Why I Need a “Military-Style” Firearm

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, there have been an awful lot of “people” screaming to get one of the weapons used by the shooter, the AR-15, off the street. In fact, a call to once again ban the so-called “assault weapons” has been spreading like wildfire throughout the internet. You can see my previous entry titled “AK-47s are for Soldiers” for my opinion on the so-called “Assault Weapons Ban.” Oh, and I have the word “people” in quotes above because the charge is being led by pundits and propagandists, but I’ll get to that later.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this is an AR-15:

The original Colt AR-15, 1973

It’s a shoulder-fired, gas-powered, air-cooled semi-automatic rifle that fires a 5.56mm (.223 caliber) round with a maximum effective range of approximately 550 meters for a point target. It’s a civilian version of the M16 assault rifle and its cousin, the M4 carbine. The following pictures are of the M16 and the M4, respectively:

M16A2

M4A1 with Rail Accessory System, attached fore grip, and Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight.

Before I go any further, I need to make something absolutely clear: the AR-15 is NOT an assault rifle. It’s designed to look like the M16 and M4, of course, and depending on the manufacturer it can use the same ammunition (a lot of the cheaper variants can’t handle the chamber pressure of military-spec ammunition). However, the AR-15 can only fire 45-60 rounds per minute, depending on the skill of the shooter, while the M16/M4 can fire up to 950 rounds per minute thanks to the burst and automatic fire modes, depending on the model. The modern AR-15 is designed to prevent it from being upgraded to this capability without a serious investment in parts, taxes, fees, and legal restrictions. In fact, the federal government banned the import or manufacture of fully automatic weapons for the civilian market back in 1986. That ban, coupled with the drastically reduced capability, means the AR-15 is not a “weapon of war” or military grade; it just looks like it. And contrary to popular belief, the “AR” does NOT stand for “assault rifle,” either; it stands for “ArmaLite,” the corporation that originally produced the design.

In recent weeks I’ve seen argument after argument; emotional outburst after emotional outburst; fallacy after fallacy accompanying the discussion over gun control and the rights of Americans. Sorting through all of the propaganda, emotionalism, illogical and straight-up ignorant (read: stupid) statements and political stunts (I’m looking at you, moron who strapped an AR-15 to your back and hung out at the local department store) has been quite the chore, and I’m not at all certain that I haven’t ended up dumber as a result. One thing that keeps popping up, though is the question, “Why would anybody need a ‘military-style’ firearm?” That’s a question I’m going to answer right here and now. It’s a two-part answer: The Profession of Arms, and the Militia and the Second Amendment.

The Profession of Arms

There are three pillars of combat readiness. They have technical names and definitions, but they can easily be summed up in three words that often find their way into most running cadences: “Shoot, Move, and Communicate.” Victory on the battlefield depends on the successful performance of these three skills, and all three of them are part of our military training. However, unlike most video games, skills need to be maintained once acquired: They don’t stay written on your character sheet and if you don’t use them, you lose them.

As an active duty military service member, I have several obligations that I have to meet. I have to stay healthy, I have to stay physically and mentally fit, and I have to continue my personal and professional education. As a Soldier, I also have to be able to shoot a rifle or pistol with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Every Soldier in the Army, regardless of their actual Military Occupational Specialty, is a Soldier first. Whether we are Combat, Combat Support, or Combat Service-Support, we are all expected to be able to “shoot, move, and communicate” effectively. All of those obligations tie into my readiness and my potential battlefield performance.

Physical fitness is largely considered to be the key component of these obligations, and rightly so. Learning to fire a weapon properly doesn’t take very long, and while education takes years to fully develop, the potential is always present. Therefore, training, leading, and mentoring are relatively easy in order for a Soldier to follow orders and execute tasks effectively. Physical fitness, however, isn’t something that can be corrected on the fly or compensated for using a variety of gadgets. Either you can carry the gear and charge up the hill, or you can’t. It’s as simple as that, and as a result a Soldier’s level of physical fitness rates pretty high up on the list of what makes someone a good troop. If a Soldier can’t run from Point A to Point B in an acceptable time, it often doesn’t matter in what other fields he or she excels.

