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.