Like many young, geeky boys who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, Robert Heinlein sci fi novels were a staple of my personal library. I occasionally delve into my dog-eared copy of The Past Through Tomorrow (the compilation of Heinlein’s “future history” short stories written from the 30’s until roughly the mid-60’s). Citizen of the Galaxy is still one of my favorite books. The wit and wisdom of Lazarus Long—Heinlein’s long-lived protagonist and literary alter ego—still resonates across the years. I shun one micro-work: the Heinleinian canard that every gun enthusiast (whether he/she is a Heinlein fan or not) knows by heart. “An armed society is a polite society.” Although witty and ubiquitous, the saying has two shotgun-blast sized holes in it. 

First off, it’s just not true. Heinlein typically placed his space-faring heroes into rough-and-tumble libertarian frontier planets, where every man (and most women) packed heat and weren’t afraid to use it. Most didn’t, observing a civilized code of mutual respect that mirrored (not coincidentally) the 1950’s pop culture image of the American frontier west.

The accuracy of that image of an “armed/polite” society in the 19th Century West is not only debatable, it’s irrelevant: There are plenty of “armed societies” in the modern-day world, and most of them can be described as anything but “polite.”

Think of Beirut or Ethiopia in the 1980s. Somalia from the 1990’s to the present. Modern day Iraq or Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Colombia during the height of the drug wars of the 80’s and 90’s. Mexico last week. In all of these societies, guns are common, easily obtained, and all too frequently used.

Armed? Yes. Polite? Not so much.

Of course it can be argued that the guns in these societies are carried by thugs, criminals and rebels. And that all the “good” people of these areas need to do is arm themselves for some retaliatory return fire. But is that really practical?

When the gangs of militiamen, with their ‘technicals’ (armed jeeps and trucks used by Somali militia members during their battles of the 1990’s) come a-calling, an armed civilian or two is likely to be little or no deterrent to them. Ditto when the armed baddies are criminal gangs or corrupt cops/soldiers with unlimited funds and the willingness to commit any level of violence in order to achieve their goals.

In contrast, “unarmed” societies like those of Western Europe and Japan are pretty darned polite. Sure, you may encounter a surly Brit, a snobbish Frenchman, a brusque German or a drunken Irishman (is that enough ethnic stereotypes for the day?). But generally speaking, you can go about your business in a pretty unmolested manner in most Western countries, including the intermittently-armed United States. Which, despite liberalized access to concealed carry weapon (CCW) permits in 40 states, is not an “armed society” in any Heinleinian sense.

So armed does not equal “polite” and “polite” does not require arms.

But there’s another problem with the “Armed society=Polite society” equation. Assume arguendo that the saying is true. Ignore the above evidence to the contrary and say, for the moment, that people are more polite when they know there’s lots of heat being packed.

What does that say about us, as gun owners? After all, the tiresome refrain of all anti-concealed-carry arguments is that if more ‘ordinary’ people are packing pistols, they will whip them out and start firing on the flimsiest pretext. Cut me off in traffic? BLAM! Take the last drop of half-and-half at Starbucks? BLAM! Look at me funny? BLAM!

Gun owners [rightly] view this assumption as dangerous nonsense, that the vast majority of people jumping through all the hoops necessary to obtain a CCW permit are sober, rational, and caring adults who would never allow their emotions to take hold of them and cause them to use deadly force inappropriately. Even when they’re not sober, rational or caring.

But doesn’t that Heinlein aphorism say otherwise? Doesn’t it imply, at least on its face, that the whole reason an armed society is a polite society is that in an armed society, the penalty for “impoliteness” might be summary execution?

If anything, the saying is backwards. Being “polite”—having a shared set of values that includes placing a high value on peaceful civic discourse—is a necessary pre-condition for the arming of a society. Arms in a “polite” society remain the tools of good citizens to defend themselves against bad ones. But arming a society without those shared values is a recipe for chaos, for violence for, well, Somalia, Beirut, Pakistan et al.

“An armed society is a polite society” sounds cute. It sounds witty and cool.  It impresses all the gun enthusiasts on the bulletin boards. It makes for a great t-shirt to wear at the gun show. But it’s just not true and if it was, it would be a bigger argument against arming ordinary citizens than anything the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence could possibly devise.

31 Responses to Editorial: Is An Armed Society Really A “Polite” Society?

  1. One of my favorite Heinlein books and probably the origin of the armed=polite meme is Beyond This Horizon, in which all men are either armed or wear a brassard of peace. The dueling culture of an armed upper class, such as might have been found in several cultures, has taken hold throughout Heinlein’s future middle class. I loved the book just as I love most Westerns, but I recognize that both are largely based on myth. People don’t challenge you to duel, they attack you unawares or in a gang.

