The Corner

Two Veterans Disagree on the AR-15 — Which One Is Right?

Writing in today’s New York Times, a former infantry officer, Nate Bethea, explains why he doesn’t think civilians should own “assault rifles” (I hope his editors added that term because a civilian AR-15 isn’t an “assault rifle”). I thank him for his service, and it’s clear that his wartime experience deeply impacted him, but he mainly explains why he doesn’t want an AR-15, not why I shouldn’t own one. For example, his own combat-developed instincts make him feel exposed without his weapon:

When my unit returned from Afghanistan, I rented a house in Anchorage. It was the first time I’d slept alone since leaving America. I woke up in sheer terror. I wanted my M-4. I was unarmed, and I could hear pedestrian traffic. They could just walk into my house and shoot me if they wanted.

A few days later, I forgot to check my blind spot while driving, and I nearly struck a pickup truck. The driver ran out of his vehicle to scream at me. I reached for my ghost appendage, for the M-4 that I would have held between my legs had I still been on a convoy mission, still inside a Humvee. I felt naked without it. He could have just shot me.

I can sympathize, if not empathize. I spent far less time outside the wire than an infantry officer, but for several months after I got back from Iraq I was unusually aware of my surroundings, especially when driving. And, yes, after literally sleeping next to an M4 for nearly a year, for a time it was strange not to have one next to me at home. But this is part of the natural process of assimilating back into civilian life and has little relevance to gun control.

But then he gets to the real reason for his objection, and it’s ultimately based on his feelings:

These weapons are intended for the battlefield. I don’t want an assault rifle, because I don’t want to think of my home country as a battlefield. I don’t want civilians to own assault rifles, because I think the risks outweigh the rewards. If people really do believe that they need them, maybe it’s because they see a battlefield where others don’t . . . I don’t want to believe that we live in a place so dangerous as to require these weapons. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I’m just waiting to be victimized. I’d rather be naïve and hopeful than face the alternative: the howling terror, the sensation that danger is kept at bay only by that familiar weight, those familiar clicks, and what comes after.

I’m not quite sure what he means when he says the “risks outweigh the rewards.” Years of FBI data demonstrate that rifles (and “assault rifles” are a subset of rifles) are used in fewer murders than handguns, shotguns, knives, blunt objects, and fists. The “risk” from rifles is vanishingly small.

As for the rest of his feelings, I respect them, but his feelings can’t and shouldn’t dictate my choices. I own an AR-15 not because I see a battlefield at home but because it’s the weapon I’ve fired most in my life, and I’m far more comfortable with it than any of my handguns. My family is safer and more secure because I own that weapon, and if Mr. Bethea believes that the alternative to his view is “howling terror,” he needs to talk to more civilian gun owners. 

For a different view, I’d refer you to the video below, by former Navy SEAL Dom Raso:

He makes the points I’ve made before. The AR-15 is “easy to learn and easy to use.” It’s “accurate and reliable.” And he makes the critical point — that the way to stay free is “by having whatever guns the bad guys have.” 

As Raso notes, terror attacks are often ended by police officers arriving with AR-15s, and he asks a common-sense question — “Why would you want to ban the gun that you pray for police to show up with.” I’d much rather have that weapon — now — than pray desperately for other men to show up in time. 

We can’t keep weapons out of criminal hands. It’s impossible. We can, however, defend ourselves. Those who have a moral objection to owning such a weapon don’t have to purchase one, and they can also choose to associate with people who share their objections. They can live an AR-free life. But their beliefs about the kind of world they want to live in simply can’t and shouldn’t trump the exercise of my constitutional right — my human right — to deal with the world as it is. 

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