Objectivists absolutely reel when I say this, but Ayn Rand did not support the use of guns for the purpose of self-defense. They insist it isn’t true, that her stance was vague, or that my assertion is poorly researched. I assure you: it’s true. To make my point, I’ll have to quote Rand and re-quote Rand, as Objectivists otherwise so often rush right past her explicit statements.
Lay down your whims and weapons
Here is Rand’s quote where she explicitly denies you the right to self-defense. I’ll quote it, dissect it, and come back to it. Here it is:
“There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. “(129, emphasis mine)
Rand says you do indeed have a right to self-defense. But you must delegate the actual execution of this self-defense to the government. So, in actuality, you have no right to self-defense at all.
Even when I show Objectivists this quote, I still get told Rand absolutely supported the right to self-defense. One Objectivist gave me this quote from Rand as proof,
“The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.”
This doesn’t negate my assertion against Rand. I’m not arguing that Rand says you have no right to self-defense. I’m arguing that she says you have to delegate that right to the government. You, personally, cannot use a gun to ward off an intruder. Let’s further dig through Rand’s word salad to see how she obfuscates the issue, making you believe she supports your right to protection, while not granting it all.
Personally, I always had an uneasy feeling about Rand’s view on self-defense and gun rights, even when an Objectivist. This was even before my intense, critical study of Rand to write this book. I always ask other Objectivists if they had that same uneasy feeling. For instance, why does Rand say government has a “legal monopoly on the use of force”? Doesn’t this mean that citizens should be disarmed? Doesn’t that strike you as a bit suspicious? The impression I get from other Objectivists is: no. They never had any uneasy feeling about anything Rand said. This alarms me. It does.
But anyway. Let’s look at Rand’s explicit statements on this and at her tap dancing explaining the issue of self-defense. In “Man’s Rights” Rand writes,
“Potentially government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed citizens.” (115)
The reader’s emotions are validated big time here: the government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights. Indeed, as I read this, I think, “I wholeheartedly agree.” But, Objectivists, did you ever wonder what are we to make of the idea that citizens are “legally disarmed”? These are Rand’s exact words. Nothing? Not suspicious at all?
As was the case when I was entranced by Rand when younger, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Surely, she didn’t mean a full “monopoly” on the use of force or that citizens are “legally disarmed,” which if you took literally, means citizens would not have the right to firearms. But, yes, that’s exactly what she means. In “The Nature of Government” she writes,
“…the precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships.” (126)
She writes that if a society provided no organized protection against force, it would cause people to …
“…go about armed, to turn his home into a fortress, to shoot any strangers approaching his door…” (127)
She thus concludes,
“…the use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.”
The use of force. Even its retaliatory use. Cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.
To prove her conclusion that you must “renounce” the use of physical force and “delegate” to government your right to self-defense, Rand makes up dramatic, terrible, unlikely scenarios, while skirting real issues. Rand asks us to visualize…
” …what would happen if a man missed his wallet, concluded that he had been robbed, broke into every house in the neighborhood to search it, and shot the first man who gave him a dirty look, taking the look to be a proof of guilt.”
I mean. That’s what you would do if your wallet went missing, right? You would go shoot the first person who gave you a dirty look? I would indeed agree that this would be a terrible scenario, except that the overwhelming majority of people wouldn’t do this. Even if something much more terrible happened than losing your wallet, people with emotional regulation tools to handle life’s difficult situations, which is what I advocate replace Rand’s morality of rational self-interest, would be unlikely to turn into bloodthirsty vigilantes like this. This view that people are naturally irrational and violent and will just shoot whoever, this very view of the nature of man, is always at the ideological root of people who advocate gun control, if not total gun confiscation. Like Rand, they see the natural, default of man as uncivilized and prone to violence.
But either way, her view is an obfuscation of the issue of what “retaliatory” force means. She gives this example of vigilante justice as why we personally cannot have guns for the use of self-defense. That’s her argument, and it’s a purposeful distraction. What about other scenarios? How do you just totally ignore the issue of physical self-defense in the immediate moment? That if a thief or murderer broke into your house, you should have the right to immediately stop the threat, in order to save your life? How is this not even discussed? Why do we let our minds go where Rand wants it to go, to the idea that we are shooting people who give us dirty looks, if given the use of retaliatory force?
To make her point that we should “delegate” to the government our right to self-defense, Rand purposely exaggerates the possibilities of what happens if people are given gun rights, in order to make the idea seem ridiculous and absurd. She gives the worst case example, offers no further insight into the many possibilities of what could happen, and then makes her sweeping conclusion that you must delegate to the government—her words—your right to self-defense. Let me repeat the quote where she says as much, but this time with the quote slightly expanded:
“There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own).” (129, emphasis original)
Read the quote again. She doesn’t say you delegate justice to the government. She’s not saying you can’t become judge and jury after your wallet is stolen. She says you delegate physical self-defense. Yes, Ayn Rand intends that citizens be “legally disarmed.”
This is Ayn Rand on gun control:
Q: What’s your attitude toward gun control?