    As I recall, the main character resurrects an old revolver (score one for William C Montgomery), which makes a lot more noise than the contemporary las-beams and still manages to be lethal in a (mythic) conflict.

  2. I think you're stretching a bit when saying it could work as a Brady campaign slogan. The opposite of "polite" is not someone who will shoot you. The penalty for being impolite is not "summary execution."

    War-torn areas like Somalia or Ethiopa aren't great examples either because they're war torn. They're not people going about their daily business. In these areas you can be minding your own business, then 50 guys with machetes show up and cut your head off because you're from the wrong area and they want you gone.

    I think, in general, a more well armed society is a more polite society, or at least one with less crime. From the CATO Institute:

    The 31 states that have "shall issue" laws allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons have, on average, a 24 percent lower violent crime rate, a 19 percent lower murder rate and a 39 percent lower robbery rate than states that forbid concealed weapons. In fact, the nine states with the lowest violent crime rates are all right-to-carry states.

    I lived in London, England, for a mere 6 months and knew more people in that short time robbed at knife point than I've encountered in more than 25 years stateside.

    So while Heinlein does right fiction, I wouldn't necessarily dismiss it as completely untrue.

    • So a libertarian think tank sees a correlation between concealed weapons and low crime. As I look over the list of no issue and may issue states, I see NY, NJ, CT, DC, MD, RI, MA – all part of the East coast megalopolis, IL – home to Chicago and CA – which ranges from no issue in cities to shall issue in rural areas. The actual correlation seems to be between rural areas and low crime, which is hardly surprising.

      • Let's look at the six cities with the highest crime rate, in order: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia. (per capita, FBI, 2008)

        Of those, NY, Philly, and Chicago make it virtually impossible to even own a handgun, much less concealed. LA it's easy to buy a handgun, but carrying concealed is virtually impossible.

        Yes, all of these cities have large populations, but one thing is for certain – a higher concentration of guns does not mean a higher concentration of crime.

        With something like this, just saying "correlation does not equal causation" can effectively stop an argument, because there are dozens of variables.

        Though in interviews, criminals have flat out said that if they know someone has a gun, they'll avoid them and go rob someone else.

        • Well, you've raised and shot down a straw man. I never claimed that a higher concentration of guns meant a higher concentration of crime – or anything like that. I do think a higher concentration of poorer people makes crime more likely to occur than a lower concentration of more well-to-do people – whether they have guns, knives or clubs.

          Correlation doesn't prove causation. So an argument has to be based on more than correlation.

          The last sentence is interesting because we know criminals never lie in interviews. I'm sure most sensible robbers would avoid people with guns, but I'm not so sure about desperate drug addicts.

        • :…but I’m not so sure about desperate drug addicts.”

          If more people were armed, the desperate drug addicts would win more Darwin Awards.
          There’s nothing more polite than an addict who has won a Darwin Award, or a criminal who has won one.

  3. I think, in general, a more well armed society is a more polite society, or at least one with less crime. From the CATO Institute:

    The 31 states that have “shall issue” laws allowing private citizens to carry concealed weapons have, on average, a 24 percent lower violent crime rate, a 19 percent lower murder rate and a 39 percent lower robbery rate than states that forbid concealed weapons. In fact, the nine states with the lowest violent crime rates are all right-to-carry states.

    The problem with this statistic is that these states had lower crime rates before they passed "shall issue" laws, too. There is also the apples/oranges comparison of, say, Illinois and Wyoming. Both of them are states but the comparison pretty much ends there.

    And I still have yet to see anything close to hard data on the deterrent effect of "shall issue" CCW permits. I know from my own experience that I very rarely carrry, my wife never does, and yet we're both licensed. I'd be willing to bet that those people who carry every day are in the distinct minority of CCW permit holders.

  4. See the book “More Guns, Less Crime” by John Lott.
    It has been several years since I read my way through about a third of that book, but in it Lott analyzes all of the 3141 counties across the U. S. for crime rates, gun ownership, gun regulations, changes in gun regulations, changes in gun ownership and changes in crime rates, using the published data from those counties. It is heavy reading (numbers, statistics; John Lott is an economist) but Lott builds an overwhelming case for his book’s title; More Guns, Less Crime. Most telling is that when laws change to make private handgun ownership and concealed carry more accessible, the violent crime rates of all types go down. It is a pattern that was repeated over and over according to his findings. And that detail gets rid of the “rural” vs. “city” argument.