Most (if not all) units in the Army have a time set aside on the training schedule for physical training, and a vast majority of those units perform those physical training sessions in a formal, tightly controlled setting. They have field manuals with hundreds of pages of exercises and guidance on exercise programs that detail how those training sessions are to be conducted, and more often than not the junior leaders aren’t allowed to deviate from the established guidance. Such a strict physical fitness regimen usually results in people meeting the physical fitness standards, but it often doesn’t lead to anyone exceeding the standard by much. Soldiers are instead expected to spend their own personal time on improving their physical fitness level beyond the standard. It’s one of the ways commanders are able to differentiate between those who coast and those who excel.

Professional development works the same way. There are military schools that are required as one advances in rank and position, such as the Warrior, Advanced, and Senior Leader Courses. There are schools that are required for additional duties, such as Equal Opportunity and Unit Armorer. Often those additional duties are assigned to people whether they want them or not, and then those Soldiers are sent to the requisite courses. However, commanders are always on the lookout for Soldiers who volunteer for those positions and actively seek to attend the schools.

When it comes to weapon proficiency, though, things change depending on your role. Combat specialties spend a lot of time at the range and performing various live-fire exercises. Combat Support and Combat Service-Support, however, not so much. In fact, support and service-support units are lucky if they can get their people to the qualification range more than once or twice a year. The reason for this is they aren’t the primary Warfighter, and therefore the money for bullets goes to the people who are. When they do manage to get their Soldiers to the range, those Soldiers are often limited to 18 rounds to make sure their sights are zeroed and the grouping is tight. Then they’re given 40 more rounds to meet their qualification standard.

Let me highlight that: almost two-thirds of the active Army is lucky if it gets to fire more than 58 rounds per year.

Now, when resources prevent a unit from performing formalized physical training sessions on regular basis, the Soldiers are expected to maintain their level of physical fitness on their own. Why? Because, as any commander will tell you, physical fitness is an individual responsibility. When the operations tempo or resources prevent sending Soldiers away for professional development, Soldiers are expected to take courses online where available, to include college courses (in fact, civilian education is rewarded at a much higher level than military education when it comes time for promotion). Weapon proficiency, however, tends to get lost in the background noise.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The easiest answer is the fact that when someone deploys these days, they are often issued an optical targeting aid of some kind, whether a ruggedized red-dot, a holographic sight, or a more advanced combat optical gun sight. These take away the need to be able to hit a man-sized target 300 meters away using nothing but the iron sights on the weapon, especially since the engagements fought by most support and service-support units rarely include targets at 300 meters. The other reason is, as I’ve already mentioned, bullets cost money, and contrary to what the anti-military spending hawks believe, the Army isn’t given enough money to send over 500,000 people to the range a couple of times a month.

So the question must be asked: if physical fitness and personal/professional development is considered an individual responsibility, then why not weapon proficiency, as well?

It is my belief that weapon proficiency is an individual responsibility. While I can usually qualify expert at my annual trip to the range, there’s a HUGE difference between firing at paper and pop-up targets and actually being engaged with the enemy. The enemy isn’t going to sit still while I force myself to relax, control my breathing, line up my front and rear sights, and use a measure trigger squeeze. Instead, my breathing is going to be fast, shallow, and ragger while the adrenaline is rampaging through my system. I’m going to have to assume whatever firing position is available to me while putting a red-dot on who I’m trying to shoot while my whole hand squeezes the pistol-grip and trigger because I’ve lost my fine-motor skills. While firing on someone who’s trying like hell to not be shot.

58 rounds on a tightly controlled range per year (or even twice a year) isn’t going to give me a chance in hell of meeting my readiness obligations. Much like running for the week before a physical fitness test isn’t going to make up for being a couch potato for six months, neither will throwing a few bullets through the pipe prior to deployment make me an effective fighting man.

Not meeting my individual responsibility obligation to maintain my weapon proficiency puts my life at risk, as well as the lives of my Brothers and Sisters. The Army cannot provide me with the time and resources to meet that obligation, and it therefore falls on me to use my own time to meet that obligation, just as it falls on me to maintain my own physical fitness and personal/professional development.

