Rittenhouse in Nevada

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Just another Silver City Roadside Attraction - image: Erich Obermayr

Opinion

A gun store in Carson City, near where I live in northern Nevada, ran an ad on their Facebook page reminding customers to ask for the “Rittenhouse Special.” That is, purchase an AR-15 and get a second one for $75 off the “marked price.” The ad included a heroic shot of Kyle Rittenhouse striding down the street, from video taken the night he killed two people, looking very much in charge of himself and the situation. 

I doubt that anyone actually took advantage of the gimmick. The offer was only good for three days, including the day Rittenhouse was acquitted. And who knows what “marked price” meant once you took a close look.

I’ll get back to the “Special,” but I can’t say the not-guilty verdict surprised me. I found it personally disgusting, but maybe the jurors didn’t think they had a choice. 

Years ago, I was called to jury duty, and served on several cases. If nothing else, it gave me an understanding of just how difficult the juror’s role could be. Your decision—guilt or innocence—had to be made completely apart from your personal or emotional reaction to the crime and the person standing accused in front of you. 

The only things that mattered were the facts, as presented in court, and the law, as explained to you by the judge—even if they led to a conclusion that went against your intuition or even your own better judgement. I can tell you from my experience that not all jurors understand or follow these rules, and justice suffers because of it. But I think the requirement for a unanimous decision, which would mean all twelve jurors ignored their obligations and produced an improper verdict, at least stacks the odds against an illegitimate outcome. 

I can also understand how, given the highly skilled defense team with two million dollars at their disposal, and a judge constantly telegraphing his sympathies for the defendant, the Rittenhouse jurors could have found themselves boxed-in by the limited legal choices forced upon them. 

To begin with, the prosecution faced what turned out to be an impossibly high bar—proving a negative. That is, they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse, despite his claims, did not act in self-defense. More critically, his presence in Kenosha that night, armed with an AR-15, was portrayed as an unquestioned right, and consequently beyond reproach. 

In addition, the jurors had no choice but to accept the transformation of Rittenhouse’s AR-15 from an inanimate metal and steel object to, in effect, a character in the story of that night. 

The AR-15 is a popular, but by no means ordinary gun. It uniquely endows its owner with a warrior image, because it is a weapon of war. The fully automatic military version was invented to maximize the individual infantryman’s fire-power and killing capacity. The semi-automatic version, almost identical in appearance, is the weapon of choice for image conscious gun owners, including “militia” members, vigilantes, and even mass killers. 

In Rittenhouse’s hands—in both the courtroom video and the still image advertising the “Rittenhouse Special”—the AR-15 sends a message. As he strides down the street, weapon at the ready, he is engaged in a wider cause. He is there to maintain order. That is what the AR-15 tells one and all, including the jury. Again, it was almost impossible for the prosecution to prove a negative—that this was not what Rittenhouse was doing there, even if at times he believed it. 

Self-appointed observer at a demonstration in Carson City, March, 2021 – image: Erich Obermayr

The newly empowered—and empowering—gun then becomes the underpinning for a super-entitled concept of self-defense. The deputized AR-15 was bringing order to the scene. If so much as a finger is laid upon it, especially by the forces of disorder, the bearer has every right—even an obligation—to assume he is in danger. From there, a series of assumptions follow. Touching the weapon demonstrates an intention to grab it, take it away, and then turn it upon the bearer. It is life or death, boiled down to simple self-preservation. It is a split second decision, and as such can be made without any obligation to think through—or be responsible for—the consequences. 

Like it or not, the Rittenhouse jury just turned this line of thought into law. 

Which brings us back to the gun shop in Carson City. Clearly, the “Rittenhouse Special” is aimed at, for lack of a better word, Rittenhouse wannabes. Someone who sees themselves striding down the street, imposing order on the disorderly. If that means killing two people and wounding a third, so be it. 

This is not an imaginary scenario. Over the summer of 2020, and into the November elections, the residents of my small town near Carson City—myself included—began holding a series of “roadside attractions.” These were demonstrations in which we lined up alongside Main Street, which is also the main highway through town, and waved assorted signs and banners at passing cars. 

We advocated everything from Black Lives Matter to local and national political candidates, including the Biden-Harris campaign. Over the months, the “attractions” developed into good-natured political and social events, with music, barbeque, and even kids. 

Reactions from passing traffic, which included locals and a fair number of tourists, varied. They became more positive—thumbs up, honking, etc.—as the election approached. The diminishing portion of Trump supporters did maintain their consistently hostile and vulgar responses—the most head-scratching being adults shouting out the vilest profanities from cars loaded with their families and children. 

On one occasion, a fellow rather routinely flipped us off as he drove by, but then stopped, turned around, and returned to park at the town post office. To make a long story short, he ended up in a loud verbal confrontation with a couple of the demonstrators. He was then informed by the owner of the parking lot property that he was trespassing, and was asked to leave. He did so eventually, even as he carried on with argument as he drove away down the road. 

It was intense, and the scene could easily have turned violent. Thinking back, and knowing what I know now, the situation was potentially much more dangerous than anyone realized. 

Why had this fellow driven by, and then after clearly expressing his hostility to the demonstration, stopped, turned around, and returned? A video of the confrontation shows him with his hands thrust into his jacket pockets, just as you would do if there was a gun concealed there. And, oddly, he kept repeating “Stop threatening me.” Of course, he was not being threatened. If anything, he was just as much or more of a menace than anyone, but I can’t help thinking how “self-defense” begins with the perception of a threat—real or not. 

The actual danger soon followed. The fellow posted his version of events on Facebook. In it, he claimed Antifa and BLM were blocking traffic in our town, and had “pulled him over” and detained him. As this story made the rounds on social media, it was transformed into a violent incident in which police were called, making two arrests as they drove the demonstrators away. Worse, his fictitious post prompted many outraged responses, including threats of violence.

The threats never amounted to anything, but I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if a Kyle Rittenhouse had seen them, and imagined our town under siege. What would have happened, how would we have reacted if he showed up with an AR-15, ready to restore order? 

One last thing, lest you think my connection between Kenosha, Wisconsin, an AR-15, and a little town in Nevada is too far-fetched. The fellow who made such a point of provoking the post office incident also operates the gun store where—if you had acted quickly enough—you could have bought your own “Rittenhouse Special.”


Erich Obermayr is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife.

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