Rittenhouse and Vigilantism
Summary: A message that highlighted neo-Nazis’ response to the Rittenhouse verdict sharply decreased public appetite for vigilante law enforcement.
This research was conducted in partnership with Strategic Victory Fund.
The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict has put a spotlight on vigilante justice. While some Republican politicians celebrated Rittenhouse as a hero and offered him Capitol Hill internships, right-wing extremists went even further, interpreting the verdict as a license for militia activity, as well as political and racial violence.
In this week’s research, we used the Rittenhouse verdict as a way to understand people’s attitudes toward the role of private citizens in enforcing the law. We then created and tested messages designed to reduce the belief that vigilantism is justified.
While conservatives support citizens acting as law enforcers at higher rates than the general public, most messages we tested were effective at reducing that support. A message that illustrates the connection between citizens enforcing the law and neo-Nazi activity was especially effective at reducing support among both conservatives and non-conservatives.
Audience Understanding Survey
We conducted an Audience Understanding Survey on November 30, asking 784 people the following question:
Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager accused of killing two people and shooting another during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin last summer, was found not guilty on all charges. Some say he was protecting people and property, and within his rights to do so when law enforcement did not. Others say it was an unnecessary act of vigilante justice that led to needless deaths.
Which of the following is closest to your view, even if none is exactly right?
- Private citizens attempting to enforce the law is dangerous and ill-advised. Untrained armed civilians are simply not well-equipped to make life and death decisions under pressure. Private citizens should not take it upon themselves to enforce the law.
- Private citizens have the right to protect their own safety and their own property, including by carrying and using a weapon, if necessary. But citizens enforcing the law in situations that don’t threaten their own person or property is inappropriate.
- Private citizens have a responsibility to step in and maintain order when law enforcement can’t or won’t enforce the law. Federal and state laws should provide more protection for people who choose to assist in enforcing the law.
We grouped people according to their response, and followed up with questions about their values, feelings, and demographics to build up an understanding of each group.
Over a quarter of respondents felt that private citizens have a responsibility to enforce the law
People who believed private citizens have a responsibility to enforce the law were likelier than average to be religious and attend religious services frequently. Though this group leans slightly Republican, 31% of this group was Democratic.
Respondents who said private citizens should not take it upon themselves to enforce the law were overwhelmingly 55+ and Democratic.
The open-ended responses helped contribute to our understanding of these attitudes.
People who believed that private citizens have a responsibility to maintain order mentioned “law enforcement doing absolutely nothing,” and that “I would want someone to step in and help me” if a crime were being committed against them.
One respondent who was in favor of armed self-defense but rejected the idea of citizens enforcing the law said they identified as someone who “open carries a gun” but that “obviously if someone isn’t threatening you personally or your property, you shouldn’t be threatening them back with a weapon.” Another respondent said that “individual interpretation of the law is an invitation for anarchy.”
Among those who believed that private citizens attempting to enforce the law is dangerous and ill-advised, one respondent said: “Very wrong. You think you are judge, jury, and executioner.” Several people mentioned the hazards of people without training trying to enforce the law, including the risk of shooting an innocent person.
Rapid Message Test
We drafted five messages, drawing from what we learned about demographics, values, and identities in the Audience Understanding Survey.
The goal of these messages was to move people away from the belief that vigilantism is justified. A number of the messages we tested acknowledged the right to armed self-defense, as we thought that would be necessary in order to successfully connect with people who currently believe citizens have a responsibility to enforce the law.
One message drew from Christian religious teachings. Another message focused on the value of training in law enforcement, strengthened by quoting an FBI special agent as a trusted authority. We drew on our Audience Understand Survey respondents’ language in two messages: one told from the perspective of a person who open carries a gun, and the other highlighting the risk of “anarchy” in a world where people interpret and enforce the law themselves. The last message used a quote from a neo-Nazi leader to illustrate how “citizen enforcement” can escalate. See the appendix to read all the messages in full.
Each respondent was randomly assigned to see one of the five messages or a placebo. They were then asked the same survey question as in the Audience Understanding Survey. In the results, we report the percentage of people who expressed support for citizens stepping up to enforce the law.
While about a third of respondents in the placebo condition support citizen law enforcement, the message that quoted a neo-Nazi and called upon Americans to stand against violence was very effective at reducing support. Respondents who saw this message were only about half as likely to condone private vigilantism as compared to those who saw the placebo.
The message quoting a neo-Nazi leader sharply reduced support for private citizens taking law enforcement into their own hands
We found the most promising results among conservatives. The message quoting a neo-Nazi was estimated to be effective in liberal, moderate, and conservative groups, but effects were largest among conservatives. A number of the other messages also moved conservatives, though they weren’t as broadly effective.
Most messages worked well with conservatives. The neo-Nazi quote was most effective with conservatives and non-conservatives alike
Interestingly, the “Open carry” message that appears to be ineffective among conservatives was quite effective among liberals and moderates. Still, the message quoting the neo-Nazi worked across ideologies and demographics and clearly had the greatest effect overall.
While some Republican elected officials appear to be working to mainstream the idea that people should take the law into their own hands, we found that we can reduce public support for vigilantism by highlighting neo-Nazi enthusiasm for a society in which they feel empowered to interpret and enforce the law. We recommend further exploration and deployment of messages like this to counter future calls for vigilantism.
The Bible says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). It also tells us “Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways” (Proverbs 3:31).
None of us should appoint ourselves as enforcers of the law. I am not your judge, jury or executioner, and you are not mine.
Because of my faith, I believe it is our government’s role to punish wrongdoers, not mine or yours.
Americans have a right to protect themselves, but they should not seek to enforce the law.
“Law enforcement officers go through months of training in the use of force, de-escalation of force, defensive tactics, and the use of a firearm to defend themselves and the citizens they are sworn to protect,” said Thomas O’Connor, a retired FBI special agent. “A civilian with a firearm on the street during a volatile situation may have the legal right to have that weapon, but that does not always mean it is the wise decision.”
Americans have a right to protect themselves, their families, and their homes. But none of us has the right to go out onto the streets with deadly weapons and enforce the law as we see fit. Individual interpretation of the law invites anarchy and even more violence.
Man, I know Kyle Rittenhouse was defending himself when he shot those guys, but what was he even doing? Responsible citizens know how dangerous it is to try to enforce the law themselves. I open carry a gun but I know better than to go around pretending I’m a cop. You can’t prevent every crime from happening, and it’s just not a good idea to try.
On November 19th, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges in the August 2020 shootings of three men, including two who were killed.
Aaron Chapman, the leader of the neo-Nazi group the Occidental Templars, praised the Rittenhouse verdict as giving “good Americans legal precedent and license to kill violent commies without worrying about doing life in prison if we defend ourselves in a riot. This will also show militia types that they don’t have to avoid the riots to protect themselves legally.”
Neo-Nazis are taking the verdict as a clear license to kill with no legal repercussions and are emboldened to engage in more violence against our friends and neighbors. All Americans must stand against this violence.
Key experiment details
- Audience: All adults, balanced on age, race, and gender
- Geography: the United States
- Sample size (raw / weighted): 1,181 / 1,130
- Dates in field: Wednesday, December 01, 2021 to Thursday, December 02, 2021
- Weighting factors: age, race, gender, education, and party