The verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is the beginning of something, not the end. In all likelihood, it's at least a milestone on a journey into the deep and the dark that even the most astute observers of the American experiment in its 246th year probably cannot yet fully grasp. But rather than focus on the verdict's merits, we could, as a nation, take this opportunity to reevaluate whether random citizens should be carrying highly powerful weapons in the street. The gun issue is finished in America, at least in terms of ownership. There are more guns in private possession than people in this country, and nothing will be done about that. It's over. But we could decide to draw a line somewhere. Keep your guns, but keep them in your house, say. Defend your castle, but the rules are different when you're out in the public square.
Because you can talk all you want about defense—of yourself or of someone else's business or whatever—but that is not the purpose of carrying an AR-15 around in the street. We got proof of that outside the courtroom in Kenosha this week, when some all-American winner showed up in military cosplay carrying a rifle. Was he there to defend the courthouse? Seems like there were plenty of actual law-enforcement personnel around—you know, the people whom we as a collective polity have deputized and entrusted with the authority to wield deadly force. Did they need backup from "Maserati Mike"? Well, to be fair, he merely said he was there to exercise his constitutional rights. So he was there to show off his gun. At least he's honest. That is the purpose of open carry: to communicate the threat of violent force in the public square. It is about projecting power. Thankfully, actual violence in these situations has been rare. But the point is to plant the idea in other people's minds. I could do it, you know.Nothing like making political demands while communicating the threat of force.
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There is a reason that courts in England and the United States have upheld the authority of governments to regulate arms in the public square for 700 years. Along the way, human beings have realized that when random people congregate armed in public, the results are not good. (One of the men Rittenhouse shot was also armed with a pistol. The presence of all these deadly weapons does not seem to have ameliorated the situation on that Kenosha street.) But for some time now, the American right and the gun lobby have embraced a vision where the power to continually communicate the threat of violent force is no longer reserved for agents of the state to whom we've all agreed to hand over this authority. This power has been spread around, including, it seems, to a teenager who cannot yet legally drink and only recently secured the privilege of operating an automobile. We have fairly strict rules around using cars because they're dangerous, but they also serve a purpose other than maiming and killing living things. The same cannot be said for guns, and yet the rules can be far fewer for firearms in many jurisdictions. Forget a driver's test. In some states, you don't even need a permit to carry a gun around in the street. Some states have invited citizens to bring their guns into bars.
It is, in aggregate, an injection of disorder into our society on the part of the same people who consider themselves the defenders of law and order. The sense of impending chaos this inspires is also useful in that it might convince more people that they themselves need guns. I mean, it's crazy out there! And this, in turn, will lead to more gun sales. Which will lead to more gun sales. Because there is no indication this is going to stop. The Supreme Court's conservatives look likely to dismantle a 110-year-old New York law that severely restricts who can concealed-carry guns in public within the state. You can say concealed carry is less nakedly threatening than open carry, but it still offers the prospect of injecting deadly weapons into quotidian encounters. There is no established precedent for the constitutional right to bear arms in public. Your rights are less expansive outside the home because yours are bumping up against the rights of other people. But the conservative Supremes may throw the law out, along with similar policies in other states, and establish that right at a time when the American right wing has embraced Kyle Rittenhouse as a folk hero. Like I said, this is, unfortunately, very likely the beginning of something.Jack Holmes Politics Editor Jack Holmes is the Politics Editor at Esquire, where he writes daily and edits the Politics Blog with Charles P Pierce.
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