Chicago Tribune editorial board
This much we can say with certainty: A 17-year-old visibly armed with a semiautomatic rifle in the thick of a violent protest is a powder keg by itself. Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois, has been arrested and charged as an adult so far in connection with two deaths in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
This much we also can say: The tragedy that unfolded was avoidable.
There was a heavy law enforcement presence in Kenosha late Tuesday and into Wednesday. There was a curfew in place. There were demonstrators defying the curfew, breaking glass with hammers and setting buildings and vehicles on fire. And there were groups of armed citizens standing guard, at least some of whom were self-organized in what they called the Kenosha Guard.
In the middle of it was Rittenhouse, earlier seen being interviewed on camera, rifle dangling near his side, speaking with confidence about his “job” and responsibilities. “People are getting injured. Our job is to protect this business,” he said in footage compiled by the New York Times.
Another video posted on Twitter from the account @ElijahSchaffer of BlazeTV, a conservative outlet, shows what appeared to be a protester pulling a handgun out of his pants pocket and aiming it at cameras.
Some people at the protests were peaceful. Some were armed and angry. That’s a powder keg, too.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the shootings and their aftermath, whether Rittenhouse was in Kenosha on his own or belonged to a group. Wisconsin allows the open carry of weapons, which gives citizens the right to be armed in many public places. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said he was asked to deputize armed citizens to assist with law enforcement during the protests, to which he replied: “Oh hell no.” Rightly.
But let’s be clear: Individuals can arm themselves to protect private property in the state of Wisconsin. They can do it in Chicago, too, with proper registration. During on-and-off looting in Chicago and surrounding communities this summer, some business owners and groups organized to stave off further looting. Illinois is not an open carry state, but it does allow concealed carry for gun owners who undergo training and background checks, a change in state law forced by court challenge and carried out by a Democratic legislature.
According to at least one report, gun sales this year are up an estimated 72% nationally compared with this time last year, the Washington Times reported, a reflection of growing insecurity in safety across the country and in several demographic groups.
The problem with armed militia, though, should be an obvious one: They’re not trained as law enforcement personnel and should have no role assisting police during a riot. Standing guard by invitation at a car dealership is different from patrolling the streets. The first may be acceptable in emergency situations; the second is dangerous and irresponsible.
And the fact that Rittenhouse, age 17, was there at all with a loaded weapon presented a grave risk to everyone. He was too young to open carry, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He was violating curfew. He was too inexperienced to act as armed security. He reportedly had an infatuation with law enforcement but had no legitimate reason to be on the streets with a rifle that night.
And so: Just as we should expect legitimate, peaceful protesters in cities across the country to police themselves – to assume some responsibility when rioters invade their midst and begin engaging violently with police – we should expect self-described militia organizations to obey the law, respect the role of law enforcement, police themselves – and assume some responsibility for rogue vigilantes who join their cause.
Plenty went wrong in Kenosha this week. The result has been tragic.
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