Why do we believe an armed society is a polite society?

Summary: Led by the 1%, we’re building a New America. Oddly and unlike our forebears, it rests largely on an intellectual foundation of fantasy. Today we look at one pillar of nonsense that millions of Americans take seriously.

“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”
— From Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon (1942).

33 murders with guns per year in America


  1. Robert Heinlein’s most powerful insight.
  2. The logic of carrying guns in civil society.
  3. What about life on the frontier?
  4. Research tells the tale.
  5. An insight from Beyond This Horizon.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Robert Heinlein’s most powerful insight.

Robert Heinlein’s stories played a formative role in the rise of the libertarian movement, perhaps even more so than the novels of Ayn Rand (Heinlein’s were more widely read, and even more often read to the end), perhaps the first political movement almost entirely grounded in fiction and false predictions rather than history and research. In books such as The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1965), he sketched out appealing yet ludicrously improbable worlds.

Perhaps Heinlein’s greatest impact came from his deeply held belief, shown in both stories and letters, that “an armed society is a polite society.” He explicitly stated this in his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, where full citizens must carry guns. In his 1949 novel Red Planet children come of age in their early teens when they pass the tests to earn a license for open carry of a gun. (Heinlein, as usual, was ahead of his time; both boys and girls carried guns). These are fun stories. The concept is quite mad.

Heinlein’s myths valorize individual autonomy and power. This contradicts history; he could as realistically described people with wings. In the absence of a functioning State, organization and structure comes from gangs (like States, a form of collective action) — not bold free individualists. No matter what the level of weaponry they have.

We see this in prisons (the State doesn’t care to regulate). and ungoverned states like Somalia, or parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also, to a lesser extent, in the worst of America’s inner cities (too much effort for the State to regulate). And in the horror show of our wild west (more on this below).

Low levels of government authority are often insufficient to maintain order in well-armed societies. In the Three Musketeers, based on the memoirs of d’Artagnan, Capitaine-Lieutenant des Mousquetaires, we see early 17thC Paris stained with the blood of frequent and senseless duels. One of the greatest of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton, died in a senseless duel.

“A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples.”
— David Brin discussing Karl Marx, science fiction editor John Campbell, and Robert Heinlein in his review of Beyond This Horizon, Tor/Forge Blog, 12 July 2010.

The Story of Omaha lynching
Justice of armed citizens: The Omaha lynching.

(2)  Why carry guns in a civil society?

I recommend reading this in full: “The Freedom of an Armed Society“, Firmin DeBrabander (Prof Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art; website here), op-ed in the New York Times, 16 December 2012 — Excerpt:

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate — though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech — and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate — definitively.

The very power and possibility of free speech and assembly rests on their non-violence. The power of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the Arab Spring protests, stemmed precisely from their non-violent nature. This power was made evident by the ferocity of government response to the Occupy movement. Occupy protestors across the country were increasingly confronted by police in military style garb and affect.

Imagine what this would have looked like had the protestors been armed: in the face of the New York Police Department assault on Zuccotti Park, there might have been armed insurrection in the streets. The non-violent nature of protest in this country ensures that it can occur.

To see this working in real time, subscribe to the twitter feed of David Waldman @KagroX, reporting daily carnage of accidental gun shootings. The NRA reports the rare instances of gun owners defending themselves. Waldman reports the far more frequent “other” shootings, often of or by children.

John Lennon's bloody glasses
John Lennon’s glasses. Yoko Ono/ Twitter.

(3) What about life on the frontier?

The wild west sounds great, as told in John Wayne’s films and Louis L’Amour’s stories.

Unfortunately western fiction is no more realistic than science fiction. Our wild west was a lawless horror show, where predatory gangs (often in the employ of cattle “barons”) dominated vast areas (The film “Chisum” is a prettified version of the Lincoln County War; in fact the bad guys won — aided by the Cavalry).  It served mainly as a cautionary example for Canada, who ensured that the Mounties would maintain order as their frontier developed.

Constitution & guns

For the facts, see Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.

(4)  Research tells the tale.

There is a large body of research showing that an armed society is a violent society.  For example:

The ‘weapons effect’“, Brad J. Bushman (Prof of Communication & Psychology, Ohio State U), Psychology Today, 18 January 20113 — “Research shows that the mere presence of weapons increases aggression.” See references at the end.

Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage“, David Hemenway et al, Accident Analysis & Prevention, July 2006 — Abstract:

While concerns about road rage have grown over the past decade, states have made it easier for motorists to carry firearms in their vehicles. Are motorists with guns in the car more or less likely to engage in hostile and aggressive behavior? Data come from a 2004 national random digit dial survey of over 2400 licensed drivers. Respondents were asked whether, in the past year, they…

  1. made obscene or rude gestures at another motorist,
  2. aggressively followed another vehicle too closely, and
  3. were victims of such hostile behaviors.

17% admitted making obscene or rude gestures, and 9% had aggressively followed too closely. 46% reported victimization by each of these behaviors in the past year. Males, young adults, binge drinkers, those who do not believe most people can be trusted, those ever arrested for a non-traffic violation, and motorists who had been in a vehicle in which there was a gun were more likely to engage in such forms of road rage.  Similar to a survey of Arizona motorists, in our survey, riding with a firearm in the vehicle was a marker for aggressive and dangerous driver behavior.

For surveys of the research see..

  1. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?
  2. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
Beyond This Horizon
Available at Amazon.

(5)  Another insight from Beyond This Horizon.

This is seldom mentioned by right-wing Heinlein fans:

“Naturally food is free! What kind of people do you take us for?”

(6)  For More information.

See these other posts about Robert Heinlein’s work

  1. How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped, and what we can learn from this — Heinlein saw the USSR’s weakness 3 decades before the CIA.
  2. We live in the crazy years, but can choose a different destiny for ourselves and our children.
  3. How does The Hunger Games compare to other classic stories of children fighting children? — About Tunnel in the Sky.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about gun violence and regulation, and especially these about gun violence…

  1. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?
  2. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.
  3. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
  4. What are the odds of violence from the Right in America?
  5. The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.

29 thoughts on “Why do we believe an armed society is a polite society?”

  1. “Americans are murdered by guns every single day”, already this quotation is twisting from the real problem, the killer, the human being determined to commit such a crime. Doing so we don’t educate the people to be responsible of their actions. Murder is a consequence of a choice the human being is taking, to do it a gun is just one of the means. Close the factories of guns and you will discover that anybody committed to kill will use other kind of deadly weapon: blowpipe; slingshot; etc… We have to take care and to worry about the cause to avoid the effect as we do for any disease. Naivety is nice, but not when you become blind facing the reality.

    1. arnstav,

      “Doing so we don’t educate the people to be responsible of their actions.”

      Are you kidding? We’re speaking of murder.

      “Murder is a consequence of a choice the human being is taking, to do it a gun is just one of the means. Close the factories of guns and you will discover that anybody committed to kill will use other kind of deadly weapon: blowpipe; slingshot”

      You must be kidding. Guns make killing much easier. Neither blowpipes or slingshots are remotely as effective as guns at killing. Have you ever used a slingshot?

      Plus the thousands of accidental injuries and deaths, often to or by children — not as likely with lesser weapons.

  2. “The universal practice of carrying arms in the South is undoubtedly the cause of occasional loss of life, and is much to be regretted; but, on the other hand, this custom renders altercations and quarrels of very rare occurrence, for people are naturally careful what they say when a bullet may be the probable reply.”

    Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle “Three Months in the Southern States”

    I would bet the farm that it is not Heinlein who came up first with this. It might well have been widespread idea.

    1. An enlightening quote.

      The question is therefore who should be reminded to remain “polite” — equals with whom a disagreement might escalate to a duel, or the downtrodden majority that should be reminded who is to be respected?

      In Ancien Régime, nobles were the only civilians allowed to wear a weapon in normal circumstances. In several countries, wearing a weapon is a distinctive sign reserved to males with a status within a tribal hierarchy (e.g. in Yemen, in Kenya). And in the Southern States, there was a “universal practice of carrying arms” — a sure bet that it was universal only amongst whites.

