The story of the night of Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis., is the story of an American dystopia — one that is induced by guns and one that Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers seemingly want to move the commonwealth closer toward by allowing permitless concealed carry of firearms.
It’s the story of a nation armed to the teeth.
It’s the story of, in the words of the Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a “double system of justice, which erred on the white side by undue leniency and the practical immunity of red-handed criminals.”
In the midst of a summer marked by Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Kenosha police shot and severely injured Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. The shooting sparked protests nationwide. Two days after the shooting, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old white resident of Illinois, arrived in Kenosha armed with an AR-15-style automatic rifle. By night’s end, Rittenhouse had shot three people who’d participated in a protest, killing two.
In Pennsylvania, there are more than 1,000 people serving life without the possibility of parole despite never having killed anyone — about 70% of them are Black. This month, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced that two Black teens will face first-degree murder charges for the death of an 8-year-old girl whom neither of them shot; police did. A video released last week showed that, last December, Pennsylvania State Police shot and killed a Chinese American teenager who held a pellet gun while his hands were in the air.
Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts.
Rittenhouse was able to walk around with an AR-15 because of Wisconsin’s open carry law, something that is currently illegal in Philadelphia. It is legal for a minor to carry an AR-15 in Wisconsin because of an exemption in state law for long-barreled rifles. The shooting itself was permissible, according to the jury, because Rittenhouse feared for his life at the moment he fired each shot.
Rittenhouse, in essence, was the victor of a state-sanctioned duel — when everyone is armed, whomever squeezes the trigger first gets to claim self-defense.
That’s the logical conclusion of laws that allow more people to be armed in public, and that’s exactly the kind of law that Republican legislators sent to the governor’s desk last week.
A bill to allow people over the age of 18 to carry a concealed loaded weapon in public throughout the state — and openly in Philadelphia — passed in both houses of the General Assembly this month. Allowing permitless concealed carry would make Pennsylvania less safe. Every tense interaction, every dispute, and every police encounter could be assumed to be an armed confrontation — and, inevitably, someone would shoot.
Thankfully, Gov. Tom Wolf promised to veto the bill.
For many people, particularly Black people living in gun violence hot spots, life in Pennsylvania is already one form of an American gun-induced dystopia. Allowing for more people to be armed in more situations does nothing except inch the commonwealth toward an even more dystopian version of itself — one that risks repeating the type of duels that occurred in Kenosha on that deadly night.