2005-09-27: A shopping list for post disaster San Diego

Updated as of 2/29/08 due to changes in the law, opening up more options

Well, something good has indeed come out of the New Orleans flood disaster: a fair number of folks here in America are realizing that their fellow Americans are very dangerous folks whenever disasters hit. New Orleans had plenty of variables among them, but one of the ones which reduced the severity of looters is that Louisiana is in the South, where most households have at least one gun.

California, if a really nasty earthquake hits, would suffer the same breakdown of law and order - but with a MUCH lower gun ownership rate, looters are likely to be far more brazen. Because of this, I've had three or four folks ask me for advice on firearms purchases, with an eye specifically to post-disaster San Diego area survival.

First off, I do not anticipate that we'll have problems of alligators swimming in like I imagine may have happened some in New Orleans. That's definitely a Louisiana thing. However, we're at a far greater risk of looting, and by much more dangerous looters than the poor folks and general low-lifes who were doing it in New Orleans. Consider this: San Diego is surrounded by marine bases. While most of the active-duty guys would probably be involved in relief efforts and keeping law and order, any deserters or ex-military guys who want to haul off a bunch of $3,000 LCD TV's may also possess one or two Iraq tours' worth of urban warfare experience. Add in the variable of post-traumatic stress disorder and you have a very serious risk from the ones who DO turn rogue.

When choosing your weapons, you should take into account the worst-case realistic scenario: attack by Marine deserters wearing standard issue Interceptor body armor, minus rifle plates (rifle plates are issued when you deploy, but your Interceptor is typically kept with you from what I understand), armed with AR-15's or AK-47's. So, your worst case far-side-of-possible scenario will include being attacked by a small group of Marine deserters wearing soft body armor, carrying AK-47s, and tripping out on PTSD enough to think everyone is an Iraqi insurgent.

Realistically, no matter how well you equip yourself, staying within the law, you will probably not make it out of that scenario alive. However, if you're willing to spend the money on it, you CAN be well enough equipped to address almost any lesser threat and stand a decent chance of taking out one or two of these prospective 'super-looters' if you have surprise on your side.

Granted, if you really want to spend money, a semi-automatic rifle in 50DTC will happily drop the entire group... but most people don't want to buy an $8k rifle for a far-edge "maybe" condition.

One good point is that you may legally transport long guns in your car, as long as they're unloaded. California forbids loaded weapons in vehicles, as well as handguns (unless you're going directly from point A to point B). However, an unloaded shotgun or rifle may be legally left in your car any time you want, for as long as you want. Given that we're at greater risk for earthquakes than anything else out here, and they don't exactly give advance warning when they strike, you may want to consider keeping a weapon in your vehicle.

Bear in mind, that in California, you do not have the right to refuse the search of a gun case under any circumstances. What this means is, if you have a gun case in plain sight, you can't refuse the search of the case. You may still refuse search of the rest of the vehicle, however. This is why, if you're going to keep a long gun in your car regularly, it should be out of plain sight and unloaded. If you're going to transport a loaded magazine, it should be as far from the weapon as possible, and you may want to keep an empty magazine in the weapon to keep dust and cruft out of the magazine well.

First off, I would strongly recommend purchasing six specific items, in the priority order below:

  1. Shotgun - 12ga pump
  2. Handgun - 40cal or better - WITH LASER GRIPS
  3. Body armor - concealable soft or non-concealable hard
  4. Rifle - bare minimum 5.56mm, 308+ preferred
  5. Body armor - whichever type you DIDN'T buy at #3

The Shotgun

Shotguns are a time-tested, indispensable home-defense weapon, highly reliable and quick to learn. However, it WILL NOT penetrate body armor, has minimal effectiveness vs vehicles, etc. The spread pattern does provide a chance of scoring a face hit, though, on an armored opponent. It's also not a medium or long range weapon. Its drawbacks include being highly conspicuous unless you've illegally sawed it down, and California law does not permit carrying one around loaded - even after a disaster. Shotguns do make good trunk guns or under-the-seat guns, however, and presumably you won't be far from your vehicle most of the time.
Mossberg M500: Pump-action shotgun available in a variety of barrel lengths, with lots of after-market parts.
Mossberg M590: Pump-action shotgun with an 8-round magazine and extra reinforcement in its design. It's essentially an M500 that can be used as a club, and then used as a shotgun again.
Remington 870: Very popular police-issue shotgun; does its job well. About the same things can be said for it as for the M500.

The Handgun

If it were not for the laser grips, I would have put the handgun after the rifle. However, the Crimson Trace laser grips provide a terrific psychological deterrent value to any handgun. Americans have been conditioned for decades that you just don't win against a red dot, and the laser grip system engages automatically when you grip your weapon in a two-handed grip. Ideally, you want to send looters away without having to fire a shot - the laser will accomplish just that. It's also much better for precision shots than a shotgun loaded with buckshot. If you only want to shoot the looter who's just brandished a weapon, and not the folks standing near him, this is your best choice. Do not go 9mm on this - you want something with a respectable one-shot stop rating. 40cal is the minimum you should consider, and I would advise thinking about 45ACP in a pistol or a revolver in 44 or 357 magnum. Do NOT go with a 500 Smith & Wesson or a Desert Eagle 50cal - you want to be able to place rounds fairly quickly, and also be able to come across ammo for it if things stretch out long-term. The one disadvantage which lasers bring to the table, is that they make you very visible, especially at night. If this is an issue, just turn off the laser with the deactivation switch.
Sig Sauer: The Sig semi-autos are reliable, and can take laser grips.
Single-stack 1911: The single-stack 1911 design is available from a huge number of vendors, and generally have secondary safeties. They're a veritable legend that it's impossible to go wrong with. If concealment is a consideration, the Colt Commander form factor is a good choice and is also available from a wide array of vendors.

