The push to ban “assault weapons” has a lot of support among my fellow liberals these days, in the aftermath of last year’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school (which did not involve the use of an “assault rifle”) and the shooting in a movie theater in Colorado (which did). Most people on the political left seem to think that banning scary-looking black rifles is a no-brainer, because they see no legitimate use for these types of guns among civilians. It is no coincidence that those most eager to ban these weapons are also the least informed regarding these rifles and their advantages for civilian defensive use. But I’m about to fix all that! And hopefully, once I’ve brought you up to speed on these weapons, your anti- assault rifle zeal will lose a little of its heat. Maybe you’ll even decide to go out and buy yourself a Bushmaster (if you can still find one, in the wake of the recent gun shop panic).
First, let’s get the semantics out of the way. “Assault weapons” is a term fabricated by gun control advocates. Gun people never use it. “Assault rifle” is a legitimate descriptor. This is a military-style rifle that, compared to full-size battle rifles, is smaller and lighter, and fires smaller, lighter, less powerful ammunition. These rifles are chambered in what are termed “intermediate calibers” -- some-where between the size and power of pistol rounds and traditional, full-size rifle cartridges. True assault rifles are also capable of fully-automatic fire and/or three-round burst-fire, as well as firing in semi-automatic mode (in which one round is fired for each pull of the trigger). The vast majority of “assault rifles” owned by civilians in the United States are only capable of firing in the semi-automatic mode. Some pro-gun people bristle when the term “assault rifle” is applied to these semi-autos. But I won’t quibble on that point. As far as I’m concerned, they’re “semi-automatic assault rifles” -- or, more precisely, "semi-automatic variants of assault rifles".
BTW: You'll never see me refer to AR-15s or other military-style rifles as "sporting rifles". That's bullshit! The primary use of these rifles is for the defense of innocent lives & imperiled democracies. While some of them are used for competitive shooting, and some are used for hunting coyotes, feral hogs, and prairie dogs, etc., the vast majority of the shooting done with these rifles is in preparation for defensive scenarios. Some AR-15s, equipped with bull barrels, bipods and high-power telescopic sights, are specifically designed for varmint hunting; but most ARs are more combat-oriented rifles, owned for home defense and/or the defense of liberty. As I see it, a bolt-action Winchester Model 70, or a semi-automatic Remington 742 is a "sporting" rifle. Semi-automatic ARs and AKs are military-style rifles that sometimes get pressed into service as "sporting rifles". So let's not be cute with the nomenclature. Let's take a more grown-up, straightforward approach than the anti-gun crowd in this regard. "Sporting rifles" they are not. They're about something much more essential than that.
Note: Some of the comments below apply to semi-automatic assault rifles in general (including AK-47s, which are also popular in the U.S.), while some apply specifically to more accurate rifles chambered in 5.56mm or .223 Remington, such as the AR-15 (and similar rifles, such as the SIG SG556, the Steyr AUG, and the FN FNC).
By far, the most popular of these rifles in the U.S. is the semi-automatic AR-15, as made by Colt, Smith & Wesson, Bushmaster, DPMS, Olympic Arms and others. Most of these rifles are chambered in 5.56mm NATO, which also allows them to fire the commercial .223 Remington round, a slightly less powerful cartridge. Many people unfamiliar with these rifles think it absurd to suggest that anyone might need this sort of weapon to defend their home, business, democracy, etc. But in reality, AR-15 style rifles have some practical advantages that make them uniquely desirable for defensive use, such as:
Accuracy -- These rifles are much easier to shoot accurately than a handgun. This means that a defender has a better chance of stopping an attacker quickly, before the attacker kills or injures the defender or other family members, etc. Less chance of missing the attacker(s) also means that the defender is less likely to send poorly-directed bullets downrange, where they can kill or injure innocent bystanders. This sort of practical accuracy is especially important in situations in which the attacker has taken cover, and is presenting only a small target for the defender -- a very likely scenario in any gunfight that isn’t ended in the first few seconds. Many modern AR-15 rifles are capable of shooting 1-inch groups at 100 yards. This sort of precision accuracy instills confidence in the shooter, and encourages the shooter to take advantage of that accuracy, placing his or her shots carefully, rather than wildly “spraying and praying”. Bullets that go where they’re needed end gunfights quickly, which is a good thing for the defender and for other innocents in the area.
