Misfire: Joe Biden's 'Shotgun vs. Rifle' Comments

Vice President Joe Biden believes banning semi-automatic rifles won’t impact your self-defense, because all you need is a double-barreled shotgun:

Vice President Joe Biden said it’s easier to hit a target with a shotgun than an assault weapon during his first-ever “Fireside Hangout” on gun violence Thursday, hosted on the White House’s Google Plus page.

Biden made the remark to defend his position that banning assault weapons will not impede the safety of American gun owners.

“A shotgun will keep you a lot safer — a double-barreled shotgun — than an assault weapon in somebody’s hand who doesn’t know how to use it, even one who does know how to use it,” Biden said. “You know, it’s harder to use an assault weapon to hit something than it is a shotgun.”

Firearms experts do not agree.

Ron Borsch has served in SWAT, and is now lead trainer and Rangemaster for a regional police training academy. Says Borsch:

While there can be crossover use among handguns, shotguns, and rifles, each works better for a particular need. Many law-abiding gun owners possess all three for that very reason. For example: at further distances, there is no question that the rifle is the most accurate (and depending on caliber, more powerful).

Borsch noted that shotguns are generally best at shorter ranges. For sporting purposes, the spread pattern can help when hunting birds, but creates a tactical problem in self-defense: shot may strike something you didn’t want to shoot. Slug loads in shotguns are only accurate out to about 100 yards, but their over-penetration potential threatens innocent bystanders in high-population areas. Also, the length of the average double-barreled shotgun restricts freedom of movement in close-quarter environments like your home.

Borsch cited the modern police trend towards sporting rifles:

SWAT stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. Current SWAT preferences lean toward the 5.56mm rifle, because with appropriate ammunition it is less penetrative than most handguns.

Patrol officers in Marion, Iowa, agree, having volunteered to purchase sporting rifles to enhance their self-defense capabilities:

Half of the 50-member force in Marion, Iowa, will take part in the upgrade, paying for the $2,000 guns in installments deducted from their paychecks, according to Police Chief Harry Daugherty. He said the proposal, expected to be approved by the city’s seven-member City Council late Thursday, will mean initial responders will have enough firepower to deal with heavily armed suspects. Currently, only members of Marion’s 12-member SWAT team carry AR-15s.

Chief Daugherty said there were no murders in Marion last year and this proposal isn’t in response to a specific threat. They simply want to be prepared:

They’re not going to be pulling out this weapon unless they absolutely need it. But if something comes up, it’s nice to know that you’re on the same plane as what you’re dealing with.

Bill Johnson is executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, “a coalition of law enforcement unions and associations from across the United States.” He responded to Chief Daugherty’s actions:

It’s certainly a sound decision by the chief to equip the officers with better weapons to protect themselves and better protect the public.

The Department of Homeland Security considers enhanced variations of the modern sporting rifle to be “suitable for personal defense.” In their announcement of a “Federal Business Opportunity” (bid request), “Part I — The Schedule, Section C — Description/Specification/Statement of Work,” they wrote:

DHS and its components have a requirement for a 5.56x45mm NATO, select-fire firearm suitable for personal defense use in close quarters and/or when maximum concealment is required.

(To avoid the confusion that media intentionally creates by mislabeling modern sporting rifles, it’s vital to remember that the firearms sought by DHS are banned from civilian commerce by the 1934 National Firearms Act and the Hughes Amendment to the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act. Government agencies can buy fully automatic military rifles and call them “suitable for personal defense.” But when a civilian buys the less-functional semi-automatic variant, it becomes an “assault weapon.”)

Karl Rehn owns KR Training, one of Central Texas’s premiere training academies. They offer an array of beginner through advanced tactical courses. He is a certified police firearms trainer. Rehn believes Biden has no credentials to comment on the topic of self-defense:

There’s no evidence that he’s ever attended training in the use of a defensive shotgun or a defensive rifle. A politician making a statement at a press conference does not make it true, and in this case the data overwhelmingly contradicts his uninformed opinion.

Rehn notes the distinction between earlier 20th century gun culture and its more modern manifestation, and that anti-rights politicians are using divide-and-conquer tactics to destroy the civil right of self-defense:

Biden’s statement was made as part of the current gun control movement’s political strategy to divide Gun Culture 1.0 (rural and older hunting and fishing types who typically own bolt action rifles, pump shotguns, and double action revolvers) from Gun Culture 2.0 (urban and younger gun owners who typically own AR-15’s, Glocks, and other guns on the to-be-banned list). Rifle bullets can travel 2-3 times farther than anything fired from a shotgun, so Gun Culture 1.0 people might agree that a shotgun is “safer.”

Rehn cited research showing that when using self-defense ammunition, AR-15 rifles have less wall penetration than pistol and shotgun ammunition. (Here, here, and here.)

In Rehn’s Defensive Long Gun course, he cites nine reasons why modern sporting rifles are safer than shotguns for home defense, including crucial criteria like sporting rifles’ higher capacity and lower recoil. Said Rehn:

The trend, over the past decade, has been for law enforcement officers to transition from a “patrol shotgun” to a “patrol rifle” (typically an AR-15 with a red dot sight), because law enforcement experts recognize all the advantages listed in the course description.

There is reason to doubt the constitutionality of Biden’s desire to ban modern sporting rifles. In District of Columbia v. Dick Anthony Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded:

The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.”

We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said … that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.”

As the quotations earlier in this opinion demonstrate, the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right. The [District of Columbia] handgun ban amounts to a prohibition of an entire class of “arms” that is overwhelmingly chosen by American society for that lawful purpose.

[T]he enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home. [emphasis added]

Bill Brassard is communications director for National Shooting Sports Foundation. Regarding the growing popularity of modern sporting rifles, he notes:

There used to be only a handful of companies making modern sporting rifles. Now, because of consumer demand, many companies are making them. These rifles are what target shooters and, increasingly, hunters want to shoot. Traditionalists may not care for the look, but to the younger generation — people up to 40 — this is what a modern rifle looks like. We’ve seen this happen before. After WWII, the semi-auto M1 became a popular civilian rifle. Today, it’s the civilian, semiautomatic rifle modeled after the military’s M16 that recreational shooters want. It’s important to note that these civilian rifles haven’t military capabilities like automatic fire.

According to Brassard, 4.8 million modern sporting rifles have been sold to civilians since 1990. Since every domestic sporting rifle manufacturer is currently accepting no more orders due to a one-year backlog, this number is rapidly increasing.

The NSSF data and current events show that modern sporting rifles are, as Heller stated, “overwhelmingly chosen by American society” and “in common use at the time.”

Whether due to technical or constitutional ignorance, Vice President Biden’s comparison of shotguns to rifles is invalid and misleading, and serves as evidence that for gun banners, any misrepresentation is an acceptable means to an end.