      Whether it is the police or simple civilians, openly carrying arms reeks of the mentality “I carry a weapon; I am the boss; be very polite and deferent and do not even think about making a fuss or disagreeing vehemently with me, or else…”

  3. People are polite or there not. But I do have to say this seems to be more of a “anti-gun” post. As a “sheepdog” in this world i could not see a time were the tool of a weapon, such as a gun will not be needed. As long as you are dealing with humans, you will have bad ones.

    But I do have to say the man with the knife who broke into the house sure turned polite when the shotgun was pointed in his face. I have fought and will fight to keep the guy rights of the people.

    If your against guns, I have fought for those rights to.

    1. Policysup,

      I have no idea what you are attempting to say. This is a “fact” post. Characterizing it my the result of the facts is just imposing your views on the data.

      As for the effect of guns, look through the vast amount of data cited in the previous posts. Guns are used far far more often to inflict violence than to defend. Having a gun in the home makes you less safe. People carrying guns more often use them to intimidate than defend (even people with no prior criminal record). I could continue, but it is pouring more water on a rock — it doesn’t make the rock wetter. People are either influenced by facts or not.

  4. Not trying to start a fight, as this is a old one. Some people hate guns, I get that, but facts as you state them are only the facts you want to show. Like I said old argument.

    There are just as many “facts” that have show this issue the other way. Endless debate really.

    Still, overall I still fight to protect those who won’t or can’t.

    I am the “Sheepdog” till the end.

    And I respect your thoughts and “facts” as you see them.

  5. I’m not here to argue FM’s point, just to share the backdrop behind the story Heinlein told.

    The backstory to the book is that there had been a war between “wolf-type” people and “sheep-type” people and the wolves won, exterminating the “sheep.” Yes, most people are armed in his society but they are the descendants of the 10-15% of the human population that might be able to handle guns responsibly most of the time. Also the society had been designed so people who don’t want to carry guns can avoid it at some cost in social status.

    Now, does the story seem reasonable in light of that information? It is better but it is far too optimistic about human nature. But so was the rest of the US population in 1949. Science fiction writers try to do two opposing things when they create a world:
    1) Make predictions about the future, sometimes the far future that will stand the test of time
    2) Sell books RIGHT NOW.

    These two goals mean that the predictions made by any science fiction writer must conform to what the public is currently buying and turns old science fiction into an excellent time capsule of the biases of the society surrounding the author at the time.

    1. Pluto,

      There’s two ways to look at the work of an author, both valid.

      (1) Heinlein was writing for the box office. Which he did well. In that sense his stories need not match his personal views.

      However, with exceptions, Heinlein’s stories tended to match his personal concerns and views — which were often heterodox (even transgressive), and changed over his long career.

      (2) Heinlein was writing as an expression of his personal views, perhaps even as advocacy. His writings clearly show that this was one of his major motivations. It’s obvious in the anti-red novel Sixth Column, the military stories Space Patrol and Starship Troopers, and the mentions of gun rights in Beyond This Horizon and Red Planet.

      With respect to guns, it’s lightly mentioned in many of his stories about (quite counter-factual) libertarian frontier. Bold brave armed men relating to one another without governments to provide order.

    2. Agreed on all counts, FM.

      Heinlein was a fruit-loop, particularly at the end of his life, but he did not exist in a vacuum. There were quite a number of Western TV shows that supported Heinlein’s views in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I would hazard a guess that society changed (but didn’t necessarily get more mature) and he did not and that is why some of his books fell out of favor.

      1. Pluto,

        I have a different spin on this (it’s my standard perspective). Heinlein was a science-fiction author, so being a bit out there probably was an asset. He made millions from his writing, showing he was highly functional. We’re the fruit-loops for regarding his fiction as philosophy.

        Great point about the westerns! This is perhaps the model for libertarian thinking. Government fails a small town. A lone cowboy (literally so, a blue collar working man) comes to town and defeats the bad guy. No collective action needed, just a super-empowered man (to use the current cant). It’s ahistorical. Rather, it’s the opposite of historical. The western ranges (esp Texas) were quickly parceled off into baronies in which oligarchs ruled. And still do, albeit more indirectly.

      1. Pete,

        Great point! Stranger shows Heinlein’s heterodox views on sexual matters (as do many of his later books), unusual in one with so many doctrinaire conservative views. Also shows his feel for the market. Published in 1961, his timing was perfect

  6. Two thoughts on this.

    Heilein is exponentially more read than Rand. Much like the bible, vast majority of rands books in circulation were distributed by the sun rand foundation, not purchased by interested readers.

