Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted, but the assault-style rifles are (once again) guilty in deadly shooting
Our view: The lure of military-style weapons has become intoxicating for a segment of Americans, and Kyle Rittenhouse was no exception.
Even as Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all charges Friday, the one crucial element responsible for the killings was never a subject of deliberation by the jury.
You can't put an assault-style rifle on trial.
But the Smith & Wesson AR-style semiautomatic rifle that Rittenhouse carried as he walked the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during a riot the night of Aug. 25, 2020, was at the center of everything that went wrong.
The lure of the military-style weapon has become intoxicating for a segment of Americans, and Rittenhouse was no exception. The teenager acquired the gun a few months before the shooting, even though he was legally too young – 17 at the time – to own a dangerous firearm.
He said the weapon was a key reason he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum during the mayhem. "If I would have let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would have used it and killed me with it," Rittenhouse testified during the trial.
Demonstrators saw the shooting and chased after Rittenhouse in an apparent effort to disarm him. One of them was Anthony Huber armed only with a skateboard. Huber grabbed the barrel of the AR-15, and Rittenhouse shot him to death.
"The irony of the case is that Mr. Rittenhouse has become a cause célèbre among gun-rights advocates, even though, according to his own defense, it was his carrying of the rifle that put him in danger in the first place," the Economist noted.
Such weapons were expressly designed for the battlefield, and that may be a good part of their appeal. “There are very few things that serve such a great form and function, and look cool,” one owner told NBC News several years ago.
They are also the weapon of choice in the worst killings. Assault-style rifles were used in the seven deadliest mass shootings of the last decade, according to a report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Where four or more people were killed in one setting, these guns were used in 85% of the fatalities.
The low recoil allows rounds from semiautomatic versions to be fired in rapid succession. When Rosenbaum was killed, Rittenhouse fired four shots in three-quarters of a second, according to his defense lawyer's closing argument.
Moreover, the high muzzle velocity of an assault rifle rounds causes enormous tissue damage. The shock wave from the bullet acts like the bow-wave of a speed boat, creating a corridor of destruction in the human body. It's why the kill-rate in shootings that involve these weapons is so high.
Huber died from a single round to the chest. A third person shot by Rittenhouse that night, Gaige Grosskreutz, survived a single bullet wound to his right arm. But the round tore away 90% of his bicep, and when graphic images of the wound were shown to the jury, several looked away in horror.
In a less divisive time, versions of these guns were banned under federal law. But those restrictions lapsed years ago, and only seven states and the District of Columbia now have some type of prohibition on assault-style rifles. Sales have skyrocketed, with 20 million of the weapons in circulation, and the AR-version Rittenhouse carried is among the most popular.
The primacy of assault-style rifles in American society is not a Second Amendment issue. When the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia authored a Supreme Court ruling in 2008 underscoring the Second Amendment's right to possess firearms, he said the freedom is "not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever."
The Rittenhouse verdict may go a long way toward defining the limits of self-defense. But the trial itself illustrates – sadly, once again – how a firearm designed for destroying the human body proved its purpose, with two dead, one mangled, and a fourth forever scarred emotionally because of his love affair with an AR-15.