Gun Safety: The Importance of Technology, the Legacy of Slavery

George Frey / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For an index of the two-dozen previous items in the post-Parkland gun-safety series, please see the bottom of this post. In this installment, I offer reader messages on two main themes. One is whether it matters to talk about the specific “killing power” of the AR-15 and the ammunition it uses. The other is about the specific historical background of the “well regulated militia” phrase in the Second Amendment.

Ammo and velocity. Reader J.E., in Kentucky, writes to object to another reader I quoted here, concerning the lethality of the AR-15’s high-velocity bullets. J.E. writes:

Our laws have capably recognized distinctions within the Second Amendment’s category of “arms."  This series of articles have helped convince me that a further distinction needs to be made delineating a class of semiautomatic rifles which includes the AR-15 and variants.

For the purpose of regulation, it is possible to define this type of firearm objectively without falling prey to the kind of loopholes found in the ’94 “Assault Weapons” ban. Such a definition is crucial to avoid the slippery-slope fallacies which have been levied by regulation opponents in the past (or recently by Marco Rubio).  This possibility is evidenced by the 1934 National Firearms Act which has successfully regulated certain categories of firearms without spill over.

Since these definitions are inherently technical, the argument is not aided by gun-control proponents who make factual errors.  When at a gun range or store, I regularly hear such mistakes being ridiculed. They go viral on social media depicting supporters of gun control as clueless (an example here).

I fear the previous comment [here] about the kinetic energy of .223/5.56 round being greater than that of a 30-06 unfortunately provides just one more example.

Even with the correction for units, I can think of no normal scenario where this is true. My shoulder also attests as much! Most gun owners with a modicum of technical knowledge would immediately recognize this. They would also recognize that the erroneous standard proposed would effectively ban all traditional hunting rifles intended for game larger than a groundhog.

I do not want to get lost in the technical weeds and lose sight of my greater concern. It seems to me that when gun-control proponents make errors, however innocently, they are seized upon by their opponents for use as the rhetorical permission to dismiss their arguments out of hand. While this is an example of how people use motivated reasoning to justify their conclusions, we should do our best to avoid contributing to this tendency by arguing as accurately as we are able.

Further on whether it is even worth getting into the details of which ammunition can kill which people in which particular way, author and long-time congressional staffer Mike Lofgren writes:

You won't get anywhere in such a fraught political debate with misinformation. It is true that kinetic energy (measured in foot-lbs.) increases arithmetically with the increase in mass and increases with the square of the velocity, so all things being equal, an increase in a bullet's velocity is more significant than an increase in a bullet's mass.

But all things are not equal. A standard 62-grain 5.56 mm NATO round for the M-16/AR-15 (a round widely duplicated for the civilian market) develops 1300-1400 ft-lb of kinetic energy at the muzzle. But 30.06 rounds of common bullet weight (150-165 grains) typically develop around 2800-2900 ft-lb of energy at the muzzle—roughly twice that of the AR-15's round.

A 30.06 bullet weighs nearly three times the bullet of an M-16/AR-15. In any case, the velocity is about the same for both cartridges, so the smaller round gains nothing from the square-of-velocity rule. A 30.06 round can easily punch through 1/4" thick hardened-steel plate, while a 5.56 mm round cannot do so with any reliability.

The reason for the conversion to the M-16 during the 1960s was not lethality (a 30.06 round is plenty lethal), but the heavy weight of the then-standard M-1 and M-14 rifles which chambered 30.06 and 7.62 NATO (a slightly smaller cartridge than the 30.06), respectively. They were heavy to lug around, particularly in the jungles of South East Asia, and their ammunition was also heavier. The Army wanted to lighten both the firearm and the ammo, allowing a soldier to carry almost three times the number of cartridges with the same weight.

It is true that in making the transition, the Army wanted to make the bullet as lethal as possible within the constraints of its caliber (the "slow" rifling of the original M-16A1 barrel tended to cause the 5.56 mm bullet to yaw when striking a target), but the notion that the M-16/AR-15's ammunition is uniquely more lethal than any modern smokeless-powder center-fire rifle ammunition is urban legend. They're all dangerous.

‘Militia’ and Slavery

Now, on the historical background of the freighted phrase, “a well regulated militia,” two readers. First:

The reader who wrote about the speed of changing magazines was close to having a good point, but I don't know what he was talking about when saying that changing a magazine in a Ruger Mini-14 takes 15 to 20 seconds. The mechanism is essentially the same as in an AR-15.

My suggestion is that all detachable magazines need to be banned from civilian use. That would leave bolt action, muzzleloaders, internal magazines of 5 to 7 round capacity, and revolvers in civilian use. There is no circumstance under which anyone needs more than that for hunting or home protection.

Additionally, I think every single time the Second Amendment comes up for debate, it needs to be pointed out that the Second Amendment was introduced and ratified in order to appease the southern states that their slave patrols would not be subsumed by the new national army. The so-called originalists should recognize that the Constitution never guaranteed the right for individual citizens to bear arms, other than to put down slave rebellions.

And, similarly:

The people who write in to you with comments regarding the Second Amendment trying to parse the “militia” preamble and asserting that this somehow presupposed that "firearms owners [would] perform civic duties as part of the responsibility of owning a weapon” are all missing the point by a mile.

I want to reiterate this because it is impolite to point it out and yet obvious. The Second Amendment exists to protect the rights of slaveholders. Period.

Slaveholding states considered the Federal government an existential threat. Turns out they weren’t wrong about that. The Second Amendment, in somewhat equivocal language that was necessary to not overstate its obvious intent, was included as a bar against the Federal government’s perceived and real ability to disrupt and finally end the slave trade.

This has nothing to do with citizens performing civic duties. This has to do with the armed camp that was the South where more than one half of the human population was held in bondage, whipped, chained and treated as sub-human property.

We can politely debate whether or not this legacy has been carried forward into the mentality of the modern gun rights advocate, but let us not be confused or waste time glossing over the true purpose of the amendment. Why do we, of all the civilizations ever to rise on this green Earth, have such a law at all? It is because of slavery.

As background, previous entries in this series:

and before that: