Up until a few decades ago the standard police weapon was a six-shooter, typically a .38 revolver, and often there was a 12-gauge shotgun in the police cruiser. Nowadays it’s a semi-auto pistol and AR-15 rifle, with spare magazines loaded and ready. Private citizens have followed suit for the most part, as they have in the past, and employ the same weapons as police for their defense.

The semi-automatic AR-15 rifle fires a small caliber round (.223 Remington) that is commercially used in hunting for small game animals and varmints. While clever bullet design can make this round more effective for combat, it remains an intermediate-power weapon: it cannot reliably stop an attacker with a single shot (unlike the full-power M14 rifle pictured above, chambered in .308 Winchester), though it is more powerful than a handgun. (The AR-15 is often referred to as a “high-powered assault rifle,” but that is a media-driven misnomer.) One particularly important quality of the AR-15 is that, unlike handgun bullets, the .223 bullet tends to fragment easily when it hits something – even a few sheets of drywall – which helps minimize risk to innocent parties. This is one reason why the AR-15 is a good weapon, especially in urban environments where every bullet that misses its target is going to strike something – another person, car, window, wall, etc. The same qualities that make it a standard police weapon can make it a good choice for citizen self-defense. Accuracy is outstanding; recoil is relatively mild for a long gun, allowing for fairly rapid follow-up shots, which is important in a fluid situation like a gunfight; the standard magazine capacity of 30 rounds also minimizes the risk of needing to take the time to reload while you’re being shot at.

A handgun is more difficult to handle than a “long gun” like the AR-15. A long gun such as a rifle or shotgun is shoulder-fired and much easier to aim and hit with, especially if any distance is involved. While the handgun bullet can be effective at long distances, most people cannot hit well beyond about 25ft, and that’s when standing in an optimal stance at the shooting range, shooting at a target that’s not shooting back. Inside the home, at very close range, many people prefer a handgun for its maneuverability; a long gun can be unwieldy in close quarters. However, nothing beats a shotgun at close range, so if you can hunker down (say, in a safe room) and let the intruder come to you, it can be an excellent option. The recoil of a shotgun is quite stiff however, and can be a problem for some people – the power comes with a price – particularly for the elderly or people with shoulder problems, so there’s no reason why someone shouldn’t substitute an AR-15 for a shotgun. Just be aware it is not as powerful, and be prepared to shoot more than once.

There are further, modern advantages to the AR-15 over other firearms. It is highly modular and can be tailored to suit the user in a variety of ways. It is easy to mount onboard flashlights (you have to see and identify your target after all, and most fights happen in low-light conditions), as well as “red dot” optical sights, lasers, forward vertical grips to aid in control and retention of the firearm, adjustable length buttstocks to allow for different clothing conditions or differences in stature, compartments for battery storage, etc. The flashlight and red dot are the most important accessories. The red dot sight is like a little window or scope used instead of, or in tandem with, the traditional front-rear iron sights system. It works similar to a laser: you look through the window and see the illuminated dot wherever you aim, except that it does not actually shine any light or beam downrange (and has no magnification). This makes target acquisition faster and easier. Put the dot on the target and shoot. Scopes with magnification can also easily be mounted or swapped out using quick release levers without loss of accuracy. Like it or not, the AR-15 is an American icon, as identifiable as the western frontier lever action rifle, and a triumph of Yankee ingenuity.

The typical modern defense handgun is a semi-auto pistol with a detachable magazine, and while there are a great variety of makes and models, the Glock pistol is the most popular, and epitomizes the modern design. Most police in America carry a Glock pistol on the hip (standard magazine capacity of up to 17 rounds), and have ready access to an AR-15 semi-auto rifle with 30-round magazines – I’m talking about rank and file police having access to AR-15s in the trunk of their patrol cars, not SWAT or special assault teams. The reason everyday police use these weapons – the Glock and the AR-15 – is because they are exactly the kind of guns you would want to have if you needed to defend yourself. (And as we’ve all seen, whenever some shooting happens all of a sudden there are lots of police carrying AR-15s, illustrating the old saying: you bring a rifle to a gunfight, not a handgun.) And so it’s no surprise that citizens have also chosen the most effective means for their personal defense: firearms like Glocks and AR-15s.

