A sweet old lady in the pool the other morning asked me this question. Actually, she asked a much stupider question,"Why would anyone need an assault weapon?' I smiled indulgently and refused to engage her. I knew she wasn't baiting me, and I like her, and 'tis the season to be jolly, and so in the interests of comity I let it slide, realizing that no good would come of giving her the dialectical thrashing she so richly deserved.
First a point of history and a bit of terminology.
Fully automatic rifles, ‘machine guns,’ are heavily regulated. The National Firearms Act of 1934 " requires that before a private citizen may take possession of a fully-automatic firearm he must pay a $200 tax to the Internal Revenue Service and be approved by the Treasury Department to own the firearm, which is registered to the owner with the federal government." (reference) A semi-automatic pistol, rifle, or shotgun fires exactly one round with each pull of the trigger until the magazine is exhausted, unlike a fully automatic which does not require a separate trigger pull for each round fired. The distinction is important and is blurred by use of the emotive phrase 'assault weapon.'
Why would anybody need a semi-automatic rifle such as an AR-15? Well, you might be a Korean shopkeeper who needs to defend his life and livelihood from rampaging ghetto blacks in South Central Los Angeles. (Remember the aftermath of the acquittal of the cops who took the 'motorist' Rodney King into custody using perfectly legal and reasonable methods?) Or perhaps you live along the southern border and need to defend yourself and your family against heavily armed drug cartel members from the corrupt narco-state to the South. Your snub-nosed .38 special is a nice walk-around piece, and better than nothing, but insufficient for the defensive task at hand.
(A gun enthusiast acquaintance of mine referred to my Colt .38 Detective Special as a nice 'heirloom,' recommending that I get a 1911 model semi-auto .45, which I did.)
Any conservative can continue with answers like the above ad libitum, but the best strategy for a conservative is to reject the question altogether.
The right question is not: Why does the citizen need to be armed? The right question is: By what right does the government violate the liberty of the law-abiding citizen? Gun-ownership is a liberty issue similarly as taxation is a liberty issue. With respect to taxation, the right question is not: Why should citizens be allowed to keep their wealth? The right question is: What justifies the government in taking their wealth? The onus justificandi is not on the citizen to defend his keeping of his money; the onus justificandi is on the government to justify its taking of his money. The same goes for guns. The burden is on the government to justify its curtailment of individual liberties, not on the citizen to justify his keeping of his liberties. This is because governments exist for the sake of their citizens, and not the other way around.
You might think that liberals would understand all of this. Although liberals are absurdly sensitive about First Amendment rights, nary a peep will you hear from them concerning Second Amendment rights. And yet it is the Second Amendment that backs up the First. Chairman Mao was right about one thing, namely, that power emanates from the barrel of a gun. Power to the people!
There is a curious inconsistency here, is there not? If liberals believe that our civil liberties are under serious assault from Ashcroft & Co., and continue to be as Obama continues Bush-era policies, then why are they so unwilling to ensure that real power remain in the hands of the people?
There is something schizophrenic about contemporary liberals. They have a libertarian streak: they want to be able to spout any kind of nonsense, no matter how offensive and irresponsible, and have it protected as ‘dissent.’ Fair enough. Though I find Michael Moore contemptible, I would defend his right to pollute the air waves with his ideological flatulence. But when it comes to gun rights, liberals become as collectivist as Hitler or Fidel Castro. It’s curious, and a worthy theme of further rumination.