Who Needs An Assault Rifle?

“Why in the world would anyone need to own an assault rifle with a 30 round clip?”

That is a question people are asking after the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut last week. What possible justification could a civilian have for a weapon that so closely mimics the looks of weapons used by the military and police?

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia, a long time 2nd Amendment supporter, said on MSNBC:

I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle, I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting. 

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Remington semi-automatic rifle designed specifically for hunting

Before we try to answer that question we need to be sure that we are clear about what we are talking about. There are a lot of people out there who confuse cosmetics with functionality.

Technically an “assault rifle” is a type of “machine gun” in that it is capable of fully automatic fire. The AR-15 and other weapons being discussed for an “Assault Weapons Ban” are not, by military definition, real assault weapons. They are all semi-automatic.

With a fully automatic weapon you can pull the trigger and hold it and more than one shot is fired. Depending on the model, a military M-16 type of assault rifle will fire a burst of three shots, or fire until the magazine is empty. None of the rifles being discussed for an “Assault Weapons Ban” is fully automatic (nor is it easy to convert these guns to full auto fire). Fully automatic weapons have been covered under the National Firearms Act (NFA) since 1934. They are difficult to get, very expensive, and their appearance on crime scenes is non-existent.

Civilian AR-15 is not capable of full-auto fire and is not a "machine gun."

Civilian AR-15 is not capable of full-auto fire and is not a “machine gun.”

But honestly for a lot of people the technical definition, and the fact that the weapons being discussed are not real “assault rifles,”  is of little importance. The characteristics most people associate with the term meet these criteria:

  • Looks like a military weapon
  • Can accept a magazine that holds a lot of bullets
  • Automatically reloads itself each time it is fired until empty (but you have to pull the trigger for each shot)

The first criterion above is purely cosmetic. The second two are important characteristics of the guns being discussed. If you look at the picture of the gun below it looks almost like the military M4 carbine (a real military M4 has a slightly shorter barrel which would fall under the NFA for a civilian). However it is in reality a Colt version of the AR-15 and is not a machine gun. It can only fire one round at a time with one pull of the trigger. It is in the series that Colt advertises as a “Law Enforcement” model, and police often use this, or a similar rifle from another manufacturer.

Colt M-4 style carbine

Colt M-4 style carbine

I own the above gun. Why do I own it? For a lot of reasons, including it is fun to shoot, but most importantly for home defense. Am I likely to need it? Hope not. It is kind of like buying car insurance. You don’t want to need it, but it is really embarrassing when you do need it and don’t have it.

Why do I own this gun for home defense instead of a lot of others, others than don’t look like military weapons? Basically I own it for exactly the same reason that the military and police like this style of rifle.

The above gun is actually a carbine (a short version of a rifle). It is nearly identical to the Bushmaster that the murderer in the school in Newtown, Connecticut used. 

The M4 type carbine above has a 16″ barrel (compared to 20″ in a standard rifle model)  and has a collapsible stock to make it as short as legally possible. So again, why would I choose this particular weapon for home defense?

The reason for the M4 carbine version with a shorter barrel and collapsible stock is to create a shorter firearm that is easier to manuever in close quarters, for example, in a house or building with narrow hallways, stairs, etc. The military and police use carbines for troops that might engage in “Close Quarter Combat” in these sort of indoor environments. Troops and police almost univerally will opt for a carbine in this environment if possible.

Top - M1 Garand full size rifle used in WWII and Korea. Bottom - M1 Carbine replaced handguns for many officers. Note the "high capacity" magazine. Millions of these were sold to civilians since WWII. Why didn't school shootings start in the 1950s with these guns?

Top – M1 Garand full size rifle used in WWII and Korea. Bottom – M1 Carbine replaced handguns for many officers. Note the “high capacity” magazine. Millions of these were sold to civilians since WWII. Why didn’t school shootings start in the 1950s with these guns?

Why not use a handgun for home defense? That would certainly be an option. But the military learned back in WWII and Korea they could give an officer an M1 carbine and he could learn to use it  a lot quicker than learning to use a handgun. A carbine needs less training and skill than a handgun to use effectively. The carbine is more powerful than a handgun and does not require the degree of mastery required for a handgun.

How about the military cartridge (5.56 x 45 mm) used in these guns? Isn’t that a very powerful military round that will penetrate walls and cause horrific wounds? Why would you need something like that?

