Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Tony Oliver poses for a portrait inside of Orchard Park SDA church on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

He was 17. A child, essentially.

Kyle Rittenhouse couldn't vote.

Couldn't legally buy cigarettes.

Was barely old enough to buy a ticket for an R-rated movie.

Yet last year, as a 17-year-old, he and others around him thought it appropriate for him to carry an AR-15-style rifle into public protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. That day, young Kyle Rittenhouse killed two people.

I have only begun to process his not-guilty verdict, announced Friday afternoon.

There is so much suffering, so many reasons to mourn.

Rittenhouse may be legally innocent, but blood will remain on his hands, his heart, possibly for the rest of his life. The people I know who have killed others say such actions — firing a gun at another human being, watching the body drop, the blood spill from wrecked flesh, the breath stop — will distort and haunt for time immeasurable.

Self-defense, his lawyers claimed.

Would such a claim apply for every American?

Consider local history. Ed Johnson facing a white lynch mob, the Cherokees facing forced removal, five Black women shotgunned by the Klan in 1980 — if they had armed themselves and shot their white attackers in self-defense, would the courts have set them free?

It is hard for me to imagine a present-day Black teenager carrying an AR-15 to our city's next protest, shooting three white people, claiming self-defense and receiving the same treatment and verdict as Rittenhouse.

The criminal justice system seems more schizophrenic than blind; it has ruthlessly eaten up the lives of so many, while bending over backwards to allow and sustain others' freedom.

I think of Tony Oliver.

Oliver is a Black Chattanooga businessman; during COVID-19, he helped deliver some 20,000 meals to our city's homeless and poor.

He owns TNT Cleaning. Mentors both youth and adults. A husband, father, believer.

"I want to keep growing my business so I can help others in my community," he says.

Growing up, he made bad decisions. He robbed, fell into addiction, eventually serving some 17 years in prison.

In 2007, he became sober. Started working full-time. Fell in love.

Released from prison on probation, Oliver transformed his entire life.

In 2017, he was working the late-shift at a local manufacturing plant. His wife, home alone at night. Their home had been twice burglarized, so she bought a handgun.

Kept it in her bedside table.

For self-defense.

With weeks remaining on his probation, authorities visited their home. Found the gun — properly secured, on his wife's side of the bed.

For self-defense.

But Oliver was a felon on probation; he is prevented from possessing a firearm.

With his daughter watching, Oliver was cuffed and sent back to prison.


His wife owned a gun.

For self-defense.

(A judge later dismissed the charges, yet Oliver says his parole officer still forced him back to prison to finish his probation; he lost his job in the process.)

This fall, I read Carol Anderson's "The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America."

"This book should be required reading for every elected state representative and senator as well as those in Congress," emailed the reader who recommended this to me. "Ms. Anderson's book delves into the real reasons framers of the Constitution included the Amendment — mainly the threat from armed slaves and free Blacks."

"The eighteenth-century origins of the 'right to bear arms' explicitly excluded Black people," writes Anderson, a decorated, best-selling professor at Emory University. Elsewhere, she writes: "The Second Amendment ... was designed and has consistently been constructed to keep African Americans powerless and vulnerable."

Can you think of any time in American history when Black people collectively armed themselves against white violence ... and received full support of the Constitution, police officers, judges and politicians for doing so?

Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. All Black. Each carrying or possessing a gun. (Rice, 12, was playing with a toy gun. Crawford was carrying a BB gun he'd picked up off the Walmart shelf.)

They were all shot and killed by police.

Who gets to carry guns in this country?

And who doesn't?

I don't write this out of reckless emotion, wanting to make a painful situation worse. I, too, own multiple guns. But if my Black brothers and sisters can't carry their guns in the same way I can — or Rittenhouse — then what role does the Second Amendment play in this country?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at