It is often asked in the gun control debate: Why does anyone need an assault weapon? What possible use do they have? Some, including the gift-that-keeps-on-giving, Joe Biden, have suggested that an empty double barrel shotgun is the way to go.
Assault weapons, in fact, have their uses, and these go beyond their extreme usefulness if it ever becomes necessary to “water the tree of liberty.”
Just by way of background, assault weapons are semi-automatic rifles that shoot medium sized bullets, typically contained in a 20 or 30 round magazine. Full powered battle rifles of the WWII era use more powerful ammunition, as do most hunting rifles. Pistols, on the other hand, use comparatively lower powered ammo and are also much less accurate and harder to shoot. Pistols also typically only have 6 to 15 bullets, depending on caliber and design.
US SWAT teams until recently used MP-5 submachine guns (SMGs) in 9mm and also 12 Gauge pump shotguns. The former shoot pistol caliber rounds in semi or full automatic mode. They’re more accurate than pistols due to a shoulder stock and a longer barrel. Shotguns are very powerful at close range, but their spreading buckshot or birdshot typically dissipates in effect beyond 50 meters. They’re pretty useful for cops against close range threats, but not so much against rifle-armed suspects. And they don’t shoot very quickly and typically only have 5-7 shells.
Starting at the time of the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout, police departments nationwide began switching over to the AR-15/M4 system from the MP-5 for SWAT teams and also began to issue it as a “patrolman’s rifle” to be kept in the trunk by regular officers. The pistol rounds in the LAPD’s SMGs could not penetrate the body armor worn by the two heavily armed suspects, and because of its meager range and perhaps bad training the cops were also missing a lot of the shots they took. During that high profile incident, the cops on scene actually ran to a local gun shop and obtained two AR-15s, but, by then, the suspects were fortuitously brought down by SMG rounds. ARs are more accurate and more poweful than pistols, SMGs, and shotguns, and, like all rifles, can more easily defeat body armor.
Ironically, SMGs and shotguns armed with buckshot or slugs tend to overpenetrate interior walls of buildings more readily than AR rounds. AR bullets (5.56mm in width and 55 grains in weight) are very fast (3000 fps), but also very light. They will typically disintegrate upon hitting sheetrock or a person, and thus have less risk of overpenetration than an SMG round or shotgun shell. Because these rounds disintegrate, they tend to transfer nearly all of their kinetic energy into the target. They’re easier to shoot at standoff distances of 25-100m, and they are very likely to bring down someone in one shot, unlike pistols. (Shotguns can do this too, and they’re equally valuable for home defense in my view, but have some greater risk of overpenetration and tend to operate slower and hold fewer shells. They also are shorter range, which matters in certain situations.)
ARs are useful in self defense. They’re probably the best self-defense weapon, in fact.
They’re clearly more valuable when dealing with multiple threats. Their much-maligned high capacity is of more use to the average joe than it would be to a criminal. While a determined criminal may already be loaded for bear with 5 or more magazines, most self-defensive uses of guns involve one gun and the one magazine in it.
They’re valuable in rural areas where threats may be known at longer distances (imagine seeing a stalker in one’s driveway out in the country).
They’re valuable for beginners because of low recoil (unlike shotguns) and greater accuracy at distance (unlike pistols).
And they’re valuable to police and others who may need to shoot a nutcase–think rifle-wielding shooting spree maniac–at greater distance to avoid being shot themselves.
These are some of the reasons that police have switched to this weapon. It is a handy, lightweight, accurate, and powerful weapon, but it minimizes the heavy recoil of shotguns, the low accuracy of pistols at distance, the effects of body armor on a determined criminal, the problem of multiple opponents, and the risk of overpenetration in nearly all self defense scenarios.
One may simply discount these benefits, discounting self defense–which may occur anywhere from 100K to 800K times per year–as irrelevant. But these are real benefits for a real use of weapons that occurs at a nontrivial rate. Of course, the benefits of an assault weapon are much much more obvious in a time of complete societal breakdown, like the temporary breakdown of Hurricane Katrina or the LA or Liberty City Riots. It is not exactly impossible to imagine this happening on a large scale.
In spite of these more extreme scenarios, the AR clear has value for ordinary self-defense for the reasons stated above. While we have all benefited from the rise of professional police, in much of the country, particularly rural areas, one is on his own. This is also true in our less orderly urban areas. There is no good reason police should have access to any weaponry that is unavailable to civilians. We, like they, rarely need to fire a gun in anger. And we, like they, should have access to the best possible technology if we’re in a life or death situation. The very fat that so many police have opted for the AR-15 platform is strong evidence that it is useful for self-defense for every law abiding person.