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Ayn Rand on Gun Control: An Investigation

by Richard Lawrence

Background

In 2001, a dispute arose on the newsgroup humanities.philosophy.objectivism over what, if anything, Ayn Rand ever wrote about the subject of gun control. While it was clear to all involved that there were no major, well-known passages that were explicitly about gun control, some people said that the topic had been covered in a more obscure location in Rand's writings. However, these people could never specify exactly where this passage could be found.

To help resolve this controversy, I searched Ayn Rand's writings for words and phrases that might be related to gun control, using the Objectivism Research CD-ROM. The results of my searches are described below. After the main essay are updates based on information I have obtained since the original search.

Findings

The following search terms produced no matches at all:

The following search terms produced hits as described:

"guns" -- 40 hits. Many of these were obviously irrelevant, such as a character in Atlas Shrugged describing the "naval guns" shooting at Ragnar Danneskjold. "Guns" was also frequently used as a metaphor for the use of force in general. The following mentions were the closest to being relevant:

"gun" -- 49 hits, again mostly irrelevant. The most relevant passages were the following:

"bear arms" (as in, "the right to keep and ...") -- 1 hit, from the Letters of Ayn Rand, in a letter to a Mr. Flynn: "A man has a constitutional right to bear arms. But if a man has declared that he intends to murder you, it is not your duty to provide the knife and place it in his hands." This is the only instance I could find where the subject of a right to bear arms was directly mentioned. However, Rand only mentions in passing (on her way to an analogy) that such a right exists in the Constitution. She does not expound at all on what this right might involve.

"objective control" (this phrase was included due to its frequent use by those who claimed that Rand did support gun control) -- 6 hits, all duplications of matches from two essays:

These passages make no specific mention of the content of those objectively defined laws, and thus offer no direct support for or opposition to gun control.

"weapons" -- 61 hits, mostly mentions of "intellectual weapons" (or some similar phrase) or weapons in a military context. See the entries for "gun" above for the only passage that had any relevance to the specific issue of gun control.

"firearms" -- 4 hits, none even remotely relevant. Three are from fictional scenes where people are carrying firearms. One is from a hypothetical scenario in Leonard Peikoff's book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and therefore not from Rand's pen at all. Even in this case, the subject under discussion is epistemology, not law.

Expanding the phrase searches to include the "NEAR" operator -- that is, to look for cases where one word was near the other, rather than right next to it -- produced exactly two additional hits. One was a use of the word "second" in a sentence after one that mentioned the First "Amendment." This find was obviously not relevant. The other new hit was the following passage, produced by searching "objective NEAR control":

"The rest is a matter of consistent implementation -- the first step of which is to delegate to the government the right to use force in retaliation, and only in retaliation. (This is necessary in order to take the homicidal power, force, out of the reach of human whims and human irrationality, and place it under the control of objective laws.)" (From "A Nation's Unity" in The Ayn Rand Letter)

This passage offers essentially the same level of discussion as the two previously quoted passages on "objective control" -- which is to say that it offers nothing specific about gun control per se.

Conclusions

Earlier claims notwithstanding, no passages could be found showing explicit support for gun control -- or any explicit position about gun control, for that matter. All of the passages indicated above require substantial interpretation -- to the point of distortion, in my opinion -- in order to make them into direct comments on gun control. At best they contain indirect hints at what Rand's views might have been. As a whole, the comments about guns that were found provide weak evidence that Rand opposed gun control. Rand refers to a "right to bear arms," a phrase more common to opponents of gun control than to its supporters. She also portrays characters in her fiction owning and using guns without any negative commentary or repercussions to those characters. However, any position on gun control that might be gathered from this indirect evidence would be an implied one, which is not a very good substitute for an explicit and detailed position statement. Such a detailed statement was apparently never offered by Rand, at least not in any of her published writings.

Updates

February 2003

Since placing this essay on the site, I have gotten several emails about it. Typically, those who write want to argue that even though Rand didn't say anything explicit about gun control, other aspects of her philosophy make it clear what her position would be. Unfortunately, these authors disagree on what this supposedly obvious conclusion is. Some say that her championing of the individual and opposition to statism lead naturally to an anti-gun-control position. Others say that her description of government as having "a monopoly on the legal use of physical force" implicitly supports a pro-gun-control position.