A: It is a complex, technical issue in the philosophy of law. Handguns are instruments for killing people — they are not carried for hunting animals — and you have no right to kill people. You do have the right to self-defense, however. I don’t know how the issue is going to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim. (Ayn Rand, Ford Hall Forum, 1973)
Tell this to the millions of responsible gun owners in the United States: they cannot be trusted with firearms.
Rand says you might have the right to own a gun, because you might use it to hunt. But she admonishes the person asking the question, “you have no right to kill people.” This is the kind of authoritative way Rand says things, meant to draw moral authority in a shaming way. She may as well have said, “You have no right to kill people, son.” You have no right to kill people. Emotions are not tools of cognition. She purposely says things to make the other look ridiculous. Be on the lookout for this. Because what you want in having a right to gun ownership is the “privilege to kill people at whim,” right?
Rand’s views on gun rights are quite clear. She doesn’t support them, except to hunt. And, no, characters in her books having a gun are not indicative of her views on gun rights. These are fictional stories meant to dramatize a point, always. Similarly, in Galt’s speech, Rand does write, through Galt, that he would meet a highway robber with force (937). However, Galt’s speech is more about fundamental principles of morality. It is a point about self-defense in general and why he was currently resisting society’s laws. Yes, Rand does say you have a “right to self-defense.” The issue is whether or not you, a private citizen, are allowed to have the right to the use of force. Rand’s explicit answer is no. If you buy into the idea that Rand would let you defend yourself, congratulations. You were given a lollipop, had your emotions validated about the issue, and sent on your merry way. No, Rand insidiously convinces you to disarm yourself.
For me, this issue is much deeper than any legal, technical argument about if Rand supported self-defense or gun rights. It is an issue of how your emotions play out in life. Rand directly says her position rests on the premise of “separation of force and whim.” But it’s those exact “whims” that are so important in the heated situation in which your life might be in peril, after someone, say, broke into your house to rape or murder you. Instead of responding swiftly and forcefully, we are now morally admonished that we might not even have the right to “kill someone.” Instead, we are admonished to ask: are we handling this in a right way? How are we going to deal with this in an “orderly, objective, legally defined” way? Do you know what this does to a person? This view is advantageous, however, to child murderers like William Hickman, who Rand famously praised.
I leap to my feet when anyone discusses gun rights. My stance is “I have a right to defend myself. The end.” It is not up for debate. That’s the instinct of self-preservation that I so strongly have—of which Rand says, in Galt’s speech, that we do not have. From Galt’s speech,
“Are you prattling about an instinct of self-preservation? An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess.” (Atlas Shrugged, 927)
Actually, I do. And I demand my right to self-protection to make sure I can protect myself against threats.
Virtually every psychologist says that the most important thing to your safety is being able to trust your gut instinct. Rand actively turns off this gut instinct, demoting it as a “whim.” And it’s exactly because of these unreliable whims that Rand actively denies you the use of a firearm in these moments. She leaves you defenseless. This is why it’s so important to put people in touch with their inner cores. This is the motor in humans that must be protected, ethically and politically. The motor of man is not entirely the reasoning mind. It is much more visceral and intuitive than that. There is nothing more important to your survival than being in touch with your inner core. The issue of life beating in someone versus being in submission to a morality based on “rational self-interest,” the central point of this book, could not be clearer. Rand’s view is clear: lay down your whims and your weapons.
You should note also that abuse experts say abuse is a mind game. If they bring everything to rational arguments, the abuser usually wins. Rebellious emotions must be turned off in the victim. The issue must be converted to the mind, and abusers are great at the mental gymnastics needed to win arguments. You, left defenseless, waiting for “objective law” to do what is right, is this. Some see Rand as a person who defends a person’s rights and seeks justice. In truth, you are left vulnerable and defenseless in her system. There’s the false sell of Objectivism. And then there’s actual Objectivism.
I do not grant, not even a little bit, that giving government a legal monopoly of force while I am legally disarmed is in my interest, not even under the dubious circumstances that said government promises to uphold individual rights. My views on self defense are not ambiguous: I am in favor of gun rights and the right to self-defense. I have been around guns and gun owners my whole life. Some people simply geek out over guns. Some see it as necessary protection against too big of government. Privately owned handguns have saved lives, such as stopping violent shooters in public places. There are thousands upon thousands of responsible gun owners in the United States. Dr. Ryan describes in Civilized to Death that, historically, humans have always been armed. Rand’s views on guns are quite simply unforgivingly “vague” (they are not vague), not well thought out, not grounded in history, leave people defenseless, and should be safely disregarded. She is not an authority on this topic.
This issue, of gun rights, is core to my argument against Rand. Do we have a sincere right to life, protected more than anything else by our own natural instinct at self-preservation? Or should we be “legally disarmed” (Rand’s words) and in submission to an external code/ morality/ government theoretically designed well, since man’s emotions/ whims/ internal life cannot otherwise be trusted, e.g., we need a “separation of force and whim”? Rand’s view is the latter. She guts that “wild” side to man. And that side, while “wild” is not wild. It’s the part I’m trying to validate and liberate. And this is much more than a “nitty gritty,” minor, semantic argument against her system.
That Rand leaves a person defenseless and does it with distracting, vague arguments more than makes this Objectivist Blind Spot #4.