State lawmakers should be able to agree on at least one small improvement to gun safety in Wisconsin following the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal in Kenosha.
Lawmakers should quickly close the loophole in state law that allowed Rittenhouse, a minor at the time, to march down Kenosha’s streets on Aug. 25, 2020, intimidating others with a semi-automatic rifle that he couldn’t legally buy — and never should have been allowed to carry.
Rittenhouse shot three people that night, killing two of them. A jury agreed he acted in self-defense, based on state law that favors shooters in conflicts.
We don’t agree with the result, though we respect the jury’s decisions.
Unfortunately, the jury wasn’t allowed to consider the one charge that definitely should have stuck. Rittenhouse should have faced a charge of illegally possessing a dangerous weapon by a minor. A judge threw out the charge because state law prohibiting children from having guns is written in a confusing way.
That law needs fixing. And three Kenosha lawmakers have proposed a solid bill to do just that. Their proposal, Assembly Bill 817, deserves broad bipartisan support.
State law for decades has prohibited minors from carrying firearms, with a few exceptions. Minors are allowed to use guns for target practice or instruction if an adult is supervising. Minors (those 17 and younger) also can wield dangerous weapons as members of the military while in the line of duty.
All that makes sense.
But a final exception — intended to let older children hunt — badly needs clarity and common sense in the wake of the Rittenhouse verdict three months ago.
Minors can carry rifles, the exception reads, if the barrel of the gun is longer than 16 inches and if the child is in compliance with hunting laws. What the law doesn’t actually say is that these minors must be hunting.
Rittenhouse, of course, wasn’t trying to bag a deer in a rural field or forest on the chaotic night when he shot three people. He was strutting around with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle through the middle of angry crowds in Kenosha, a city of 100,000 people where hunting isn’t allowed.
Most people on the streets that night were protesting the police shooting of a Black man. But Rittenhouse, of Antioch, Illinois, said he came to Kenosha, strapping the rifle to his chest, to protect private property that wasn’t his. Protesters had previously burned and vandalized some buildings.
When state lawmakers passed their sweeping prohibition on minors carrying guns more than three decades ago, they certainly didn’t envision Rittenhouse’s behavior. They thought they were accommodating hunting, which is part of Wisconsin’s heritage.
Yet Rittenhouse’s attorneys were able to exploit the oddly worded law to get their client out of any punishment for his reckless and irresponsible behavior. He should have at least faced a charge of being a minor (he was 17) in illegal possession of a gun. That’s a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum nine months in jail.
That charge was dismissed because the judge said the law appeared to technically allow long guns for kids, even if that wasn’t the lawmakers’ intent.
Reps. Tod Ohnstad and Tip McGuire, and Sen. Robert Wirch — all Kenosha Democrats — have proposed legislation to clarify the law. Assembly Bill 817 would require that minors be legally hunting for the hunting exception in the law to apply to their weapons.
Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield, who leads the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, should give this sensible bill a public hearing soon and allow a vote. If anyone has a good reason to allow minors to patrol city streets with semi-automatic rifles, we haven’t heard it. A public hearing will provide a serious review and discussion.
It seems simple enough: If a minor is going to use the hunting exemption to carry a deadly weapon, that kid should actually be hunting, following hunting laws and have appropriate licenses. Nobody should want teenagers acting as wannabe cops on our streets. That’s what trained law enforcement officers are for.
The Rittenhouse case was loaded with political conflict over gun rights, drawing national attention and fierce debate. But keeping firearms out of minors’ hands — unless they’re hunting, training or in the military — should foster widespread agreement.