The image of Kyle Rittenhouse walking the streets of Kenosha, Wis., carrying an AR-15 style rifle has been burned into the American consciousness. After his arrest, Rittenhouse was embraced by the right wing of American gun culture. Upon his acquittal, the National Rifle Association (NRA) tweeted text from the Second Amendment and the Gun Owners of America (GOA) called him a “warrior for gun owners.” These responses animate claims from the American left that Rittenhouse is a “poster child for the NRA and folk hero for the gun culture.”
I have spent the past ten years researching American gun culture. During that time, I have found gun culture and ownership to be more diverse than is often portrayed. Kyle Rittenhouse does not represent American gun owners today, either in his actions or his person.
It is true that the center of gravity of American gun culture has shifted definitively toward self-defense, what I call Gun Culture 2.0, and that AR-15 style rifles are favored among defensive rifle owners. But of the millions of gun owners who own approximately 20 million AR-15 style rifles, very few choose to publicly patrol with them during periods of social unrest. Fewer still end up using them in self-defense incidents as a result.
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 consistent theme in these courses is for armed citizens to avoid situations in which they might have to defend themselves with a gun. Variations on legendary gun trainer John Farnam’s “Rules of Stupid” are often repeated: Don’t go stupid places with stupid people at stupid times and do stupid things. We know most gun owners observe these rules because in the rare occasions when they do not, it is national news.
From this perspective, Kyle Rittenhouse is not a folk hero but a cautionary tale.
Furthermore, although Rittenhouse might literally be put on a poster by the NRA someday soon, he does not represent the significant racial, gender, sexual, political, or attitudinal diversity that characterizes Gun Culture 2.0.
The statistically average gun owner in America has long been a conservative white male. The problem with averages is they hide underlying diversity. The average human being has approximately one testicle and one ovary, after all. Although the most typical gun owner may be politically conservative, the majority are not. As Jesse DeDeyne, Alonso Octavio Aravena Méndez, and I show in an article published in 2020, 20 percent of gun owners in America self-identify as politically liberal. Another two in five see themselves as politically moderate. New gun owners are even less conservative.
Although white men are still the modal gun owner overall, new gun owners are more diverse demographically, highlighting the changing face of American gun culture. Data from Northeastern and Harvard Universities on the great gun buying spree of 2020 show that half of new gun buyers were women, 20 percent were Black, and 20 percent Hispanic. News reports also highlight a surge in gun buying among Asian Americans.
Gun trainers I have interviewed report unusually high levels of interest among people of diverse genders and sexualities. According to membership director Eric Meyers, as the Liberal Gun Club swelled last year, the proportion of members who identify as L.G.B.T. also grew.
Although it is easy to do, we should not mistake high profile for representative.
Gun owners are a diverse mosaic and, consequently, 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 is. By a long shot.
David Yamane is a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University and author, most recently, of “Who are the Liberal Gun Owners?” He is currently completing a book on American gun culture. Follow him on Twitter @davidyamane