On Tuesday evening, three people were shot, two fatally, in Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. This horrific shooting represents the intersection of several deadly factors: President Trump and right wing commentators demonizing protestors, NRA lobbyists being allowed to write our gun laws, and police –– at times –– providing special treatment and even encouragement to armed vigilantes.
The shooter was identified as a white 17-year-old from Illinois who reportedly associated with a militia group. According to Vice, the shooter’s social media showed his affinity for online movements which have recently “inspired the presence of pro-cop vigilante groups at civil rights protests.” He also sat in the front row of a Trump rally in January and reportedly expressed fervent support for Trump to his classmates.
Since the protests began after the murder of George Floyd in May, the President and national Republicans have demonized protesters, incited violence, and enabled vigilantes. In May, the president tweeted “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The night before the shooting, at the RNC convention, five different speakers spoke of “uncontrolled violent mobs that they claim have taken over the nation’s streets,” according to the Washington Post, and the St. Louis couple who pointed guns at peaceful protesters was given a national platform. Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote, “it’s impossible not to notice how that rhetoric echoes in what appears to have happened in Kenosha.”
Law enforcement has, in some cases, enabled and even encouraged the presence of armed vigilantes. The contrast between Kenosha law enforcement’s treatment of Jacob Blake –– who they shot in the back seven times in front of his children –– and its treatment of armed vigilantes at this week’s protest could not be starker. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth told reporters that armed private citizens acting as vigilantes are not helpful and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian added that he doesn’t “need more guns on the street in the community.” Nonetheless, according to Vice, the shooter was shown socializing with police before the shooting, even though it was past the 8pm curfew.” And then, shortly after the shooter shot three people, killing two, video showed police driving right past him as he walked toward them “with his hands up, rifle clearly displayed, in apparent surrender.”
The armed extremists who have been turning up at protests openly carrying semi-automatic rifles are enabled by the dangerous open carry loophole that 41 states, including Wisconsin, have yet to close. Open carry leads to unsafe conditions and increases the potential for deadly gun violence. Research shows that visible guns “[have] been found to make people more aggressive; therefore open carry makes it more likely that disagreements will turn into violent conflicts.”