The easiest lesson you can pick up from any Western is that when people start waving guns around in public, those guns will be used soon enough. In Kenosha, Wis., last week a 17-year-old boy showed up to help the police, armed with an AR-15–style assault rifle; he now stands accused of two homicides. Kyle Rittenhouse does not easily fit the profile of a bigot, zealot, or eager killer (see Talking Points). He seems to have sincerely wanted to be a police officer, and does not seem to have gone to Kenosha planning to kill someone. Just what his culpability may be—he has claimed self-defense—is for the courts to determine. But there will be no legal penalty for the militia groups that encouraged Rittenhouse to go to Kenosha, the police who praised the vigilantes, or the many people who misled a teen into believing he was helping restore order by walking into a riot with a gun.
The public display of weapons has become increasingly normalized. In this week’s Last Word you can read about how massive shows of force are now just business as usual in Texas. Many of the armed groups on the Right claim, and sometimes sincerely believe, they are combating disorder. On the Left, too, self-styled security officers have turned to violence in Portland, Ore., and, earlier, in Seattle’s failed cop-free zone. Meanwhile, lots of Americans are stocking up on guns; sales—1.6 million in August alone—hit records every month. If you want to gauge how this can play out, it’s worth listening to some of the voices on the furthest fringe. Both the boogaloo bois on the far right and some antifa on the far left relish armed confrontation on the streets, and want it to spin out of control and spark a civil war. For them, the more guns in Americans’ hands, the better. Rittenhouse, who could face life in prison, may have once believed this, too.