Question: In a proper society, individuals surrender to government the right to the use of retaliatory force. How does this line of reasoning applies to gun control. If it is moral and hence legal to own a weapon that can kill many quickly, where and what reasoning draws the line of what types of weapons are permitted?

Answer: Individuals do not surrender the right to retaliate against force, we only delegate it. Morally, that right remains in the hands of individuals and, to secure our rights, we appoint officials to deal with it in a just, civilized manner.

Criminals, of course, pay no respects to rights and cannot be relied upon to wait for police forces to arrive before they perform their crimes. It would be a poor system indeed that allowed no defense against criminals until after a crime has been committed. Hence, the right to self-defense necessarily exists, and so does the right to bear arms for one’s self-defense. Even this–rightly–is monitored by a court system which must determine whether an action is taken in self-defense or not. (That the courts today do not consistently uphold this right is another matter.) The right to self-defense does not include the right to mete out punishment at all; that is the province of the courts, and you may take only and whatever action is necessary to protect your life (or other innocent lives) and property when no police force is available to do so.

As to what this means for where the line is drawn for owning particular kinds of weapons, I can offer only general principles. To determine which weapons are legitimate requires knowledge of the weapons’ capabilities, and extensive legal expertise, areas in which I am not expert.

The proper line is drawn at the point beyond which there is no legitimate civilian usage or necessity for a particular weapon. To put it another way: no weapon that may only be used for purposes of war is legitimate civilian property. An individual may rightly own whatever weapons are necessary for self-defense, hunting or sport. (There may be other legitimate uses, but I cannot think of any not covered by these categories.) A weapon such as a tank or bomb clearly exceeds this line because its nature is to destroy and kill in large numbers–far larger than criminal intent (which is essentially expropriation) requires–but handguns do not. The right to self-defense exists to protect individuals from criminals; tanks, bombs and biological agents are weapons of war, which is the province of a proper national self-defense.

What is necessary for personal self-defense is in part determined by what the criminals may reasonably be expected to use, and this implies that any list of permitted weapons be flexible over time. Should it become standard that criminals use assault weapons and bullet-proof vests (such as the two men who terrorized North Hollywood in 1997), then the scope of weapons permitted must recognize this fact. (That criminals already use such weapons–however ill-gotten– must also be recognized.) Under no circumstances should the ability for law-abiding individuals to protect themselves be arbitrarily limited to less firepower than what criminals are known to possess and use, just as America should not limit itself in its national arsenal when potential enemies are known to possess weapons of mass destruction.

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Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.