Tanks vs. AK-47s, and Other Aspects of the Gun Debate

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

Previously in this series:

This installment  is  a sample of the range of recent response. Note: many people have written about David French’s post explaining why he feels “safer” owning an AR-15. Since I didn’t publish that item myself, I don’t feel that I should post dissents here. Instead I have forwarded those messages to the editors of the Atlantic’s new Letters section.

Moral equivalence and hypocrisy. I’ve argued over the years that the AR-15 is a weapon designed for the military, which was never meant to be in civilian hands. Dissenting arguments fall into three main categories: slippery slope (any step toward gun regulation is really a step toward confiscation and prohibition); pointlessness (disturbed people will always find a way to kill); and hypocrisy (how can you complain about gun killings, when abortion goes on?). Here’s a representative sample from the last category:

Funny how you write about gun violence in America

Iike so many others without a hint of care about the 700,000 (yearly average) deaths of kids in this country caused by abortion. Death is final no matter how it's done, legal or not.

All arguments about gun violence are hypocritical without addressing this sad, yet legal, genocide being accomplished by those liberal progressives who cry the loudest.

No I don't own any automatic or semi-automatic gun and I am not a Republican or Conserative party member. Just a middle of the road American Citizen who thinks the pot should stop calling the kettel black!

Side note: I have no specific reason to doubt the bona fides of the reader (“Nick”) who sent this note. But my experience has made me suspicious of messages that stress the sender’s “American Citizen” background, like Twitter ID’s that give the user’s address as “USA” or go on at length about his or her patriotic or military-service background. These indicators don’t necessarily mean that the sender is a foreign-managed “bot” account. But they occur more frequently among bot accounts than among real people—even those with bitter disagreements to lodge. To put it another way, it usually doesn’t occur to “real Americans” that they need to identify themselves this way. Or to say they don’t belong to the “Conserative” party.


Hypocrisy of another form. A number of readers write to ask why we bother worrying about guns, when another even more widespread practice is deadlier. For instance:

I agree that more regulation of firearms (licensing, required training, background checks, threshold requirements for mental fitness, etc.) would be warranted and could be reasonably effective --- up to a point…

Consider comparing gun deaths (some 13,000 plus per year in the U.S.)  with alcohol-related deaths (88,000 or so per year). Some people would use those statistics to advocate for outlawing alcohol. And in the past they did so successfully, but only for a relatively short time.  As I recall from my reading of history, America’s prohibition experiment was deemed a failure.

For the record, I do not own an AR-15, and can think of no earthly reason why I personally would want one. It is a lousy choice for home defense; because of the weapon’s penetrating power, one is as likely to shoot an innocent bystander as a home invader. But I can understand why people who do own AR-15s and use them responsibly would feel aggrieved at being deprived of their right to do so.

I understand the reader’s point on the public health burden of alcohol. It’s also worth noting that the gun-versus-bottle figures he offers here are not really comparable.

The 13,000-total for gun deaths covers cases where a person with a gun kills someone else. It does not include suicides or unintentional/accidental self-inflicted deaths. It could best be compared with the figure for alcohol-related traffic deaths (about 12,000 a year, presumably often including the drunk driver himself or herself), or alcohol-related homicides (nearly 8,000 a year, presumably often involving a gun).

The total of gun-related deaths of all sorts is more than 33,000 people per year in the United States, according to the CDC. The comparable all-causes total for drinking, some 88,000, includes more than 7,500 people who die in falls, and large numbers from cirrhosis or other chronic diseases. It’s a public health problem, but of a different sort than gunshot deaths. It’s possible to care about both.


Symbolism. This next dissent is about the “cultural signaling” of guns that previous readers have mentioned. For the record, I know this reader to be “real,” with a verifiable name and home town. The reference to FLAG in the first sentence is apparently to the Confederate battle flag:

Just in the past 10 years the southern state offices have gave up the FLAG that stood a symbol of past history. That was all to stop offending some people  , all were quite until someone said that statue of the southern war torn soldiers became offensive to a group of some.

Now that history will be wiped out so no one gets offended . Will the grave markers be collected under cover of Darkness!

When the NRA is gone will the complete Constitution become offensive to this one or that one? Watch what you give up and say that is offensive to me, because the path you head down may be the end of a weakening to America as we know it.


Airplanes versus guns, again. In an earlier dispatch, I disagreed with a reader who offered another “hypocrisy” argument. (In short: that it looks bad for me [JF] to urge restrictions on other people’s use of a dangerous device, the AR-15, when I enjoy using a dangerous device of my own, a small airplane.)