And this, my friends, is why I need a “military-style” firearm. The AR-15, while not being the same thing as an M16/M4, is still similar enough in operation and caliber that, utilizing my own time and resource, allows me to practice those skills that make up the Profession of Arms. It allows me to practice quickly reloading, clearing malfunctions, shooting with my off-hand, and reactive fire. It allows me to test different accessories that I may choose to add to my service weapon. It allows me to experiment with different firing positions and techniques, to test different kinds of eye and hearing protection, and even to evaluate different magazines other than the cheap pieces of flimsy metal issued by the Army.

In short, I need an AR-15 in order to meet my end of the contractual obligations imposed upon me by my enlistment and my oath to the Constitution of the United States.

The Militia and the Second Amendment

This is the part where most gun advocates would state that they don’t need an AR-15, but that it is their right to own on if they so desire, and that that right is protected by the Constitution. That’s true, to an extent, but that’s not where I’m headed with this post. Gun-control advocates often claim that the Constitution doesn’t protect a citizen’s right to have their own private arsenals. That’s also true, to an extent, but I’m not headed in that direction, either.

Let’s review the text of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as it is written within the Bill of Rights itself:

“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.”

The gun-control advocates have long claimed the Second Amendment refers to an organized militia of sorts, and not to an individual right. They’ve claimed that when the Second Amendment was written that only muskets and flint-lock pistols were in existence and that the Founding Fathers couldn’t have possible imagined a personal weapon with the rates of fire or other capabilities of modern firearms, and therefore the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to semi-automatic firearms of any sort. The Supreme Court of the United States completely disagrees with those arguments, however.

Back in 1939 the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment referred to firearms that were in common use by the military, putting the “only muskets” argument to bed almost 73 years ago. In 2008 the court, in a challenge against the handgun ban in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Second Amendment does, in fact, refer to an individual right to possess a firearm, and therefore the blanket ban was rendered unconstitutional. Two years later the court had to clarify that ruling in reference to a Chicago handgun ban, stating that Americans in all 50 states have a Constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense. While neither of those last two rulings rule out the possibility of reasonable restrictions, they make it pretty clear that keeping and bearing arms is an individual right.

You see, it is my belief that the Second Amendment, in addition to protecting my inalienable right to keep and bear arms, refers to my responsibility as an American Citizen to come to the defense of this nation in the event of insurrection or invasion. And not just my responsibility, but the responsibility of every American, as well.

I’m sure I’ve raised a few eyebrows with that, so please allow me to explain a few things. First, let’s look at the Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 8. It grants Congress the power “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The historical context of this section needs to be taken into account when trying to understand my position. You see, the sentiment of the time strongly disfavored the concept of standing armies, and instead preferred to keep a very small professional force and call upon the citizenry to act in the common defense. The States themselves were forbidden from keeping troops of their own, and were instead expected to maintain their own militia. The militia comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense, and when called for service were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time.

This mentality has actually been quite the boon for the United States. It has been a major deterrent to any kind of invasion of the American homeland, to include both of the World Wars. Isoruku Yamamoto, the Fleet Admiral of Japan at the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, is even quoted as saying he would never consider invading the American mainland, because “there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.” Germany didn’t have any intention of landing troops on the continent, either, for pretty much the same reason. And let’s not forget the fact that the American Revolution wouldn’t have been successful without the militia, working in concert with the Continental Army to beat back what was, at the time, the mightiest army the world had ever known. Even in modern times an armed citizenry has proven to be extremely effective in subduing the raw combat power of a professional military force. America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam are three of the easiest example of how the best armed, best equipped, best trained fighting force in the world could be “nickel-and-dimed” to the point of determining that holding the nation wasn’t worth the effort. The Soviet Union experienced the same thing in several of its own conquests, Afghanistan (once again) being the most famous.

Such a mentality, however, has been a bit of a curse, too. Military historians are quite familiar with America’s combat record in military conflicts. Contrary to what modern flag-waivers think today, the truth is America has a history of getting its ass kicked at the outset of military conflicts. The small professional force augmented by a militia might work well in defense, but when its used in the offense it tends to have disastrous consequences. People are more apt to fight well in the defense of their home, their families, and their lands. They have the “home field advantage”: they know the territory, the people, the weather, and the wildlife. When taken from their homeland and forced into a foreign conflict, however, the lack of training, experience, and discipline is often glaring, especially when confronted with a professional military.

