Kyle Rittenhouse in court.

Self-Defense Lessons from Kenosha

The jury is now deliberating on the Kyle Rittenhouse matter, which is perhaps the most publicized self-defense trial in history. Irrespective of how the trial comes out, I keep coming back to three takeaways from the event and proceedings, and I would like to share them with you.

(1) Adding a less-lethal to your EDC kit gives you options.

Pepper spray (aka, “OC spray” or just “OC”) is widely regarded as less-lethal, as long as you are not using it in commission of a crime. It is not perfect in its effectiveness, so if you go this route or choose another less-lethal, be sure to study up and train before depending on it. But OC has halted many an attack and, compared to a firearm or knife, OC tends to minimize legal exposure for those who deploy it.

Mr. Rittenhouse testified that during his now-famous retreat, he feared Mr. Rosenbaum would beat him up, take his rifle, and then kill him or others with it.

For the armed, an “unarmed” threat (we’ll get to that in a moment) presents two serious problems. First, there’s the obvious and unpleasant prospect of a physical beating. And second, there’s the risk that our firearm might tumble loose or be ripped out of our control during the engagement, and subsequently be used against us or against other innocents. Conscientious carriers cannot ignore Rittenhouse’s stated fear, nor will we ever get to hear what Rosenbaum’s intent was. But one thing is certain: the defendant’s armed response to an unarmed threat made his legal defense both more difficult and more expensive. OC spray or some other less-lethal option might have simplified things for Rittenhouse by protecting him without raising proportionality questions, and we should make an effort to learn from his experience.

(2) Words matter.

The term “armed” describes a person bearing a weapon, e.g., a gun, a knife, or a bat. An armed aggressor is clearly a threat.

The term “unarmed” describes a person not bearing a weapon, e.g., a gun, a knife, or a bat. But determining whether an unarmed aggressor presents a threat—possibly even a deadly threat—is a complex matter.

It is believed that Mr. Rosenbaum was unarmed as he chased Kyle Rittenhouse (armed) across the parking lot at Car Source. Indeed, the prosecution took great delight in using that term again and again in referring to Mr. Rosenbaum. All of that may have been factually correct, but the prosecutors’ effort to marry the term “unarmed” to an implied, indubitable disparity of force deserves scrutiny.

Kyle Rittenhouse Joseph Rosenbaum
A still from aerial surveillance footage presented at the trial. Rittenhouse is “Person of Interest Two.” Joseph Rosenbaum is “Person of Interest One.”

In order to assess the threat posed by an unarmed aggressor, I must know things that are often unknowable about him, as well as about me. It may be apparent that I’m taller and have a reach advantage, or that he’s got a few pounds on me and tighter muscle composition, but there’s a lot more to assessing my risks at this point. First off, as a peaceful individual, I have never been in a fight, which means I don’t know whether I can deliver a kick, take a punch, use my feet effectively, or keep my balance under duress. And if my adversary is a stranger, I cannot tell from casual observation whether this person is a state-champion grappler, holds a black-belt in karate, or has the world’s strongest jaw. This lack of knowledge works to my disadvantage, both in the moment, and later in court (if it comes to that).

Suffice it to say, an unarmed person can strangle, gouge, tear, punch, pinch, kick, knee, elbow, head-butt, tackle, bite, spit, scratch, slap, and more! Any voluntary takers? Didn’t think so. And this unarmed person may be Kaspar Milquetoast or Connor MacGregor. Any of you 200-pounders want to flip that coin and commit to a no-holds-barred street brawl? Didn’t think so.

Learn about levels of force, disparity of force, and self-defense against unarmed attackers. But make sure you are also aware that prosecutors will readily equate “unarmed” and “harmless,” and juries are often willing to misconstrue—especially if you’re carrying a firearm.

(3) It’s messy.

If you’re expecting to defend yourself at 6:30PM, have a calm, cordial chat with the police until 7, arrive home for dinner at 7:30, and receive at text from the mayor during dessert asking whether Tuesday or Wednesday is better for your key-to-the-city ceremony, it’s time to unplug the TV.

As long as you’re fantasizing, shall I hazard a guess that you’re also alive, uninjured, and emotionally unfazed, too?

It seems to be true that the most reliable events or circumstances after a defensive encounter tend to be unpleasant. The police may rough you up while they secure the scene and identify the parties of interest. Your attorney may not be available until the following morning (or Monday morning if you are attacked on a weekend). You may spend one or more terrifying nights in jail. The media will speculate, conjure, and fabricate in telling “your” story to the public. Friends may distance themselves, your employer may dismiss you, and even your family may forsake you. You may suffer from depression, remorse, revulsion, PTSD, nightmares, and even suicidal thoughts as your mind and soul reckon with the harsh realities of your encounter. After that, you may expect the prosecution to spin the narrative and paint you as a depraved human being, replacing (as you see it) evidence with mere innuendo, and with little relief from the judge. And that’s just the criminal part. In the civil part, you may watch helplessly as all of these cruel labels are repeated and your home is liquidated in order to pay the tort claim in which the plaintiff prevails over your assertion of self-defense.

Oh…did I mention that you might be killed or injured during the fight, way back when? Well, if you’re lucky enough to survive, your saga may play out with you in a hospital bed, perhaps learning to walk again.

Of course, I have just presented two extremes: one account was nearly perfect, the other abysmal. Assuming you survive the fight, chances are good your actual experience will include elements of both accounts. But unless you’re keen on anguish and disappointment don’t expect sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Expect chaos, distortion, and distrust.

As a result of a few fateful seconds that night in Kenosha, Mr. Rittenhouse has been branded as a liar, the aggressor, a killer, and a murderer. The prosecutors told the jury he has no regard for human life, and protestors outside carried large signs calling him “a white supremacist.”

Kyle Rittenhouse Kenosha
Rittenhouse and his AR-15-style rifle on the night of his fateful encounters with civil unrest.

Regardless of what you believe about Kyle Rittenhouse, the fact is, none of us would want to walk in his shoes. His life is in turmoil. Irreparable damage has been done to his reputation. Whatever integrity he thought he had has been cast into doubt among the public. And while the jury ponders questions of guilt or innocence, Kyle Rittenhouse is doing more than a little head-scratching and wondering how he arrived at this impossibly difficult point.

Is this the part where I reassure you that if you just do what the experts have told you, everything will be fine?

The end.

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