A reader responds to part of that “hypocrisy” case:

The following passage from the person who wanted to compare plinking with guns to flying private planes stuck in my craw (passage spans two paragraphs of the original):

"...the admittedly whacked out perspective that they will fight the oppressive government should it ever come to that.  Again, the last is probably ridiculous, but it is a psychic benefit important to many people."

To me this was the real nubbin of the argument that was being made: The idea that people are entitled to work out their issues with society by playing with lethal weapons. Think about that one.

How anyone can justify this as "well-regulated militia" is beyond me -- it's more like the opposite.

And what is the "psychic benefit"? For this, read what some of your subsequent correspondents said about white male privilege. These white guys are out in some vacant area shooting up targets or fenceposts or whatever not just for fun similar to paintball or video games, but in order to feel that they are maintaining a certain level of violent threat against others -- against their neighbors, really. Let's not be satisfied with vague talk of "psychic benefit". This is surely what we are talking about.

The stuff about flying vs. shooting was, as far as I am concerned, a typical astroturfing argument, diverting the reader's attention from the real point to meta-issues of logic, and thus putting the brakes on discussion rather than furthering it.


From another reader, in response to that case for the psychic and recreational value of firing weapons like the AR-15:

For those who find genuine enjoyment in going to rifle ranges for target practice, and I am sure there are many like this, there is nothing to stop a rule that AR-15's are allowed for that purpose but must be stored at the rifle range.  It is the private ownership and home storage of AR-15's that can lead to problems (or for that matter other guns, but that's another day).

I have not the specific research but my impression is that even in countries with stricter gun control, shooting clubs and private ranges exist.  It's just that the actual possession of the guns themselves are controlled.

To take his analogy of the private airplane further, we don't have a situation, usually, where people take their private planes home with them, store them in the yard, and then taxi out onto the road to take off.

Actually, I’ve seen people with airplanes in their back yards in Alaska, where small-plane flying is a more common (and statistically more dangerous) form of transport than in the rest of the country. Across the country there are “airpark communities” where you can get a house right next to a runway and, as one enthusiasts’ site puts it, begin “living with your plane.”  But even there, everything about owning and operating a plane is covered very thoroughly with regulations.


Finally for today, a sample of notes on two related concepts of protection that run through gun-users’ messages, including the one by David French. These are protection against a potentially oppressive state, and against the potentially menacing “other” — robbers, rapists, murderers, etc.

Here is a reader on protection against the state:

As for the NRA supporting the AR-15 as an effective counter to military resources being used to enforce a totalitarian state, I think the NRA is not sanguine that such a hypothetical war could be won, but I do believe an armed citizenry would make battles so politically unfeasible that they would not be attempted.    

Remember the Founders were very aware that without that armed citizenry, they would still be British subjects.

And on protection of both sorts:

[A previously quoted reader said]: “Let’s be realistic: All the NRA members working as one couldn’t make a dent in the firepower that an illegal or impostor U.S. government, brought on by a coup or massive repression, would have at its disposal. An AR-15 is useless against tanks.”

This echoes governor Earl Long, who was importuned by Leander Perez to use the Louisiana National Guard to resist school integration because the National Guard could effectively fight in the swamps. Long reminded Perez that the feds had the atom bomb.

As for the value of an AR-15 in personal home protection, I worked with a home safety expert on a book proposal. He told me he and others in his profession agreed the only firearm that should be used is a shotgun. In a high-stress situation, confronting a home intruder who didn’t leave the premises on hearing there was someone up and about (99% of all cases, the expert said), the homeowner, whose aim might be shaky, needed a wider dispersal of stopping power.

Another possibility is a neighborhood watch made up of those armed schoolteachers about whom Trump and the NRA fantasize. Trump has floated the idea of a small bonus for teachers who would be packing heat, but teachers always need extra pay.

Trump could call on his kind of expert, George Zimmerman, to organize a national armed neighborhood watch program: MANSA, Make American Neighborhoods Safe Again, certainly not to be confused with Mensa.

One more:

"An AR-15 is useless against tanks."  I'd say the lesson of the past half-century is that the exact opposite is true.  Tanks are useless against AK-47s.

How many times have we seen that borne out?

I’d say that it depends on the circumstances — it’s one thing when a foreign power is trying to dominate a far-off place like Vietnam, and something different when a central government is trying to  enforce control on what it considers its home territory. But that is for another time. Thanks to all, “Real Americans” and otherwise.