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Reading about the detail of the trial of Rittenhouse I wondered how it was possible that a minor was allowed to go around holding a weapon. I searched on the internet and I read some blogs claiming that minors are allowed to hold weapons only in a shooting range or when hunting therefore his presence in that context was illegal, but it was treated as a misdemeanour. First of all I would like to understand whether this is correct.

But there is something else, a violation of the law by a minor could be considered a misdemeanour, but what about the adult who gave him the gun? Is there a law that prescribes that whoever gives a weapon to a minor should make sure that the minor remains strictly in the allowed context? Is some kind of oversight mandated?

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Aiden4's answer about Winconsin's statute 948.60 is correct, but incomplete and the complete reason is interesting/funny, so I'll expand on it:

The statute reads:

948.60  Possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

(1)  In this section, “dangerous weapon" means any firearm, loaded or unloaded; any electric weapon, as defined in s. 941.295 (1c) (a); metallic knuckles or knuckles of any substance which could be put to the same use with the same or similar effect as metallic knuckles; a nunchaku or any similar weapon consisting of 2 sticks of wood, plastic or metal connected at one end by a length of rope, chain, wire or leather; a cestus or similar material weighted with metal or other substance and worn on the hand; a shuriken or any similar pointed star-like object intended to injure a person when thrown; or a manrikigusari or similar length of chain having weighted ends.

(2) 
(a) Any person under 18 years of age who possesses or goes armed with a dangerous weapon is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
(b) Except as provided in par. (c), any person who intentionally sells, loans or gives a dangerous weapon to a person under 18 years of age is guilty of a Class I felony.
(c) Whoever violates par. (b) is guilty of a Class H felony if the person under 18 years of age under par. (b) discharges the firearm and the discharge causes death to himself, herself or another.
(d) A person under 17 years of age who has violated this subsection is subject to the provisions of ch. 938 unless jurisdiction is waived under s. 938.18 or the person is subject to the jurisdiction of a court of criminal jurisdiction under s. 938.183.

(3)  
(a) This section does not apply to a person under 18 years of age who possesses or is armed with a dangerous weapon when the dangerous weapon is being used in target practice under the supervision of an adult or in a course of instruction in the traditional and proper use of the dangerous weapon under the supervision of an adult. This section does not apply to an adult who transfers a dangerous weapon to a person under 18 years of age for use only in target practice under the adult's supervision or in a course of instruction in the traditional and proper use of the dangerous weapon under the adult's supervision.
(b) This section does not apply to a person under 18 years of age who is a member of the armed forces or national guard and who possesses or is armed with a dangerous weapon in the line of duty. This section does not apply to an adult who is a member of the armed forces or national guard and who transfers a dangerous weapon to a person under 18 years of age in the line of duty.
(c) This section applies only to a person under 18 years of age who possesses or is armed with a rifle or a shotgun if the person is in violation of s. 941.28 or is not in compliance with ss. 29.304 and 29.593. This section applies only to an adult who transfers a firearm to a person under 18 years of age if the person under 18 years of age is not in compliance with ss. 29.304 and 29.593 or to an adult who is in violation of s. 941.28.

2 things to note:

  • (1) takes care to include, in the list of dangerous weapons: nunchaku, shuriken and manrikigusari. While the first 2 are more or less familiar to everyone knows anything about Japanese martial arts, the last one had to be looked up by everyone following the case to discover that it's the "secret weapon of the Ninja"(even more than the shuriken).
  • (3.c) says that the whole of this entire section applies[adding the brackets to make following the formal logic easier] only if (the person under 18 is in violation of 941.28[barrel length under 16 inches]) or (is not in compliance with ss. 29.304[Restrictions on hunting and use of firearms by persons under 16 years of age] and 29.593[Requirement for certificate of accomplishment to obtain hunting approval]).

In programming terms(for those so inclined), 3.C could be written as:

IF ((barrelLengthInches < 16) OR (huntingUnder16Applies AND huntingCertificateApplies))
THEN statute948.60Applies
ELSE statute948.60DoesNotApply

Since the barrel length is over 16'' and Rittenhouse is over 16 and no hunting permit was required for his activities, the whole section of the law did not apply. Assistant District Attorney James Kraus argued that the exception renders the state’s prohibition on minors possessing dangerous weapons meaningless. In essence, that the legislators drafting that law spent too much time watching cheesy early 90's action movies and thinking of how to save Wisconsinites from the Ninja threat, to draft the law properly, so it should be read according to its intent from the title of the section.

However, there is a binding Common Law precedent, dating back from the 16th century called the "Rule of Lenity", also called "Strict Constructionism" in the US, whereby if the legislature screws up, it's the legislature's problem. In the original case, the law in England forbade "felonious stealing of Horses, Geldings or Mares". A thief was caught, but argued that since he only stole one horse and the law specified horses, the law didn't apply to him. He was let off and the law hastily rectified. Pre-revolutionary Common Law precedent is binding in the US and it was re-affirmed multiple times, e.g. United States v. Wiltberger, where a US sailor got off with killing another US sailor in a Chinese estuary, because the law only applied on the "high seas". So, the charge was tossed and the defense didn't press the issue further.

However, the really interesting bit is that even though it didn't get to be argued since Rittenhouse was 17, the way the law is actually written, this section only applies if (huntingUnder16Applies AND huntingCertificateApplies). That means that there is literally nothing in Wisconsin barring a 12 year old(under 12 is separately forbidden in the 29.304/huntingUnder16Applies section) from possessing and using an AR-15(or AK-47), as long as the barrel is >16'' and a hunting license isn't required for the activity.