  5. I think that the author of the article missed the point of Heinlein’s quote. The third world countries which he uses as an example work dynamically against his arguement. I believe that in these countries those that who are unarmed are indeed quite polite to those who are armed. ‘Nuf Said

  6. Martin – I’m a Heinlein fan, too. In fact, until last year (when I finally wearied of explaining the meaning of the word “grok” to my umpteenth prospective client) my company was called “grokmedia.” To grok something, of course, is to “understand in fullness.” And I’m not sure the scenario you’ve laid out covers all points to the extent where we can grok the proposition of what we would be like, were we a truly ‘armed society.’

    Whenever you discuss hypotheticals, it’s essential to limit as many variables in the study as possible, else you run the risk of introducing error into the results. Problem here is that there’s no real way to accomplish this task, because there are way too many variables in the mix, no matter what you do.

    Let’s say, for instance, that the CHL penetration level went from 4% to greater than 50%. What kind of effect would that have on the general population? I haven’t the foggiest. The ever-popular bell-shaped curve would suggest that if you analyze the total number of CHL holders, statistically most would be consciously-competent. Unfortunately, some would be unconsciously incompetent (i.e.: careless idiots who shouldn’t own/handle a gun) and some would be consciously incompetent (willfully misusing their guns for fun and profit). If you increase the number of CHL holders the proportions (theoretically) stay the same on the curve – but their numbers in each area increase.

    Mix that in with the populace, and what do you get? I don’t know. Theoretically, you’d have a situation where your typical armed robber would go from facing a docile crowd of sheeple, when sticking up a Starbucks, to the kind of necktie party reception you’d expect from trying to rob a watering hole frequented by the local constabulary. In practice? I don’t know. (The whole shoot/don’t shoot thing is the wild card there. How many CHL holders would be cool and not try a shooting solution versus those who would keep it in there pants unless the robber started herding them back to the freezer is the question.)

    What about road rage? Frankly, two or three tons of steel/rubber/aluminum/plastics travelling at 60 MPH makes a pretty good assault weapon, if you ask me. And we have years of conditioning in that regard, courtesy of thousands of Hollywood movies, suggesting that using your car as a battering ram is a perfectly acceptable response to a slight, perceived or real. Would introducing guns into that mix change the equation? I don’t know. I think if you’re gonna be an asshole behind the wheel, you’re probably not really thinking things through to begin with, and I’m not sure the addition of a gun (for you, your antagonist, or both) would really make a difference.

    Of course, we could take that argument in the direction of reducto ad absurdum and consider the substitution of personal nuclear weapons. Nah. On second thought, let’s not, except to say that the whole “level playing field” argument for every country joining Club Nuke hasn’t really worked out too well, simply because while membership may have its privileges, it’s too easy to steal a membership card from someone and force your way in.

    In many ways, I think OPEN carry might make us a more polite society, but only in the sense that most people would think twice before confronting some anus if he’s armed, than if her weren’t. The concealed aspect really leaves that whole thing to chance.

    So, you ask an interesting question, but I think there are far too many variables for your a priori proposition to result in a valid answer. While I agree with you that the “Armed Society = Polite Society” is a flawed meme, I’m not sure what should take it’s place. Perhaps instead we should push “Armed Society = Safer Society” and leave it at that.

  7. The society in Beyond this Horizon by Heinlein is very polite in a Victorian way. It’s also very violent. No thanks, I’d rather not live in an armed society.

  8. What often goes unaddressed is that some armed societies might be considered polite societies, but politeness is based in fear and coercion via state power. The prewar subjects in both Germany and Japan were considered polite, but that is the end result of people subjected for centuries to feudalism, the Thirty Year’s War (for Germany’s cult of obedience), and the worship of emperors and rulers as gods under 20th century totalitariansim. Those were polite societies, but they weren’t free societies. Violating certain standards of polite behavior (i.e. questioning the social system, the divine right to rule) could equal imprisonment and death by armed authorities or their supporters (spies were everywhere). Politeness in such a context was achieved at the price of moral courage and freedom of expression with the threat of violent coercion. Those who uncritically subscribe to the idea that “an armed society is a polite society” could just as easily apply the addendum: ” polite means you agree with me or else…” – esentially the threat behind all authoritarian and totalitarian political movements. It is just as likely that the subjects in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia etc. are often polite in their day to day non wartime activities because they don’t have any “freedoms” outside brigandage or war that are bound to be respected by higher authorities for dissent can mean death in such societies governed by innumerable written and unwritten codes of conduct. They too are armed, selectively polite (depending on the power allotted to them by higher ups- their less powerful victims are often polite in attempts to survive such regimes) and certainly not free.