Actually the 5.56 x 45 mm (.223 is civilian version) cartridge is quite a bit less powerful than rifle cartridges used by the military previously (but more powerful than a handgun). One objective measure of the “power” of a cartridge is the amount of kinetic energy the bullet has on leaving the muzzle. This is purely a function of mass and velocity. The 5.56 has less than 1300 ft-lbs of energy. The 7.62 x 51mm cartridge previously used in the M-14 by the military, and many hunting rifles, will have over 2800 ft-lbs of energy, more than twice that of the 5.56 used in my Colt carbine.

5.56 is more powerful than handgun cartridges, but less powerful than almost any other rifle catridge.

5.56 is more powerful than handgun cartridges, but less powerful than almost any other rifle catridge.

One good thing about less power is that it means less recoil. That makes it easier to shoot, and to shoot accurately. In addition these guns in 5.56 (.223) have a good reputation for accuracy. My wife can learn to shoot my Colt carbine a lot easier than my 7mm Remington Magnum hunting rifle which has enough recoil to hurt you if you are not careful. Low recoil is a good thing to have in a gun used for home defense.

There are a lot of different versions of the 5.56 cartridge to choose from. A lot of civilians will buy a version of the military M193 cartridge, a cartridge with a 55 grain bullet (compared to 150 grains in the 7.62). It is pretty much the cartridge used in the Vietnam War. It is not known to penetrate walls very well and despite having a full metal jacket, is not known for being a particularly “tough” bullet.

Since its inception the 5.56 has been criticized for lack of penetration

Since its inception the 5.56 has been criticized for lack of penetration

I also own some 45 grain bullets made by Winchester that are “frangible,” meaning they break up very easy and are designed to not penetrate walls. If I were to use my hunting rifle the bullet could penetrate a couple walls in my house, and go on and possibly penetrate the wall of my neighbors house. Not a good idea.

I highly recommend you buy something like the 45 grain Winchester frangibles for home defense. They are plenty powerful enough to stop an aggressor at nearly point blank range in your home, and you are a lot less likely to penetrate walls and hit a family member in another room.

I use the 5.56 for home defense not because it is so powerful, but because it is less powerful. This is basically a .224 caliber bullet and is smaller and less powerful than almost any other centerfire rifle cartridge you can buy.

Ammo is relatively cheap to buy. Therefore I can afford to practice and having that familiarity with the gun from a lot of practice is a plus when you are trying to use something at O-Dark Thirty in the morning.

How about those “high capacity” magazines? Why do you need those?

The military and police typically load their 30 round magazines and fire them or unload them. They don’t typically leave them laying around for years fully loaded. If you do that there is a possibility of weakening the magazine spring under continuous compression making that magazine unreliable when you really need it.

There is a real possibility that you may have multiple attackers and some of them may be on drugs. Your handgun bullet, or half a dozen handgun bullets, may not stop even  one aggressor. Yes, even one of your bullets may be ultimately fatal but not stop the aggressor before he does serious harm to you. Any serious examination of police statistics on wounds will show that you can’t count on one good shot stopping all aggressors, especially one who is psychotic and/or on drugs. 30 rounds is “insurance” which you hopefully will never need, but if you do need it nothing else will do.

Also any examination of statistics will show you that trained police officers who have prepared for violent confrontation all of their career will miss their target completely when huge doses of adrenaline are flowing through their veins.  That is another reason for a 30 round magazine. No matter how well you do at the range tells you nothing about how you will do when fearing for your life. That is why police carry large capacity magazines for both their handguns and AR-15 rifles. You as a citizen have the absolute right to own similar magazines for your own protection.

Typical magazines - they come in designer colors.

Typical magazines – they come in designer colors.

Typically I put 2o rounds in a 30 round magazine so as not to over stress the spring in the magazine. Hopefully I would not need even 20 rounds in a home defense scenario. Hopefully I would not need any. Hopefully the bad guy(s) would see I was armed and run away. Hopefully.

But I don’t plan on hoping for the best without preparing for the worst. Maybe I won’t need 20, but I also don’t want to be faced with reloading at O-Dark Thirty in the morning. So yes, I have justification for owning 30 round magazines. They are perfect for home defense.

Koreans defend their stores during the LA riots in 1992. The guy in front looks to have some sort of semi-auto, perhaps a Ruger Mini-14?

Koreans defend their stores during the LA riots in 1992. The guy in front looks to have some sort of semi-auto, perhaps a Ruger Mini-14?

