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The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is a microcosm of the gun control debate in the U.S.


The fate of Kyle Rittenhouse will soon be in the hands of a jury. The 18-year-old, who was accused of homicide and other charges, killed two men and wounded another during the chaos of violent protests last year in Kenosha, Wis. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, there are other questions that loom over the case outside of the courtroom - divide over gun rights and over who gets to be considered a victim.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: During the Rittenhouse trial, there was a constant sound of gunfire as attorneys played videos that showed the havoc and violence of protests that erupted in Kenosha last year after a police shooting left Jacob Blake, a Black man, paralyzed.


CORLEY: The battle on the streets was chaotic and tragic, a real-life version of the country's divide over gun rights. Men summoned self-proclaimed militias, openly carried rifles and other guns - an answer to a social media post urging them to come and protect local businesses.

JERI BONAVIA: If those firearms had not been present, maybe someone would've ended up with a black eye or a scraped knee.

CORLEY: Jeri Bonavia is the executive director of WAVE Educational Fund. The statewide grassroots organization focuses on preventing firearm deaths and injuries.

BONAVIA: Certainly, we wouldn't have had the outcome that we did.

CORLEY: That's a familiar argument often made by supporters of gun restrictions. But in the gun-friendly state of Wisconsin, the right to bear arms is a strong sentiment. Even Gaige Grosskreutz says so. The paramedic survived being shot by Kyle Rittenhouse and testified during the trial.


GAIGE GROSSKREUTZ: I believe in the Second Amendment. I am for people's right to carry and bear arms. And that night was no different than any other day. It's keys, phone, wallet, gun.

CORLEY: Grosskreutz carried a handgun that night, a concealed weapon whose permit had expired. Rittenhouse had strapped to his body an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.


KYLE RITTENHOUSE: I brought the gun for my protection, but I didn't think I would have to use the gun and end up defending myself.

CORLEY: That's been Rittenhouse's legal argument throughout the trial. Marquette University political science professor Paul Nolette says although the state does not issue permits at all for the open carry of firearms, there is a critical restriction in the law.

PAUL NOLETTE: That open carry law applies only to adults, so those 18 and over. And Rittenhouse was 17 at the time that these incidents occurred. Much of the fight has been about illegal possession charge that Rittenhouse is facing.

CORLEY: More serious charges include homicide and attempted homicide. All the men in this case are white, but race has been a factor, too. At rallies, demonstrators chant the names of the men killed, who they say are the true victims.







CORLEY: Tanya McLean heads the group Leaders of Kenosha. She says Rittenhouse has been treated favorably in all sorts of ways, even shown deference by the judge.

TANYA MCLEAN: Black and brown people in this community feel like this is just more of the same. If he would have been a Black or brown person, this would've been over with a long time ago. He wouldn't be walking free out on bail. The injustices here are just so obvious.

CORLEY: She and others charge that police operated under a double standard based on race when it came to Rittenhouse, not arresting him as he walked down the street with people yelling he had shot someone.

David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is a former police officer. He says chaotic and violent demonstrations create a complicated challenge for police officers.

DAVID KLINGER: What the police officers are faced with when they see a situation, when they become involved in a situation of the ilk that was involved in that riot that evening, it's difficult for them to make clear-cut decisions about who's good, who's bad, who is a victim, who is a perpetrator, whatever term of art you want to use.

CORLEY: After closing arguments Monday, the jury will decide who was really threatened, if Kyle Rittenhouse legally killed in self-defense or if he's guilty of murder.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.