Stopping Power -- When loaded with the proper ammo, the AR-15 rifle, chambered in 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington, is very effective at stopping attackers quickly, even with peripheral hits. There have been some complaints of poor stopping power from the military, which uses full metal jacket ammo that sometimes shoots right through an enemy without doing enough damage to stop them quickly. But when loaded with the hollow point or polymer tip ammo available to civilians, the 5.56mm/.223 rifle becomes far more effective. Stopping power is important in any gunfight; but it’s critical in situations in which a defender has to deal with multiple attackers. In a home invasion or social unrest/riot scenario, the ability to stop each attacker with one shot can easily make the difference in whether the defender, along with his or her family, lives or dies.
Reduced Penetration -- The AR-15 and other rifles in 5.56mm NATO or .223 Remington fire small, fragile bullets at high velocities, which means they penetrate walls less than common pistol bullets (such as the 9mm, .40 Auto, .45 Auto, etc.), which have more mass and lower velocities, tend to hold together better when passing through walls. This is one of the primary reasons many police SWAT teams have switched from pistol-caliber submachineguns like the H&K MP5 to 5.56mm/.223 AR-15s. When loaded with hollow point or polymer tip ammo, rifles in these calibers are also less likely than most defensive pistols to shoot through an attacker and endanger innocent people in the background. The fast-moving little bullets just come apart in the intended target, dumping all of their energy in the attacker. (Note: When we say "bullet", we're talking about the projectile itself; the "cartridge" is the entire round, consisting of the bullet, propellant powder, and primer, all enclosed in a brass or steel case.)
High-Capacity Magazines -- AR-15s and other semi-auto “assault rifles” are often fed by 30-round magazines (or sometimes by magazines containing 20, 40, 60 rounds, etc.). As stated elsewhere these high-capacity magazines are more advantageous for law-abiding defenders (who are less likely to be carry spare mags) than for criminals or mass murders, who plan their actions in advance, and can therefore carry as many 10-round magazines as they need. Also, high-capacity magazines can be important when dealing with multiple attackers, as in a home invasion scenario or a social unrest/riot situation. (And for the ardent defender of democracy, going up against a government gone amok, high-capacity magazines are even more important. More on that later.)
Reliability & Ruggedness -- The AR-15 and other military-style rifles are designed to be extremely rugged and reliable -- able to withstand harsh conditions and rough treatment. This is an important advantage for any weapon used for defense. In a life-or-death situation, when you pull the trigger, you want the gun to go "bang!" every time.
Light Recoil -- Rifles chambered for the light 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington cartridge produce less recoil than most shotguns, and far less than the ubiquitous 12 gauge. This makes the rifles less intimidating for smaller-statured shooters, such as women, and easier to shoot for even the brawniest males. This can easily translate into more rounds placed on the target. (Especially since, at across-the-room distances, a shotgun's pellets don't scatter nearly as much as most people think.)
Ammo Cost -- AR-15 owners often use less expensive 5.56mm military surplus ammo for target practice and training, and more effective hollow point or polymer tip ammo in .223 Remington for defensive use. This gives them the ability to practice more, which means that, in a defensive situation, they're likely to be more effective in stopping attackers, and less likely to miss those attackers and send poorly-aimed bullets downrange, looking for innocent bystanders.
Parts Availability -- Because millions of AR-15 and M-16 rifles have been produced, parts and accessories are readily available. (Until they get banned by new, ill-conceived laws, anyway.) A multitude of aftermarket parts and accessories are available, allowing the owner to customize his or her rifle, to make it fit the shooter better, and to make the gun more useful. A wide variety of barrel lengths & types, shoulder stocks, handguards, pistol grips, AR-suitable optical sights, laser sights, iron sights, tactical lights, magazines and controls make the AR-15 one of the most customizable guns ever made, which can enhance its effectiveness for defensive use.