The Body Armor

I'll cover both body armor choices here. Concealable soft body armor will protect your vitals from handguns or shotguns (NOT rifles), as well as providing some protection from blunt weapons and a little bit from stabbing weapons. It also has the advantage that it's concealed, thus you won't draw attention to yourself if you're out looking for supplies or something. Hard body armor has the advantage that it will stop rifle rounds, shrug off smaller calibers, and has a high intimidation value. Looters with baseball bats or crowbars are also not going to have much luck against hard body armor. Never under-estimate intimidation value - if you come to your door hefting a 12ga pump shotgun and wearing black hard body armor that looks like it's straight off of a SWAT team, looters are probably going to turn around and go away immediately. Also, in the worst case scenario listed above, the military deserters aren't likely to carry any rifle your body armor can't stop, which means they're forced to rely on head shots. Ideally, you should own both types of body armor, to be used where appropriate. Bear in mind that in a major disaster, you shouldn't count on medical treatment being available if you get attacked, and body armor will greatly reduce the chance of it being life threatening.
Interceptor workalikes: I've tried on Interceptors, and they're quite nice. You can get practically identical vests from Bulletproofme.com.
Russian titanium-reinforced vests: These things are pretty cool - they've got 14 titanium segments for mobility, and will happily stop 7.62x39mm rounds. I'll dig up a link later, but they're kinda hard to find. Very cheap for what they provide, too.
Concealable vests: I bought mine from a guy at the Del Mar gun show, but Bulletproofme.com has a fair assortment of them as well.

The Rifle

A rifle is an excellent battle weapon, but for the close quarters battle which most urban San Diego residents would probably see, most of the top-tier choices would probably get confiscated if police saw you holding them. Thus, rifle has been relegated to the last weapon on the buy list. Now, bear in mind that rifles ARE the only weapon which would have penetration vs the soft body armor you may realistically encounter. I also do not recommend any rifle in 5.56mm, because the stop ratings in Iraq are very low. People just don't drop right away from BURSTS of 5.56mm (and YOU can only fire single shots). In California, you can't have high capacity magazines unless you owned them pre-ban, so the stopping power of a 5.56mm rifle is highly suspect. Thus, I recommend the time-tested 7.62x39mm round (AK-47, Saiga, SKS, some others) or .308 caliber (Saiga 308, M1A, PTR-91). One critical point I would make is that if this is going to be your tactical rifle, you ought to get a low-power scope on it - not some jury-rigged mod to an SKS on a receiver cover scope mount that won't hold zero, but rather a proper scope mounted to Picatinny rails or something along those lines.
Springfield Armory SOCOM series: These rifles may be pricey (~$1,500), but they have semi-automatic operation, detachable magazines, scope mounts, and are available in two highly effective calibers: .308 and 30'06. If price isn't an object, this would be my top recommendation if you want your rifle to look politically correct.
Saiga or AK Rifles: Based on the AK-47 action, the Saiga is a sporterized rifle in a Monte Carlo stock. I personally do not recommend the 7.62x39mm or 5.56mm versions, as the trigger pull is sloppy (no mechanical way around it with the transfer mechanism) and they use proprietary magazines (you can modify the 7.62x39mm version to take AK mags, though). But the Saiga 308 with a 16" barrel is an awesome weapon. It combines a reliable action, powerful caliber with available (and CA-legal) armor piercing rounds, a fairly short barrel, detachable magazines, and a price tag of around $400. It's also slim enough to fit underneath the rear seats of many popular SUV's, so it makes an ideal take-everywhere gun. AK's are also available, and if you want 7.62x39mm I strongly advise you to get an AK-47 instead of a Saiga.
AR-15s: AR-15's are available in a wide variety of calibers and configurations. As long as your AR is California-legal, life is good. As a survival rifle, you more or less have to drop the "cool" pistol grip, collapsible stock, etc and go with either a Monsterman grip or a U-15 stock, so that you have detachable magazines. You could go with 5.56mm, 9mm (really good for close quarters vs unarmored targets), 6.8SPC (a little short of 308), or lastly 50 Beowulf (which serves the same role as a shotgun slug, out of a more accurate platform). There are also some 308 variants, with a fairly high price tag.
Kel-Tec SU-16: While it violates the 5.56mm rule, the Kel-Tec represents a good compromise between budget and tactical power. It comes standard with a Picatinny rail to mount scopes on, and accepts standard AR-15 / M-16 mags which you MAY have lying around from the pre-ban days. It's not an AR-15, but it's politically correct.
SKS: It's hard not to mention the SKS rifle, although it doesn't match the criteria of detachable magazine or decent scope availability. While you can have a gunsmith drill and tap your receiver, you may as well go for the SU-16 instead. It does have the advantage of being available at a VERY low price, however. You can typically get one for around $180 online, or in the mid-$200 range locally. It DOES come chambered in the very effective 7.62x39mm caliber, which is the main reason it makes the recommendation list. If you get one as a tactical rifle, leave the iron sights on it and don't mess with receiver cover scope mounts.