Fatal Kenosha shootings reveal dangerous, growing trend of armed vigilantism

We must confront the rise of self-styled vigilantes and the proliferation of firearms that underlies their behavior.


AP Photo/David Goldman

Gaige Grosskreutz, top, tends to an injured protester during clashes with police outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis. on Aug. 25. Within minutes, Grosskreutz was shot, Prosecutors say, by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse

On Tuesday, Aug. 25, during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an assault rifle-wielding 17-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, named Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two people and seriously wounded a third. 

Since the night, characterizations of Rittenhouse have varied widely. He has been demonized as a wannabe militia member and domestic terrorist. At the same time, he has been portrayed as an innocent acting out of self-defense. 

Much remains unknown about Rittenhouse, but both these depictions are overly simplistic. Instead, he represents a new kind of gunman that has become increasingly common at protests this year: the self-styled vigilante. We must, as a society, denounce these vigilantes and challenge the desensitized mentality toward guns that underlies their rise.

Rittenhouse’s online history and an interview he gave on Aug. 25, just before the shootings, paint a striking picture. 

He idolized law enforcement. According to reporting from The Washington Post, public posts on his now-deleted Facebook page were mainly devoted to honoring the police and included many “Blue Lives Matter” graphics and pictures of officers killed in the line of duty. 

Rittenhouse may also have aspired to become a police officer himself, as he participated in a cadet program with the Grayslake Police Department a few years ago. Until recently, the department’s Facebook page contained a photo of him in a replica police uniform.  

Rittenhouse was also a fan of guns. Per Buzzfeed News reporting, throughout the summer, he posted videos of himself assembling and shooting firearms to a since-deleted TikTok account. 

So, how did a police-idolizing 17-year-old gun enthusiast come to patrol the streets of Kenosha with an assault rifle? The interview that Rittenhouse gave before the shootings to a reporter from The Daily Caller, a right-wing media outlet, reveals the mindset that led him to be in Kenosha on the night of Aug. 25: 

“People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business [a car dealership]. And my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle; I’ve gotta’ protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”

Rittenhouse saw it as his personal responsibility to, with a deadly weapon at hand, defend property and people in Kenosha. 

This sort of self-aggrandizing vigilantism is not unique to Rittenhouse. In the past few months, self-styled vigilantes like him have become increasingly common at protests. Recent HuffPost reporting found that armed vigilantes have shown up to Black Lives Matter Protests 497 times this year. 

These gunmen typically do not belong to any organized extremist group. Instead, they come to protests via informal, local groups that often coalesce online. They show up thinking their presence, and their guns, are needed. Why? 

According to journalist Graeme Wood, a gun issues expert and staff writer at The Atlantic, this trend can be traced to the explosion in popularity of real-life violence videos on Youtube and other social media over the past few years.  

By desensitizing viewers to the horrific reality of gun violence, watching these videos encourages them to play the hero and pursue vigilante justice. Guns make people feel more powerful and self-important. Widely available gun videos, as well as widely available guns, easily leads some wannabe heroes to self-aggrandizing vigilantism. 

By taking it upon himself to patrol the streets of Kenosha armed with an assault rifle, Rittenhouse exhibited an inflated sense of his own power and importance. 

As a result, two people tragically lost their lives. Rittenhouse, only 17 years old, also lost his life. He will no longer enjoy the possibilities and opportunities he had before the shootings. He will never be able to become a police officer, nor do many other things he may have dreamed, and that is pretty sad too. 

The Rittenhouse shootings demonstrate the peril of vigilantism. Instead of preserving public order, bringing a gun to an already tense situation only heightens the potential for violence. 

As a society, we must confront and condemn the rise of self-styled vigilantes. We must also confront the fact that by making it easy for so many people (even 17-year-olds) to have guns, we are ruining so many lives.