I think that the legislature will amend the law with haste, before it can be tested on 12 year olds.

P.S. the other guy who gave him the gun will get off with this precedent too, since the statute for his charge is:

This section applies only to an adult who transfers a firearm to a person under 18 years of age if the person under 18 years of age is not in compliance with ss. 29.304 and 29.593 or to an adult who is in violation of s. 941.28.

i.e. the same 3 sub-sections as for Rittenhouse.

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  • 2
    this answer is simply wrong. The original 1955 law only banned handguns. The 1987 law change added in all the other weird ninja stuff to the existing ban on handguns, defining them collectively as 'dangerous weapons'. So as of 1991 there was no criminal law relating to minors and firearms other than handguns. Tommy Thompson issued an executive order in 1991 to update the law, which resulted in the cross-referencing of the hunting code from the child crimes code.
    – thelawnet
    Nov 23 '21 at 18:42
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    Subsequently in 2005, the Department for Natural Resources asked Wisconsin to revise the section to refer directly to 'shotguns and rifles' as opposed to just barrel lengths. This was done, and the cross-referencing of post-1991 law banning short rifles and shortguns resulted in the spaghetti you see today. The assertion that the 'and' is what gets Rittenhouse off is just wrong. In fact any breach of the three sections (barrel length, hunting w/out certificate, and gun possession by under 16) could have been found guilty, the point though is that he didn't breach any of them.
    – thelawnet
    Nov 23 '21 at 18:46
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    Since Rittenhouse wasn't hunting, he doesn't breach that law. Since he wasn't under 16, he doesn't breach that law. Since the gun was not short, he doesn't breach the law. Since he doesn't breach ANY of the laws being referred to in the section, the issue of 'ands' and 'ors' was never raised, and is irrelevant speculation.
    – thelawnet
    Nov 23 '21 at 18:48
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    Aren't all weapons "dangerous" basically by definition? It's kind of the entire point. If it weren't dangerous, it wouldn't be much of a weapon. Sure, a Nerf gun isn't dangerous, but I'd argue that it isn't really a weapon either. Nov 24 '21 at 14:52
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    @nick012000 There are no federal laws on the ownership of flamethrowers(lifehacker.com/is-it-legal-to-own-a-flamethrower-1822514399) and only CA and MD have any state restrictions. According to jordanlawfl.com/flamethrower-rights what purchase age restrictions exist are from manufacturers, not laws. Crossbows are similarly not federally regulated, including a minimum age and a search of WI laws (docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/search/…) only gives laws about hunting, transport and shooting near buildings
    – Eugene
    Nov 25 '21 at 7:27
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Those blogs are half right. The relevant federal statute is 18 U.S.C. § 922(x). I won't reproduce it here for brevity, but it prohibits minors from possessing or purchasing handguns*, with some exceptions, like during target practice or hunting. However, there are no other federal restrictions beyond those on the general public- while it wouldn't have been legal for Kyle Rittenhouse to wander around with a handgun or a machine gun, a long gun like a rifle is perfectly legal for him to carry, on a federal level at least.

However, state laws vary widely. In Wisconsin, statute 948.60 is what governs the rules for minors, and while poorly written, it does not apply to rifles if the length of the barrel is greater than 16 inches (about 40cm)** and the wielder is not hunting without an appropriate hunting education certificate***. Because of this, the judge dismissed the weapons charge.

It is illegal for someone who is under 18 to buy a gun, so a friend of Rittenhouse bought it for him and is facing felony charges for the purchase, and for letting him have the gun the night Rittenhouse shot somebody.

*While minors can't possess or purchase handguns, they can own them if they are gifted or inherit one so long as somebody else holds on to them until the minor turns 18.

**The general public is already forbidden from possessing short-barreled rifles, defined as a rifle that's barrel is less than 16 inches long, at the federal level.

***Further restrictions on gun usage are placed on kids younger than 14. See Wisconsin statute 29.304 for details.

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  • "it does not apply to rifles if the length of the barrel is greater than 16 inches (about 40cm)" Without a special permit, no one is allowed to own a rifle with a barrel length less than 16 inches, which the ATF defines as a "short barreled rifle."
    – Tiger Guy
    Nov 23 '21 at 16:16
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    @TigerGuy Added a note that the federal government also banned short-barreled rifles.
    – Aiden4
    Nov 23 '21 at 17:20
  • 948.60, not 648.60
    – thelawnet
    Nov 23 '21 at 18:35
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    @thelawnet Isn't "A 16-17 year old only needs to NOT break the law requiring hunters to have a certificate" in simple words "not to be poaching"?
    – Vladimir F
    Nov 23 '21 at 19:30
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    The problem is "poaching" is ill defined. It can be interpreted as two things: taking of game without permission of the landowner, but in an otherwise legal fashion, or taking of game in contravention of wildlife laws and regulation (e.g. off-season hunting). Traditionally poaching is the former, as @thelawnet is saying, borne from the days where there was far less wildlife management.
    – user71659
    Nov 24 '21 at 1:02
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In the US, minors can own, hold, and use both rifles and shotguns, and in many places in the country it is extremely common.

There may be local laws or ordinances that supercede this, but rural America is a haven for gun ownership.

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