The American Civil War was when the United States finally saw a need for a standing, professional force. The first battles of the Civil War were fought by troops using different arms and equipment, as well as different uniforms (if they had uniforms in the first place). There are even accounts of troops from both sides wearing the same uniforms, all as a result of the militia mindset. The industrialization of weapons and equipment led to a Union Army that, while no longer defending is homeland against an incursion, was so much better armed, trained, and equipped that it significantly offset the “home field advantage” held by the Confederate Army.

Unfortunately, while the federal government recognized the need to handle the arming and equipping of the Army itself, it still didn’t learn the lesson of maintaining a standing force until over a hundred years later. With each subsequent military conflict over the next century, the need to rapidly draft the citizenry to augment the small professional force resulted in a poorly trained, poorly equipped, and drastically unprepared fighting force. Even in World War II, which many consider to be America’s finest hour, the United States required a couple of years to get its feet under it while it upgraded its inferior training and technology in order to allow it to compete with the Axis powers. Also consider Task Force Smith during the North Korean invasion of South Korea and both the U.S. and French involvement in Vietnam. Those engagements both underscore what happens when an unprepared force is matched against an opponent that maintains a large, professional military.

It wasn’t until the United States put an end to the Draft and created the all-volunteer force that the modern military as we know it today was finally introduced. It required an obscene investment of capital, due to the fact that people aren’t going to volunteer to serve in the military if they cannot support themselves or their families. As a result, we currently spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, even though our military isn’t the largest (not by a long shot). We’ve learned that a better armed, trained, equipped, and fed force will overpower a much larger, inferior force in a stand-up fight, and our nation is willing to invest vast amounts of treasure to ensure that the people who have put their lives on hold to serve in the all-volunteer force are adequately taken care of.

But, my friends, the large, professional force is not a replacement for the militia. Some would argue that the militia’s role is taken by the National Guard, a trained and equipped citizenry that serves whichever State in which it is stationed, under control of the State Governor. Those people would be incorrect, since, while the National Guard does indeed fall under the control of the Governor, it is still a federally trained, armed, and equipped force. Their uniforms still say “U.S. ARMY” on them, they’re still paid by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, and they go to the same training and schools. They are still federal troops; they’re just on loan to the State until the President requires them.

The United States Military, whether the active force, the National Guard, or the Reserves, serves as America’s raw combat power. It’s a professional force that can be pulled out of the country and shoved into a foreign conflict against another professional force with an expectation of success. That expectation has been met in the opening states of every military conflict since the creation of the all-volunteer force with such a degree of success that it has shocked the world on multiple occasions. From a botched mission that resulted in the loss of 19 American Soldiers versus the killing of almost two thousand enemy militia, to the complete and utter destruction of one of the largest standing armies in the world in three days, we’ve learned our lessons of history, and we’ve learned them well.

However, the professional force is not meant to defend the homeland. It’s America’s offensive arm used to project its power throughout the globe. One only needs to look at the hundreds of thousands of military personnel stationed outside of the nation’s borders at any given time (and I’m not talking about Afghanistan, here) to see that. To include the activated Reserve and National Guard units currently deployed to Afghanistan and various peacekeeping and humanitarian missions worldwide.

The defense of the homeland falls to the militia, to you and me (one I’m no longer active), to our neighbors, to their neighbors. The Supreme Court of the United States recognizes this, and as such has ruled that the Second Amendment is meant to allow us to keep and bear our own arms that are similar in nature to the arms in common use by the military. It’s in this spirit that the AR-15 is manufactured and sold, and it’s in this spirit, in conjunction with the Profession of Arms, that I feel I need to own one. Not to hunt, not for home defense, but in keeping with my individual responsibility to maintain my weapon proficiency and my individual responsibility as an American Citizen to come to the common defense of my homeland.

It’s not just my right, it’s my responsibility.

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