The Kenosha shooting was the inevitable result after decades of the NRA’s twisted self-defense rhetoric

The National Rifle Association has spent decades poisoning the media landscape with a twisted and paranoid definition of self-defense, making a tragedy like the Kenosha shooting almost inevitable.

On November 19, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges he faced after shooting three people, two fatally, during the 2020 protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. An Illinois resident and 17 years old at the time, Rittenhouse crossed state lines and armed himself with an AR-15, supposedly to protect the city from protesters in the aftermath of the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense and was acquitted after the jury deliberated for more than 25 hours. 

For years, the NRA used its now-defunct media apparatus, NRATV, to capitalize on people’s rational fear of burglary or bodily harm by selectively promoting anecdotal, one-off stories of successful incidents of self-defense with a firearm. 

In reality, however, the Violence Policy Center found that during a three-year period from 2014-2016, only 1.1% of victims of an attempted or completed violent crime used a gun in self-defense. 

Nevertheless, the NRA advanced the false narrative that defensive gun usage is one’s best form of protection by promoting acts of vigilantism and self defense -- one of which later resulted in the police recommending a felony charge of unlawful discharge of a firearm. On Twitter, these posts were usually interspersed with hyperbolic statements such as “when seconds count, police are minutes away” and “never be defenseless.” 

One of the longest running and most infamous examples of this narrative is the “good guy with a gunmyth, made infamous by the NRA following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. During a press conference in the aftermath of the shooting, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre insisted, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” LaPierre then called for armed police officers “in every single school in this nation” because the next mass shooter may already be planning their attack. Since then, this myth has been trotted out repeatedly by both the NRA and right-wing media after nearly every single mass shooting to promote further paranoid vigilantism and the idea that the next such incident can be stopped if someone is armed.  

In reality, this good guy with a gun does not exist. An FBI analysis of 160 mass shootings between 2000 and 2013 found that only one incident was stopped by an armed citizen -- while 21 incidents were stopped by unarmed citizens. In fact, as then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016, this myth actually makes it harder for law enforcement to do their job as “we don't know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everybody starts shooting.” 

While the NRA’s media outlets continued to push this false rhetoric, the pro-gun organization quietly helped to make shooting someone in self-defense easier by lobbying for “Stand Your Ground” laws across the country. Marion Hammer, former NRA president and chief Florida lobbyist, was the force behind the Florida law, which gained national attention after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot walking home by George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense. After the Florida law was passed in 2005, LaPierre called it the “first step of a multi-state strategy.” In July 2006, the NRA reportedly “posted celebratory news on its website, noting that legislators in eight more states” had passed similar laws.

Despite the NRA’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, emotive social media posts, and misleading statements that contributed to this carefully crafted narrative of self-defense, the reality is clear. Constantly carrying a gun for your own protection puts yourself and everyone around you in greater danger. In 2018, for example, the gun violence prevention organization Giffords found that “for every justifiable homicide with a gun, there were 34 gun homicides, 82 gun suicides, and two unintentional gun deaths.” States with higher levels of gun ownership show higher levels of gun deaths, and one 2009 study found that “individuals in possession of a gun” were four times “more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession.”  

In 2014, the NRA knew better than to encourage openly carrying guns in public, and it admitted as much. In a statement that the group ultimately walked back, the NRA said, “Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” Former NRA lobbyist Chris Cox apologized for the statement, signaling that the group was leaning into a hardline stance.  

The NRA’s twisted narrative has permeated U.S. gun culture so much that following Rittenhouse's acquittal, an entire right-wing media echo chamber activated around the claim that he never should have been charged in the first place. He was praised and supported without any notion that the violence was wrong or indicative of a larger problem. 

Rittenhouse made the decision to drive across state lines, arm himself with an AR-15 to supposedly protect property in a community that was not his, and shoot three people in the process before claiming self-defense. And every part of this tragedy seems all but inevitable in light of the NRA's prolonged and dangerous pro-gun rhetoric.