The legality of AR-15s and other rifles have been a hot topic lately. Many question why any civilian would need a firearm designed for military use. This topic has been argued by gun control advocates and gun supporters alike. But what was the original intent of the Second Amendment? Did the colonists of the American Revolution possess similar guns to the militaries of their times?
The Second Amendment ratified into the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, states that
“a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
This Amendment stemmed from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. About this, Sir William Blackstone, an 18th-century judge and politician, noted this right was established for “self-defense, resistance to oppression, and defense of the state.” His statement implies that civilians are granted the right to bear arms to protect themselves from both foreign and domestic militaries, as well as for general self-defense. To fight a military, civilians would need weapons (at least) on par with their military counterparts. If civilians are only permitted to own weapons drastically inferior to the military, they have no real power.
This has been argued in several Supreme Court cases, and in 1939 they ruled the government cannot limit any weapon types not having a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia,” meaning civilians are not only within their rights to own military-grade weapons, but it is a protected right.
Back in the late 1700’s when American revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom from British tyranny, civilians owned firearms that were on par with their military counterparts. Though poorly trained, the militiamen were at least properly equipped to defend themselves. Smoothbore muskets, owned by many colonists, were about equal to the British Brown Bess. In fact, many colonists also owned a Brown Bess musket. At that time, it was not unusual for civilians to own military surplus weapons, and this was not thought of as much of a threat to anyone. These muskets were preferable to rifles because they could be loaded quicker, but the firing rate was still a measly 3-4 rounds per minute. The rounds used by each were almost the same. In the 1790’s, a gun was thought of as a gun, and there was no discerning between civilian and military classes.
Fast forward to present day, and you will see a drastic difference in the performance of civilian versus military weapons. The main difference between military and civilian rifles is the firing rate; for example, civilian ARs are only offered with semi-automatic capabilities, while military rifles have a “fun switch,” allowing their rifles to shoot in three round bursts. The effective firing rate of a civilian AR-15 is 45 rounds per minute. Keep in mind this number is with a standard 30-round magazine being manually switched out by the user. Now compare this number to standard military rifles; the M4 carbine—which most AR’s are modeled after—will shoot 90 rounds per minute in 3-round burst mode; twice the rate a civilian semi-auto rifle can fire. The M240, a U.S. military light machine gun shooting 7.62x51mm NATO rounds, can fire 750-950 rounds per minute when ammo is belt-fed. Equipped with a semi-automatic AR-15, a civilian would stand no chance against these weapons.
In Revolutionary days, the ammo used by civilians and military was mostly the same. For a Brown Bess, this consisted of 1-ounce lead balls. These rifles and subsequent rounds were generally inaccurate; the point was to just hit somebody as opposed to a very specific target. Not that you couldn’t hit what you aimed at, but the older rifles simply weren’t accurate over 100 yards.
Presently, there are many different types of ammunition, ranging from full metal jacket to hollow tip rounds that expand on impact, and while civilians can get most of the same ammo the military uses for firearms chambered in 5.56 or 7.62, some types of rounds are prohibited.
This isn’t to say some militaries don’t have restrictions on the type of ammo they can fire. The Hague Convention of 1899 declared that world militaries were barred from using “bullets which can easily expand or change their form inside the human body.” This means no soft-point or cross-tipped bullets. Interestingly enough, the United States was the only major world power that did not ratify these laws. There are currently 11 states that have outlawed armor-piercing rounds (using the ATF’s definition) including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Indiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Though these laws do vary by state and have some exceptions.
As you can see, if a situation arises where you need to defend yourself, you would not stand a chance against someone equipped with modern military firearms and ammunition. When it comes to gun control, advocates like to point out how nobody really needs an assault rifle in real life. While specific uses could be debated, the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment is there so you can protect yourself from those meaning you harm. Whether it’s general self-defense, an oppressive government, or an attack by another country, it’s important that you have adequate firepower. And while your typical burglar won’t have a fully-automatic submachine gun, the other two will. According to our Founding Fathers, you have the right to defend yourself against them, and right now, the playing field is uneven.