Many police departments in the U.S. have begun equipping patrol cars with AR-15 or M-16 rifles, because of the practical advantages listed above (and because, in some cases, they are able to get military surplus rifles). If these weapons were unsuited for defensive use in urban and suburban settings, as many claim, our police would not be carrying them around in their cars. The fact is, police officers and administrators in the U.S. have learned that accurate AR-15 rifles in 5.56mm or .223 Remington are more effective at stopping violent offenders and less dangerous to bystanders than many other guns. And what works for police officers works for private citizens. The laws of physics and physiology are the same, whether you wear a badge or not.
For civilians, broadly speaking, semi-automatic assault rifles are useful for three basic purposes:
* For defending homes, boats, businesses, etc. against garden-variety criminals.
* In case of social unrest (caused by natural disasters, economic collapse, etc.).
* For defending democracy against government gone amok.
1) Home Defense -- The semi-automatic AR-15 rifle in 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington (and similar rifles) is uniquely effective and desirable for home defense because of its practical accuracy, stopping power, reduced penetration through walls and perpetrators (especially with hollow point or polymer tip ammo), high capacity magazines (useful in a home invasion scenario), and rugged reliability. Once you become familiar with these rifles, and aware of their practical advantages, owning one for home defense doesn't seem nearly as foolish or reckless as it might to the average ill-informed, gun-fearing liberal.
2) In Case of Social Unrest -- Crises caused by natural disasters, economic collapse, political collapse, pandemics, etc. In the gun culture, this sort of thing is referred to as a “Shit Hits the Fan” (SHTF) scenario. Hurricanes, politically-motivated riots, terrorist attacks, etc., can cause law & order to break down very quickly, turning quiet suburbs into the Wild West. When this happens, few items are as comforting to the home owner, business owner, or average citizen as a semi-automatic assault rifle with high-capacity magazines. This is, hands-down, the most effective weapon for defending life and property against multiple attackers, especially in a prolonged engagement/ordeal. Under normal circumstances, using lethal force to defend property is considered bad form. (Outside of Texas, that is.) But in a SHTF scenario, defending your "property" could easily mean defending your food supply, your home, vehicle, clothing, weapons & ammo, and other things that could mean the difference between you (and your family) surviving the crisis or suffering an unpleasant death.
3) For Defending Democracy Against Government Gone Amok -- I know it's hard for many of my fellow Lefties to get their heads around this one, so I deal with this issue in more detail in the article Tools of Democracy. For now, I'll just say that any careful student of history knows that democracy has to be jealously guarded....that would-be tyrants have a habit of taking advantage of bad situations, such as economic collapse, natural disasters, religious hatreds, terrorist attacks, and the political polarization of the populace....and that, sooner or later, the highest principles have to be backed up by brute force, if they are to survive. I'll also say that, as a progressive, it's the possibility of a right-wing coup that worries me, especially after the bold theft of the 2000 presidential election by George W. Bush & Company. I'm not a survivalist, militia member, or chaos-yearning extremist. But I'm not so sanguine about the stability of of democracy in the 21st Century to dismiss this sort of scenario out of hand, by any means. If things ever get so bad that we literally have to fight to restore democracy to this country, as the Founding Fathers assumed we would, our cause would be well-served by large numbers of semi-automatic AR-15s and similar "assault rifles", as well as a few full-size battle rifles. Handguns would have their place in this sort of scenario, but rifles would be more decisive, just as they were in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Their accuracy, stopping power, high-capacity magazines, ruggedness and reliability would make them crucial weapons for anyone going up against government forces. As various wars and insurgencies around the world have proven in recent decades, modern technology and military might have not made small arms, in the hands of motivated freedom fighters, obsolete in any way.
With the proper ammo and 30-round magazines, a good AR-15 rifle in the 5.56mm NATO chambering is an incredibly efficient package for a defender in any of the above scenarios. A compact, lightweight rifle that offers precision shot placement with each pull of the trigger. A rifle firing compact, lightweight ammo that provides excellent stopping power without over-penetration. A rugged and reliable rifle that can be counted on under the worst conditions. This is why the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America.
In addition to these practical uses, many people use AR-15s (and other semi-automatic military-style rifles) for competitive shooting, or for casual target shooting. Others enjoy collecting these guns because of their technical interest and historical importance. And some Americans own them simply because they can -- because part of being an American means being a citizen in a nation in which the government trusts its people to be responsible and wise.