Khary Penebaker, a Milwaukee-based volunteer spokesman with the gun control advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, said that if Kyle Rittenhouse “hadn’t have been there with that gun, the two people who he shot would still be alive today.”
“That is, to me, the crux of the argument. You put yourself into this situation. You wanted this to happen,” Penebaker said of Rittenhouse, who is charged with the killing of two people and wounding of a third on Aug. 25 during violent protests in Kenosha.
Penebaker, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in 2016, said he isn’t thinking much about what will happen in the courts with Rittenhouse.
Penebaker’s concerns are focused on gun laws in Wisconsin and across the U.S., which he believes make it too easy for people to get their hands on firearms and carry them openly in public.
“Whatever is going to happen in a court case is what’s going to happen,” Penebaker said. “I think this is part of a much broader conversation about gun policy in America, especially here in Wisconsin.
“We want to keep police officers just as safe as we want to keep our communities, and the best way to do that is to have commonsense gun policy that is going to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of those who do not have them.”
Part of a statement from Moms Demand Action regarding the Rittenhouse shootings reads: “The armed extremists who have been turning up at protests openly carrying semi-automatic rifles are enabled by the dangerous open carry loophole that 41 states, including Wisconsin, have yet to close. Open carry leads to unsafe conditions and increases the potential for deadly gun violence. Research shows that visible guns ‘(have) been found to make people more aggressive; therefore open carry makes it more likely that disagreements will turn into violent conflicts.’ ”
In 41 states, including Wisconsin, it is legal to carry a semi-automatic weapon (such as an AR-15) in public without a permit. Everytown For Gun Safety refers to this as “the open carry loophole,” in part because, in the majority of those 41 states “a person openly carrying a long gun may never have passed a background check, since no permit is required for open carry and no background check is required on unlicensed sales of long guns.”
In a report on openly carrying semi-automatic weapons, Everytown For Gun Safety states “Open carry is a dangerous policy opposed by the public” and points to 2015 polling conducted by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune that shows a majority of Texans don’t support allowing open carry for people without a license for a long gun.
Still, gun-rights advocates say that Rittenhouse acted exactly as he should of in that situation.
Alan Rice, a spokesperson and firearms instructor with Gun Owners of America, a nonprofit Second Amendment-rights lobbying organization that says it has more than 2 million members, has taken issue with the narrative that no one would have died on Aug. 25 if Rittenhouse would not have been there.
“We don’t know what would have happened if Kyle wasn’t there … we can’t speculate,” Rice said. “He used a firearm in the way a firearm is supposed to be used … he wasn’t reckless. He wasn’t firing into a crowd.”
A statement from GOA issued two days after the shootings said “if Leftists want to question why Kyle Rittenhouse was in Kenosha, then they should begin by asking that question to the ‘protesters’ who have criminal records and who have come from out of town to terrorize business owners.”
Colion Noir, an attorney and gun rights activist who previously worked with the National Rifle Association, tried to find the middle ground in a breakdown he uploaded to his YouTube page that has more than 1.7 million views. In his breakdown, Noir said: “Sometimes protests turn into riots, and an AR-15 is one of the most effective self-defense tools in the world. That’s why it’s the most popular rifle in the country right now.”
Noir continued: “I know seeing someone carrying an AR-15 makes some people uncomfortable. But also, you can’t blame someone for wanting the best means of protection when they’re going into what could turn out to be a dangerous and volatile situation.”
Elected officials weigh in
A Democrat (Rep. Greta Neubauer of Racine) and two Republican state lawmakers (Sen. Van Wanggaard of Racine and Rep. Samantha Kerkman of Salem Lakes) who commented on the situation had opposing views on the issue of open carry laws. Neubauer aligned herself with the change advocated for by Moms Demand Action, and Kerkman and Wanggaard citing the Wisconsin Consitution.
Wanggaard, a retired Racine Police officer, said in a statement to The Journal Times: “In Wisconsin, open carrying of weapons is a constitutionally protected right. This isn’t something that changed overnight, or even recently. Wisconsin has allowed open carry of weapons for decades. Groups like Moms Demand Action will cling to any event or exploit any tragedy to continue their push for more gun control. That’s what occurring here. The open carry of a long gun is fundamentally no different than open carry of a handgun. In fact, you can argue that the carrying of a long gun is safer than carrying a handgun as it is more noticeable, and handled differently than handguns. But it’s also important to remember that the right to carry a gun brings with it the obligation that the gun owner carry the weapon responsibly.”
Neubauer stated: “We can all agree that individuals roaming the streets with semi-automatic weapons is unacceptable. The fact is that if people are open carrying, it adds to tense or dangerous situations, and it is substantially more likely that violence will occur like we saw in Kenosha. Kyle Rittenhouse’s choice to travel across state lines, illegally open carry a semi-automatic weapon, and ‘patrol’ Kenosha’s streets led to the deaths of two people. I hope my Republican colleagues will join me in condemning his actions.”
Kerkman stated: “Under our state constitution, Wisconsinites are given ‘the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any lawful purpose.’ This is a critically important provision of our constitution, which I fully support.
“The real issue here is not our gun laws,” Kerkman continued. “It is that Wisconsinites have a right to feel safe in their communities. If an individual wants to openly carry a gun to protect themselves, that person is free to do so. It is the responsibility of gun owners whether they openly carry or conceal carry to do so in a safe and responsible manner that follows state laws and local restrictions.”
A number of proposed bills aimed at police reform have been forwarded by Gov. Tony Evers, and a separate but overlapping package has been proposed by Wanggaard, but neither have been taken up by the Legislature as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, sets up a task force focused on analyzing racial disparities and policing. In late 2019, Evers convened a special session focused on gun laws, but no action or discussion was taken at that time in the GOP-controlled Assembly and Senate.
Armed groups invited to Kenosha
One of the primary reasons cited that so many armed individuals and informal militias were in Kenosha that day was because of a since-deleted Facebook group called “Kenosha Guard–Armed Citizens to protect our Lives and Property.”
That group was led by ex-Kenosha Alderman Kevin Mathewson, who put out a “call to action” that urged people from within and outside Kenosha to “take up arms.” The call to action included the statement: “When law enforcement is outnumbered, that’s when citizens have the right to take up arms to defend their lives, their homes and their businesses.”
Dozens of these armed individuals were seen throughout Kenosha that night, openly wielding firearms from atop businesses and along sidewalks. It’s still not been made public who gave Rittenhouse the AR-15 that day, although attorneys representing Rittenhouse have said that the gun was provided by a friend of the teenager’s in Wisconsin.
Law enforcement leaders in Kenosha later said that, under normal circumstances, they would probably check on young people open carrying rifles in Downtown Kenosha, but that wasn’t being done due to how taxed their resources were during protests and riots following the shooting of Jacob Blake.
It still isn’t confirmed why Rittenhouse first came to Kenosha on Aug. 25; one of his attorneys declined to answer questions via email from The Journal Times, saying “This is not the time or forum to discuss the underlying facts and evidence. That information will be forthcoming in the future.” In the morning, he was seen cleaning graffiti at Reuther Central High School before joining up with armed groups during protests in the night. His attorneys say Rittenhouse was among a group invited by a local business owner who asked for help defending his property.
After the deaths — and after officers were seen fraternizing with armed men, including Rittenhouse, on Aug. 25 — Kenosha law enforcement leaders began openly asking for armed groups to stay away from the city, professing that their presence only made Kenosha less safe and were not helping protect the city as the militias were professing they were trying to do.
“I don’t need more guns on the streets in this city when we are trying to keep people safe,” Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said in late August.
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