Thursday, February 21, 2013


So Vice-President Joseph Biden suggests that we go out and buy shotguns for self-defense. Even to me, an advocate for limitations on firearms ownership, that suggestion rings a little hollow and seems somewhat silly. Yet Mr. Biden is correct and is only repeating what gun advocates have often said in the past.

Last night I happened into a conversation between two on-line friends who are thoughtlessly right-wing and 2nd Amendment absolutists. They were deriding the Vice-President's comment not because it didn't ring true but because they thought the idea of using a shotgun as opposed to an assault rifle absurd.

Let's put this in perspective. Assault rifles like the M-16 or AK-47 clones fire high velocity bullets of .223 caliber and 7.62mm respectively. These cartridges are designed for combat at ranges from about 50 to 200 yards. They are not designed for close fighting in an interior space the size of a room in an average house. Firing such a weapon in a room of a home built in the last 50 to 60 years risks sending a stray bullet flying through drywall and insulation that offer little resistance into other rooms. The same is true for pistols although somewhat less so because their typical cartridges are of somewhat lower velocity and because they are designed for close combat. For those who would insist that an assault rifle is the better choice for home defense let me point out that, if memory serves, there has been more than one instance of a parent defending his home who killed his child in another room using such a rifle or a pistol. There have been many cases of children and adult bystanders shot inside their homes by gunfire from assault rifles and pistols fired outside the building. The penetration of the bullets proceeds exactly as designed for combat and takes lives at distance because shooters miss their intended targets.

The drawback to the pistol as to the rifle in a defensive situation is precisely that they fire relatively high velocity rounds one at a time and they must be aimed accurately, something that not everyone is equipped to do in the dark or low light, when roused suddenly from sleep and under stress.

On the other hand a shotgun, a 12, 16 or 20 gauge, loaded with #2 or #4 shot fires multiple projectiles in an expanding pattern. Each individual pellet can damage or even kill but they move at lower velocity and lose momentum very quickly when encountering even light resistance. Will a bleary eyed homeowner confronted with an intruder - already a very rare occurrence - inside his or her home in the dark be more likely to hit and disable that intruder with a single, high velocity bullet carefully aimed or with a pattern of projectiles covering a cone 1 or 2 feet in diameter? Further is that homeowner less likely to kill a family member in an adjacent room with a miss from the assault rifle or pistol than with a stray pellet from the shotgun blast?

I'm sure that someone is going to object that I'm advocating "bird shot" rather than buckshot and on that point the argument is murkier even in my mind. Buckshot is larger, heavier, more lethal and has more energy. There are also fewer buckshot pellets per shell. Buckshot, as the name implies is designed for killing deer that are the size of any male attacker. Let's say that you have the double barrel shotgun that Mr. Biden mentioned. There's no reason why the first barrel can't have a load of #4 shot and the second a load of buckshot. The very reason for a double barreled gun is that you have 2 shots immediately available. Double shotguns are typically used for flying game. The barrels usually are "choked" to give a wider dispersion of shot with the first barrel and a narrower with the second. The principle comes from practical experience of a bird flying up relatively close to the shooter and moving farther away at speed. You get a first wide shot and a second which is about as wide at a longer distance from the shooter. There's good reason to apply a similar principle to home defense. Firing a lot of smaller, lower energy shot at an invader certainly shows that you mean business. Unless your attacker is impervious to pain and determined he's likely to decide that you are not worth the trouble. Having a second barrel loaded with buckshot is deadly and available instantly with a second pull of the trigger. That certainly has the ability to deal with a determined attacker.

So why would the Vice-President recommend a double barrel shotgun? The word "reliability" springs to mind. There is not much that can go wrong with a double. Mechanically they are very simple and have few moving parts that can jam. They are easy to reload. The next most reliable and simple design is the pump action. The cartridge double gun is about 150 years old. Pump shotguns came along about 20 years later and are nearly as reliable while offering a magazine that holds from 4 to 8 shells. Should one opt for a pump gun why not load one or two #4 shot shells behind some containing buckshot for the same effect I suggested with the double? Ultimately Vice-President Biden is suggesting that one can defend oneself and family without an assault weapon using a very reliable, low-maintenance weapon that is adequately lethal to those it's aimed at and unlikely to be lethal to bystanders. If we still had sane people advocating for gun ownership that might seem a very reasonable idea.

Back in the 1970s before the paranoid and seriously disturbed took over the NRA and most of the firearms literature, once or twice a year one saw articles advocating shotguns as the ideal home defense weapon. More recently the literature has shifted toward assault weapons largely because they are a weapon in search of a justification for civilian ownership. The assault weapons advocates can't justify them for hunting. The serious target shooter is going to opt for a single shot or bolt action weapon. So what's your average lunatic militia member to do to preserve his favored weapon for that day when the Black Helicopters of the United Nations rise over his horizon to take away his tinfoil hat, his freedom and get him the correct dosage of anti-psychotics he really needs? Of course he's going to advocate that every home have an assault weapon for defense even if it is more likely to kill Granny or the baby sleeping in the next room. Just as Jim Cramer and Suze Orman get rich by giving the gullible questionable financial advice that makes money for the banks and brokers who back them so too the gun writers give bad advice to the gullible who live in unreasoning fear of improbable attacks because that makes money for the gun manufacturers who finance their paranoid fantasy world.

The net effect is that the Vice-President, improbable spokes person as he may be, is correct while my two on-line friends and the gun sellers are just far right.