Regardless of whether one believes either of these arguments, the point of my essay stands: Rand did not write down any explicit position on the issue of gun control. Other authors are free to extend or apply her other ideas to produce a conclusion about gun control, but this does not constitute proof that Rand would have agreed with their arguments.

Beyond these speculative arguments, two additional pieces of evidence have been brought to my attention since this research was done:

April 2003

I have obtained more detail on Rand's interview comments that I mentioned in my previous update. First, the interview was with Raymond Newman, not Edwin Newman as I was told initially. (She was interviewed by both, so this is an understandable mistake.) The interview was conducted on the "Raymond Newman Journal" show, and is available on a cassette tape called "Objectivism in Brief." The quote is on side B of the tape.

The exchange was as follows:

Raymond Newman: You have stated that the government ought to be the exclusive agent for the use of force under objective rules of law and justice --

Ayn Rand: That's right.

Newman: -- and yet at the same time today we see an alarming rise in violent crimes in this country and more and more people applying for gun permits and wanting to protect themselves. Do you see this as a dangerous trend, number one; and number two, do you favor any form of gun control laws?

Rand: I have given it no thought at all and, off-hand, I would say, no, the government shouldn't control guns except in very marginal forms. I don't think it's very important because I don't think it is in physical terms that the decisions and the fate of this country will be determined. If this country falls apart altogether, if the government collapses bankrupt, your having a handgun in your pocket isn't going to save your life. What you would need is ideas and other people who share those ideas and fighting towards a proper civilized government, not handguns for personal protection.

Special thanks to Tony Donadio for first informing me about the interview, and to Gayle Dean, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and Paul Hsieh for providing transcripts. I still haven't listened to the tape myself, but I am confident of the accuracy of the transcription thanks to these sources. The transcriptions had some minor differences (e.g., "it's" versus "it is" in one sentence), but none critical to the subject of gun control.

Anyone with specific information (not speculation) about other statements or writings Rand might have made on this subject is encouraged to send the details to me. An email link is provided at the bottom of the page. I will incorporate any findings to future updates of this page.

April 2006

In 2005 the first published material stating Rand's views on gun control finally emerged, in the form of transcribed question and answer material in the book Ayn Rand Answers.

In a question and answer session in 1971, Rand stated:

I do not know enough about it to have an opinion, except to say that it's not of primary importance. Forbidding guns or registering them is not going to stop criminals from having them; nor is it a great threat to the private, noncriminal citizen if he has to register the fact that he has a gun. It's not an important issue, unless you're ready to begin a private uprising right now, which isn't very practical.

In a similar session in 1973, she said:

It's 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 to be resolved to protect you without giving you the privilege to kill people at whim.

These quotes show the same non-commital stance found in her interview with Raymond Newman. Barring some additional material being released from the archives of Rand's private writings, this is probably the most definitive information to be found regarding Rand's views on this issue.

February 2009

Two minor updates that do not change the conclusions reached above:

Technical Notes

The Objectivism Research CD-ROM contains all of Rand's major published writings, including her novels, essays, newspaper columns, letters and journals. If a comment by Rand about gun control exists in any of these sources, it should be possible to find it using the CD's search tools. The relatively small number of selections not contained on the CD, such as the short stories from The Early Ayn Rand, are not likely to contain any comments on gun control -- and in most cases are positively known by this author not to contain any such comments.

The search hits listed for each word or phrase are the total hits, including any duplications caused by the reprinting of material in multiple places. For example, a single essay might have originally been in The Objectivist Newsletter and then reprinted in one or more of Rand's books. These counts also include the writings of Leonard Peikoff that are included on the CD-ROM. The search function looks for an exact match to whole words, so that variants of the same word, such as "gun" and "guns," can produce different hits. Finally, searches are case-insensitive. For example, "Second Amendment" and "second amendment" would be equivalent.

Additional keywords: Ann Rand, Anne Rand, Any Rand


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