These so-called (but inaccurately called) “Assault Rifles” are in fact a perfect weapon for home defense. They are relatively short and handy in confined spaces. They are accurate. They have light recoil. The cartridges can be less penetrative than normal hunting cartridges. They can be loaded at one time with enough cartridges to make the necessity of having to reload under stress unlikely. They are cheap to shoot.

What’s not to like?

Target shooting is also popular with "AR" type rifles. This young man is learning valuable lessons in personal accomplishment and responsibility at the range.

Target shooting is also popular with “AR” type rifles. This young man is learning valuable lessons in personal accomplishment and responsibility at the range.

In addition a whole industry has sprung up to provide accessories for them. Accessories like halogen flashlights can be easily attached and used to temporarily blind an attacker in a dark room (which works really well to your advantage, and that is one reason why police use them). Just as importantly that flashlight mounted on the AR-15 can allow you to clearly identify your target,  and to make sure you are not about to shoot a family member by mistake.

High intensity flashlight attached to barrel of AR-15.

High intensity flashlight attached to barrel of AR-15.

Another useful accessory could be a visible laser that allows you to aim accurately in low light when your iron sights are nearly invisible. The beauty of the system is you can buy tons of useful accessories and equip your AR-15 with picatinny rails to quickly mount them in whatever configuration you find most useful. No duct tape required.

In short, a civilian AR-15 M4 style carbine, just like what a murderer used, is nearly a perfect weapon for home defense. If you think about that fact for a while you will realize that it perfectly illustrates the problem with guns. The same gun that can serve to murder innocent children can serve just as well to defend a home, or children in a school if one is available.

Obviously I am a defender of the 2nd Amendment and my right to own this weapon. You may disagree. But one difference between me and many people who want to ban guns is that I understand their arguments.

I fully understand the horror of the tragedy that happened in Newtown. I have had young kids too. I know the horror of thinking something may have happened to them (but the relief of finding out that it had not).  I fully understand what these guns are capable of. They are capable in the hands of some people, like that murderer, of inflicting unspeakable horror.

I understand that.

If you don't want this in your neighborhood, then ask your politicians to let responsible people have guns in schools to protect children. Connecticut has a lot of gun control laws. What it did not have was an armed principal or teacher to stop the killing before it started.

If you don’t want this in your neighborhood, then ask your politicians to let responsible people have guns in schools to protect children. Connecticut has a lot of gun control laws. What it did not have was an armed principal or teacher to stop the killing before it started.

But I also understand this. Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens save thousands and thousands of lives in the United States every year. Dr. Gary Kleck, an award winning criminologist at Florida State University, has done research indicating that firearms are used over 2 million times a year in self defense. And yes, sometimes people that own these guns inflict tragedy on themselves by stupid or careless behavior.

A Dr. Arthur Kellerman in the New England Journal of Medicine made claims that keeping a gun in one’s home increased one’s risk of being a victim of homicide by a factor of 43. However other researchers have largely debunked these claims. Maybe if you are a convicted ex-felon living with a drug dealer then his numbers might apply to you. Wikipedia has a good article here.  A short quote:

In a New England Journal of Medicine article, Kellermann found that people who keep a gun at home increase their risk of homicide. Florida State University professor Gary Kleck disagrees with the journal authors’ interpretation of the evidence and he notes that there is no evidence that the guns involved in the home homicides studied by Kellermann, et al. were kept in the victim’s home. Indeed, it was later discovered that Kellermann’s own data indicated that no more than 1.7% of the homicides committed in the counties he studied were committed with a gun kept in the victim’s home. Thus, victim gun ownership could not have had more than a negligible effect in elevating the risk of being murdered. -Political arguments of gun politics in the United States

I believe these guns do more good than they do harm. There is good evidence of this. Of course it will never be a black and white equation, one side is absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong. A lot of things are like that.

Guns in good hands can save little lives

Guns in good hands can save little lives

Cars in the hands of idiots kill a lot of innocent people too. But unlike guns, most people understand the utility of cars and accept that some tragedies can’t be prevented, and the value they bring to our lives exceeds the cost of the tragedies. People value the freedom that cars give them over the carnage they inflict.

Cars kill kids too ... a lot more than are killed by guns.

Cars kill kids too … a lot more than are killed by guns.

The same is true for guns. You have to understand the value and freedom they bring to our lives – freedom from being robbed, raped, or murdered. At least if you disagree with me, try to understand that my reasons are not trivial, and were not arrived at easily.

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