    Much like Rand, Heinlein’s world has no place for the disabled, or the disabled PERIOD. While Rand’s books openly showed contempt for the mentally handicapped, Heinlein just doesn’t mention them. Would a person with Down’s syndrome pass the manhood test that the author loves so much? Both rand and Heinlein were fascinated by societies that by default disenfranchise all but the able bodied and able minded.

    I can think of a certain national leader who applied this concept to real life.

  7. Pingback: While I was away….. | commongunsense

  8. Throw away all of your Robert Heinlein books.
    Your opinion sucks, you are wrong, and you do not get it.
    Heinlein envisioned and spoke of humans with brains and guts and will.
    You lack one or more of these attributes.
    Have a nice day.

  9. Pingback: When the events of dystopian science fiction becomes media news … | Head Space

  10. Bunch of nonsense by an ignoramus of the origin and raison d’etre of contemporary individualist society. With a help of some sloppy fallacies, he summarily rejects common-sensical Heinlein’s thesis while offering no rational alternative that would survive methodical scrutiny.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      A reader,

      Can you provide some specifics, rather that what readers like a ritualistic denunciation.

      “he summarily rejects common-sensical Heinlein’s thesis”

      True only if by “summarily”, you mean “giving many examples.” Like “Somalia, or parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan …the worst of America’s inner cities”.

      “offering no rational alternative that would survive methodical scrutiny.”

      That looks like you didn’t read the post, just the title. Gun control has worked in many different contexts, from the towns of America’s Wild West to Europe.

  11. Morgan Audetat

    “Males, young adults, binge drinkers, those who do not believe most people can be trusted, those ever arrested for a non-traffic violation, and motorists who had been in a vehicle in which there was a gun were more likely to engage in such forms of road rage.” The “facts” just happen to associate being male, young, drinking, traffic convictions, motorists, and road rage; all in one sentence! Incredible. No seriously, incredible. I encourage you to find a worthy cause and advocate for change in a journalistic–see persuasive–fashion. No one familiar with the lawful use of firearms will be convinced by this drivel.
    Little self-defense in Minnesota gun law, report suggests
    Because of the way the concealed carry law was written in Minnesota, we’re not allowed to know immediately whether a permitted gun was used in shootings in the state (like this one, for example), or whether a crime was prevented because of one. It’s illegal for the police to say. Only a once-a-year report to the Legislature can be parsed to reveal reality.

    This is the most interesting statistic in this year’s report: There was not a single case of a gun permitted under the carry law being used for self-defense in a carry situation. Not one.

    Nearly 200,000 thousand Minnesotans have permits to carry guns, the report said. That’s about 14 percent more than the number of valid permits at this time last year, MPR’s Brandt Williams reported.

    “They thought the streets were going to be running with blood, but statistically, it hasn’t shown itself as a problem in terms of an increase in the amount of gun crimes,” Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office told the Star Tribune.

    He’s right. More than 10 years after the pitched battle over the law, it’s clear the hyperbole from both sides was overwrought. We’re not ducking road-rage shootouts, but we’re not fending off criminals, either, the Pioneer Press said.

    According to the report, there were no recorded instances last year of lawful and justifiable use of firearms by permit-holders — for instance, a shooting in self-defense.

    It’s possible, of course, that merely flashing a gun was enough to turn aside a ne’er-do-well, and to be sure, people who seek permits aren’t necessarily doing so for self-defense.

    But the lack of self-defense incidents in the latest report (pdf) of the Personal Protection Act isn’t a fluke. The 2013 report also listed no cases of self-defense uses of a gun by a permitted carrier.

    There was only one in 2012, none in 2011, 2010, 3 in 2009, none in 2008,none in 2007, none in 2006, and one in 2005.

    That’s consistent with what many who voted for the law expected.

    “I’m not going to make the argument that this makes us safer,” then-Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said on the day the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the legislation. “I’m not sure that it does. But what I do think is that this liberty is one we have to fight for. Our forefathers fought for it and now it’s our time to fight for it.”

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