  9. Spoken like a true liberal nitwit. If the thugs who commit drive-by shootings risked being killed by armed citizens, do you really think we’d have drive-by shootings? If the armed thugs who dominate our inner-city ghettos had to face armed citizens who resisted them, do you think they’d control the streets?

    Hell, no.

    Does anybody remember Bernard Goetz? After Goetz shot the four muggers who attacked him, the rate of muggings and crimes on the New York subway system PLUMMETED and stayed far below average for weeks. But somehow, nobody learned anything from that.

    Most criminals are cowards. They don’t want to get hurt or killed, and so they prefer to prey on helpless, unarmed citizens… and since most citizens ARE helpless and unarmed, the criminals have free rein. If it became widely known that most citizens were armed and able to defend themselves, what do you think would happen to the crime rate? It would plummet, just as it did in New York when a seemingly helpless, defenseless citizen pulled out a gun and proved that he wasn’t a helpless victim after all.

    • This is the best post on here, and the reason why Americans should be pushing for public provided education of self-defense, including firearm use, for ALL CITIZENS. If we were all a bunch of walking bad-asses that knew how to protect our life, we would see a monumental decrease in the violent crime in this nation. It is that simple. We are raised to be submissive pussies to anyone who poses a physical threat. We simply can’t accept that perspective anymore.

      The other reason it is foolish to take an anti-2nd amendment stance is because it is a severe threat to individual liberty. Americans seem to think that those who govern them will never turn on them, because that doesn’t happen in America. This is foolish thinking. There is no America – there are only American people. People are capable of anything. If you woke up one day and found out police forces are going through your neighborhood shooting and killing all residents, wouldn’t you wish you had the right to posses your own firearm and were trained on how to use it? Why do you choose to value the lives of rogue police officers over your own life?

    • “If the thugs who commit drive-by shootings risked being killed by armed citizens, do you really think we’d have drive-by shootings?”

      Why do you think the drive-by shooting was invented in the first place? It’s a gang warfare tactic. Its whole purpose is to take out an armed target with armed friends nearby. Drive up with your guns ready, blast the guy, and race away before the “armed citizens” can get their own guns out.

      “If the armed thugs who dominate our inner-city ghettos had to face armed citizens who resisted them, do you think they’d control the streets?”

      They do have to face armed citizens–other thugs. And the result is hair-trigger violence, where everyone is ready to kill at any moment, because to do otherwise is to put your own life at risk. If you think somebody *might* shoot you, you don’t wait around. You shoot him first, and if it turns out he was just a guy walking down the street with his hands in his pockets, too bad for him.

      That is what your “polite society” looks like: Gangland.

  10. I realize I’m quite late to this party, but I couldn’t let the author’s interpretation stand. I vehemently disagree and wonder what this opinion is even doing on a website like this. Since when is the anarchy of Somalia a valid analogy to anything in the United States? Why even compare the thug-o-cracy of Somalia to the those states in the United States where a citizen who undertakes the burden and expense of obtaining a CHL/CCW provides a public service of deterring crime with anonymity and without expectation of anything but being allowed to continue to do so?

    For those that want to know the real meaning behind the phrase, I direct to you to the best written piece I’ve ever come across: http://www.stentorian.com/2ndamend/leaflets/armed.html

    • @ Monalisa Foster

      In an ideal, like-minded, and thug-free society, you might be right, but the United States is anything but that.

      “If you don’t like cops (or armed citizens), the next time you’re in danger– call a hippie!” -From your referenced article.

      I don’t know who can take someone saying the above quote serious. The problem with that statement is that a cop IS NOT the same thing as an armed citizen. A cop has to go through vigorous training both physical and psychological. A cop has to pass a variety of exams that a mere citizen would never have to pass. A cop takes both a spoken and unspoken vow to serve and protect. An armed citizen only takes a silent vow to serve and protect himself (and maybe those close to him, a bit selfish don’t you think?). I highly doubt an anti-gun activist would also prefer that vigorously trained cops also be prohibited from carrying a gun. After all, according to that article, people don’t carry guns because they feel they are entitled to be kept safe by others (COPS).

