justice protesters poured into Kenosha to call for police reform after Blake was shot seven times by a white officer, others traveled to the small Wisconsin city to protect local businesses that were set ablaze and looted amid the unrest. Among these so-called vigilantes was the then-17-year-old Rittenhouse.

After the night turned deadly, many activists contrasted the treatment of Rittenhouse—both that evening and in the year-and-a-half that followed—to Black Americans, like Blake, and BLM protesters, who were being shot and tear gassed by police officers that same summer.

In the months after the Kenosha shootings, Rittenhouse's delayed arrest and pictures of the teen flashing white power signs while on bail became subject to backlash from critics who argued none of these incidents would be permitted if it was a Black teen who traveled across state lines with an AR-15 and shot people dead.

"Kyle Rittenhouse's trial served as a prime example of the tragically disparate treatment between Black and white Americans," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told Newsweek. "Rittenhouse's decision to go to Kenosha and provoke protestors was unwarranted, dangerous, and some have said rises to domestic terrorism."

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Kyle Rittenhouse enters the courtroom to hear the verdicts in his trial prior to being found not guilty on all counts at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 19 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Sean Krajacic/Getty

When the jury in Rittenhouse's case acquitted him on all charges, racial justice activists saw it as a confirmation that there are "two justice systems at work in America."

"From the outset, this case has pulled back the curtain on the profound cracks in our justice system—from the deep bias routinely and unabashedly displayed by the judge, to the apathy of officers who witnessed Rittenhouse's crimes and did nothing," civil rights attorney Ben Crump said in a Friday statement. "If we were talking about a Black man, the conversation and outcome would be starkly different."

Over the course of three-and-a-half-days, as the jury deliberated, BLM protesters and supporters of Rittenhouse returned day after day in anticipation of a verdict that would deliver each group what they believed to be justice.

While some members of opposing sides were seen sharing pizza and remaining peaceful, others were seen clashing loudly outside the courthouse.

Those who attended in support of the defendant were not there to argue against the BLM activists' calls for racial equality, but to defend their constitutional right to bear arms.

And so the not guilty verdict also became a rallying call for both aisles of the gun debate.

Gun rights groups saw it as proof that the nation believes the Second Amendment should prevail, while gun control advocates proclaimed that it sent a "troubling message" to the nation.

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Demonstrators with opposing views gather outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse as the jury deliberates in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse on November 16 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty

Because Rittenhouse contended that he acted in self-defense that night, the right to bear arms emerged as a central talking point in the case.

Friday's verdict implied that the jury unanimously agreed that Rittenhouse had the right to fire his rifle out of fear of death or great bodily harm—a decision gun rights groups saw as a win to their cause.

"Today, the American justice system worked as designed, and a young man who has been lambasted, defamed, and threatened by the media and anti-gun Left was declared innocent of all the charges against him," the executive director of the National Foundation of Gun Rights (NFGR), Dudley Brown, said in a statement following the verdict.

The NFGR was one of the first organizations to back Rittenhouse, raising over $50,000 last year to help pay for the teen's legal fees.

"Self-defense is a God-given right, and Kyle defended himself in the face of grave danger and bodily harm," Dudley said. "We hope that Kyle will now be allowed to live a free and prosperous life, and that all Americans will understand that the Second Amendment isn't about hunting – it's about the right to defend oneself from tyranny and lawless criminal actors."

On the other side, gun control advocates called the verdict "a perversion of justice," "a horrifying reminder" and "a gross miscarriage of justice." They cautioned that allowing Rittenhouse to walk free would permit gun violence across the country to persist.

"There is no right to carry a firearm—much less an illegally bought assault rifle—across state lines to terrorize and play 'police officer,'" the Brady Campaign's chief counsel, Jonathan Lowy, said in a statement. "And this tragedy shows what happens when civilians feel entitled to bring guns anywhere."

"If the Kenosha Killer had not brought an assault rifle to that protest, no one would have died. Because he did, two people were killed," Lowy continued.

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A Black Lives Matter supporter, left, argues with a supporter of Kyle Rittenhouse in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse while the jury deliberates the Rittenhouse trial on November 16 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Nathan Howard/Getty

However, racial justice activists argued against the debate entirely, describing it as a distraction from the real issue at hand.

"This was never a case on the right to bear arms, or the right to defend yourself, this was a case on white supremacy," Johnson said. "The fact that Rittenhouse was able to be apprehended safely, made out to be a victim in the media, and ultimately walk away a free man at the decision of a nearly all-white jury paints a grim picture of the state of race relations in this country."

As various groups continue to use the verdict to make political statements about the social climate of America, legal experts have maintained that the jury's decision is one pertaining to a specific criminal case and not a wider generalization on where the nation stands on racism or guns.

Speaking with reporters outside the courthouse, Rittenhouse's defense attorney, Mark Richards, said that unlike Rittenhouse's prior attorneys, he did not take on the defendant's case to argue a cause.

"I don't represent causes, I represent clients," Richards said.

"If [Rittenhouse] was looking for someone to go off on a crusade, I wasn't his lawyer," he added.

Michael McAuliffe, a former federal prosecutor and former elected state attorney, also emphasized to Newsweek that neither political issue was being presented to the jury.

"The case––legally––is about the shooting deaths of two individuals, the wounding of a third person with a weapon and the reckless endangerment of others. Self-defense is the legal justification for those actions," he said. "The evidence and the jury instructions don't address or refer to race or the Second Amendment. And, as you know, the gun charge was dismissed."

Rittenhouse had also been charged of unlawful possession of a firearm by a minor, but the defense team successfully argued that the charge should be dismissed based on the size of the rifle's barrel.

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A man holds up a peace sign in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse while the jury deliberates the Rittenhouse trial on November 16 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Nathan Howard/Stringer

"The underlying tension in the case may well be about guns and one's use of weapons in a situation that has the backdrop of confusion and chaos," McAuliffe said.

"However, the jury's job is to ignore the larger issues and focus on whether the defendant committed a crime or crimes through his actions that evening," he added. "Criminal juries shouldn't be making larger policy statements when determining the potential criminal culpability of a defendant."

Even the prosecution and President Joe Biden have urged the nation to respect the jury's verdict and trust the system, despite earlier remarks expressing hope there might be some type of guilty verdict.

"While we are disappointed with the verdict, it must be respected," lead prosecutor Thomas Binger said in a Friday statement. "We are grateful to the members of the jury for their diligent and thoughtful deliberations."

Biden echoed those sentiments, saying: "While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken."

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