The term “assault weapon” is largely a political term with no clear definition. “Assault” is a type of behavior, not a type of firearm. With some exceptions, police do not “assault” people with gunfire, so they would have no need of an “assault rifle.” They are out to make arrests; their pistols and AR-15s are for personal defense and for defending members of their team – including defense against the kind of criminals who prey on innocent citizens.

What would be the effect of restricting private citizens’ access to such weapons and magazines? Besides handicapping their ability to defend themselves, very little. There are already millions of AR-15s alone in private hands, and tens of millions of 30-round magazines for them. Even if the magazines are illegal in one’s home state, he can drive across state lines and get them, and it’s as easy as buying a bar of soap. If someone is bent on doing harm with any kind of pistol, rifle, or shotgun, he will have little trouble acquiring the means.

On the other hand, if magazine limits are imposed this could put the citizen at a disadvantage with respect to his or her criminal attacker(s). Basically, it’s an ammunition handicap on the citizenry – who wants to accept a handicap in a gunfight?

Often, as is happening now, a high profile shooting used to push legislation, legislation which may well have nothing to do with preventing the type of crime that just occurred. “Universal background checks,” in which all firearms transactions would go through a federally licensed dealer who would run the background check, was heavily promoted in response to Sandy Hook even though it would not have prevented that tragedy from happening. It turns out that “universal background checks” is just the old “closing the gun show loophole” idea, which has been near the top of the gun control wish list for quite a few years. It was dusted off, repackaged, and renamed to sound like something new that had to be done right away.

Regardless of what one thinks about the merit of background check legislation, many gun owners justifiably see the push as opportunistic, something that was part of the anti-gun agenda all along, and where there is a chance to strike while the iron is hot – even if it would have done nothing to stop the Sandy Hook killer.

What about magazine capacity? The Sandy Hook killer used an AR-15 with 30-round magazines and murdered 26 people. Yet the Virginia Tech killer used a Glock pistol with only a 15-round magazine capacity and murdered 30 – he fired a total of 170 rounds at college students, some of them probably athletic and strong enough to overpower him if they could have gotten to him. In the case of the Arizona shooter, some like to point out was tackled when he tried to reload after discharging a 33-round magazine, indicating he would have killed fewer people with a smaller magazine, and that may be true in this particular case. The problem is that it is a mistake to generalize from this one particular instance. He was stopped while fumbling with another oversized magazine. If he had just used standard size magazines, mounted in magazine pouches on a belt or chest rig, and did a modicum of reloading practice beforehand, he might have been unstoppable. This is counterintuitive but nevertheless true: he might well have been more deadly with 15-round magazines than he was with the 33-round magazines – just as the Virginia Tech shooter was. The idea is this: Armed with a semi-automatic firearm, shooting at people who can’t get away and can’t shoot back, the mass murderer is limited only by the amount of ammunition he can carry. Even if the police stop him before he runs out of ammo a lot of damage will have already been done. This is why many people are opposed to “gun-free” zones where citizens with carry permits cannot bring their weapons – it turns places into “free-fire” kill zones for mass murderers.

Would we be better off if we could turn back the clock so that all we had were revolvers and shotguns, no modern semi-auto pistols or rifles? Maybe, but it hardly seems to matter. Criminals (and potential tyrants) will not go along with any weapons ban or magazine capacity limits. Consequently, people of arms resist any effort to impose arbitrary limits – gunfight handicaps – on their ability to defend their lives and their freedom. And defense of life and liberty is why we have “gun rights” in the first place.

Odysseus M Tanner

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