      “If you are attacked by a criminal, it is the person with the armed-citizen mindset who is more likely to call the police. If you’re in a car accident, this is the person who is more likely to stop and give first aid if possible, or else call an ambulance for you. The antigun activist is likely to look the other way, like the New Yorkers did when Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death.” – From your referenced article.

      This statement is pure opinion and misguided. You don’t have to have the desire to carry arms to care about someone being stabbed on the street. You don’t have to carry arms to have the decency to call the police when you see someone hurt or in danger. One and the other has absolutely nothing to do with one another.

      I could even argue that it is the ones that carry arms that would walk by and not help when someone is being mugged. After all, the primary reason why someone would carry arms is for self preservation. Why get involved and risk being hurt? You did your part in protecting yourself, it is their own fault they didn’t take extra precautions to protect themselves.

      “Consider Rosie O’Donnell, who has a bodyguard to protect her and her family….” – From your referenced article.

      I highly highly highly doubt anyone would hire a bodyguard expecting the bodyguard to give their life for them if it comes to that. If someone hires a bodyguard for that reason, they are either willing to pay them above and beyond or they are fooling themselves.

  11. Robert Fure’s that Philadelphia makes it virtually impossible to own a handgun or carry one is entirely false. It is a trivial matter to purchase and carry a handgun in Philadelphia.

    If you possess a Pennsylvania ID, just go right down to Colosimo’s on Spring Garden Street, or any other gun store in Philadelphia, buy your handgun, pass your background check, and 7 days later pick it up. Apply for a CCW, PA is a “shall-issue state”, and has denied Philadelphia home rule on this matter. You can even carry in a bar in Philly.

  12. Moronic, psuedo-intellectual blather. Read John Lott’s book. It puts all of this to rest, with facts and numbers. Not convoluted illogic. This story is just some buffoon trying to sound thoughtful.

  13. Your arguments are flawed. First of all you assume that being armed only means firearms. Guns can be used in a treacherous or cowardly manner, because you can kill from a distance or in concealment. Not everyone would used them in the traditional dueling manner. Using a gun requires very little involvement and practically no skill to use. Give back the right to carry a sword or other long/large blades, and you’ll be forcing people to make a direct physical contact when they take their victim’s life. They’ll also have to take the risk of being out-skilled by the person they want to dispatch, which means they’ll need to be skilled to walk the walk. I promise you you’ll see that respect from both parties involved.

    Secondly, although you’re right about Japan being one of the safest countries in the world, it most certainly isn’t because they don’t carry weapons. It’s because they used to carry A LOT of weapons. Samurai had a right called “kirisute gomen”, which basically gave them the right to behead anyone who insulted them, even in the smallest manner. The Japanese are polite because they have such a long and heavy history of war. Those manners instilled by the fear of being cut down because you might have disrespected someone remains today, even if that danger doesn’t exist anymore.

    Learn your facts so that when you talk, you don’t end up doing it from your ass.

    I could go on, but I have better things to do.

  14. Really? If people knew they would be held accountable for their words and actions, they *would* be more polite, and respectful. Pansy Liberal! All theory, no practice.

  15. « What does that say about us, as gun owners? After all, the tiresome refrain of all anti-concealed-carry arguments is that if more ‘ordinary’ people are packing pistols, they will whip them out and start firing on the flimsiest pretext. Cut me off in traffic? BLAM! Take the last drop of half-and-half at Starbucks? BLAM! Look at me funny? BLAM!

    Gun owners [rightly] view this assumption as dangerous nonsense… »

    wondering if you’d care to review that assertion in light of the years of road rage, people being drawn on at Wal-Mart for asking if someone has a light for his cigarette, and just today a soccer ref shot dead on the pitch for red-carding a player since you wrote it.

  16. You simply suck dude. If Heinlein’s meme fails your test try this one, “all evil needs is for good mento do nothing”.

  17. You got it all wrong.
    Somalia, Ethiopia, Beirut and all war zones you mentioned, ARE FIGHTING dor their freedom. Saddam killed more people when they weren’t fighting, Somali wpuld be wors if only one side would had guns.
    In Mexico ONLY the bad guys had guns and You can see what is happening. Innocent people killed left and right. When they took their guns to defend themselves, they got rid of the bad guys.
    Try to say “fuck the yakuzas” in japan with no weapons.

  18. All the places you named with high gun murders are places with strict gun controls and only the criminals have guns.
    ALL data points to when law-abiding citizens are armed in an area that crime and murder rates go down.

  19. One interesting thing about the armed society in the Heinlein story is that there was no poverty. I think “a polite society can afford to be an armed society” is closer to the truth.

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