Kyle Rittenhouse Does Not Represent American Gun Owners Today

The image of Kyle Rittenhouse walking the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15-style rifle has been burned into American consciousness. After his arrest, Rittenhouse was embraced by the right wing of American gun culture. Following his acquittal, the National Rifle Association (NRA) tweeted text of the Second Amendment and Gun Owners of America (GOA) called it a “Warrior for Gun Owners”. These responses encourage claims by the American left that Rittenhouse is a “NRA poster and popular hero of gun culture.”

I’ve spent the last ten years researching gun culture in America. During that time, I have found that gun culture and ownership are more diverse than is often described. Kyle Rittenhouse does not represent current American gun owners, either in their actions or in person.

It is true that the center of gravity of American gun culture has definitely shifted toward self-defense, what I call Gun Culture 2.0, and that AR-15 style rifles are preferred among defensive rifle owners. But of the millions of gun owners who own roughly 20 million AR-15-style rifles, very few choose to publicly patrol with them during periods of social unrest. As a result, even fewer end up using them in self-defense incidents.

Such behavior is not encouraged in the mainstream of American gun culture. In my research, I have spent hundreds of hours participating in and observing defensive firearms training courses. A constant theme in these courses is that armed citizens avoid situations in which they may have to defend themselves with a weapon. Variations on legendary weapons trainer John Farnam’s “Rules of Stupidity” are often repeated: Don’t go to stupid places with stupid people at stupid times and do stupid things. We know that most gun owners follow these rules because on the rare occasions they don’t, it’s national news.

From this perspective, Kyle Rittenhouse is not a folk hero, but a cautionary tale.

Also, while Rittenhouse could literally be put on a poster by the NRA someday soon, it does not represent the significant racial, gender, sexual, political or attitude diversity that characterizes Gun Culture 2.0.

the statistically average gun owner in America he has long been a conservative white man. The problem with averages is that they hide the underlying diversity. The average human has roughly one testicle and one ovary, after all. Although the most typical gun owner may be politically conservative, most are not. As Jesse DeDeyne, Alonso Octavio Aravena Méndez and I showed in a Article published in 2020, 20 percent of gun owners in the United States self-identify as politically liberal. Another two in five see themselves as politically moderate. New gun owners they are even less conservative.

Although white men remain the overall modal gun owners, new gun owners are more demographically diverse, highlighting the changing face of American gun culture. Data from Northeastern and Harvard Universities on the 2020 big wave of gun purchases show that half of new gun buyers were women, 20 percent were black and 20 percent were Hispanic. News reports also highlight an increase in gun purchases among Asian Americans.

Gun trainers I’ve interviewed report unusually high levels of interest among people of various genders and sexualities. According to membership director Eric Meyers, as the Liberal Gun Club increased last year, the proportion of members who identify as LGBT also grew.

Although it is easy to do, we should not confuse a high profile with a representative.

Gun owners are a diverse patchwork and consequently they look more like you than you might think. Your relative, friend, or neighbor who keeps firearms for home defense or legally carries a concealed handgun in public is much more representative of gun culture and gun owners today than Kyle Rittenhouse. For a long shot.

David Yamane is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and the author, most recently, of “Who Are Liberal Gun Owners?” He is currently completing a book on gun culture in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @davidyamane

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