The acquittal points to the wide berth the legal system gives to defendants who say they acted out of fear, even if others around them were also afraid.
Wisconsin’s rules for self-defense are well within the national mainstream. If people reasonably believe they are at risk of death or great bodily harm, they can use deadly force. Most states say that someone who provokes violence or is acting illegally waives the right to self-defense, but Wisconsin allows it if the person has “exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.”
The state does not have a full-fledged “stand your ground” statute that exists in at least 30 states, but people who believe they are threatened do not have a duty to retreat if they can.
Such rules can be combustible when juxtaposed against the state’s open carry law, which allows for situations like the one at issue in the trial, where numerous strangers were armed and had taken it upon themselves to maintain order.
Self-defense laws typically do not require someone to have good judgment and tend to consider only the moments leading up to the violence, not whether the person willingly entered a turbulent situation or contributed to the chaos.
“Do you look at the choice to go to a heated, confrontational area with a weapon that would be scary to a lot of people?” said Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Duke University School of Law, speaking of Mr. Rittenhouse. “You can’t really say that he doesn’t have a right to do that because of the status of gun laws.”
Similarly, even though the three men on trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia chased him through a suburban neighborhood, they are claiming self-defense because, they say, Mr. Arbery tried to get control of a shotgun one was carrying.
Gun laws have generally become more permissive — open carry is now legal, to one degree or another, in almost every state. Gun purchases have soared and the Supreme Court appears poised to gut New York State’s handgun permit requirement in a Second Amendment case.
“If we’re going to have a country in which guns are pervasive and the law has little or nothing to say about where and when one may carry a gun and display a gun,” Mr. Buell said, “then we are going to have a situation where self-defense law can’t really handle it.”
— Shaila Dewan and When it comes to self-defense, the burden is often on the prosecution.