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Is an Armed Society Really a Polite Society?

A flawed argument for the status quo on gun violence in America.

In discussions of the Second Amendment and gun violence in America, sooner or later the claim that an armed society is a polite society is bound to come up. There are two serious flaws with this argument in favor of widespread gun ownership, concealed carry, and open carry. Before we look at those flaws, let's first consider the origins of this quote.

It is attributed to Robert Heinlein. Here's the quote in full:

“Well, in the first place an armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. For me, politeness is a sine qua non of civilization. That’s a personal evaluation only. But gunfighting has a strong biological use. We do not have enough things to kill off the weak and the stupid these days. But to stay alive as an armed citizen a man has to be either quick with his wits or with his hands, preferably both. It’s a good thing.”

But attributing this to Heinlein is a bit misleading. It is actually a quotation from a character in one of his works of science fiction, Beyond This Horizon. As Mark Sumner points out, the point of this quote in the novel is to get rid of the genetically inferior members of society who do not deserve to live.

But this is not how the quote is used in the gun debates. Many people who employ this as an argument for the status quo, or for even fewer regulations related to gun ownership and use, have something else in mind. The idea is that the potential presence of a gun acts as a deterrent to impolite behavior, especially the more extreme varieties that include violence. If I think there is a good possibility that people are carrying a firearm, then that shapes how I interact with them. I won't want to do anything that could get me shot. So I'll be polite and respectful. There will be less violence, including gun violence, due to the ever-present threat of violence.

There are two problems with this line of thought. First, there is plenty of evidence that it is not true. Second, even if it were true, we shouldn't settle for this kind of "politeness."

There is evidence that an armed society is not a polite society. During the week of April 25-May 1, there were at least three instances of gun violence related to or in the vicinity of youth sporting events. On April 25 in North Charleston, SC, youth baseball players, managers, and parents fled the field when 50 shots rang out in the vicinity of a game. On May 1, two men were shot at a northern Virginia middle school, where youth football games were being played. That same day, a dad pulled a gun on another dad at an AAU basketball tournament in Boston. Witnesses said his gun jammed, fortunately. The videos of the baseball players ducking and running for cover, and of the gym full of young basketball players and fans running away are hard to watch. It's difficult to reconcile these events, and many more like them in a variety of settings, with the claim that an armed society is a polite society. In fact, it is the case that the presence of guns doesn't reduce violence, but intensifies it.1 There are some interesting ideas grounded in behavioral science that reducing gun violence can happen, if we are more intentional and creative about it.

But even if this slogan was based in truth, we should aspire for more. Our motivation for treating others with respect should not be the fear of getting shot. Even if an armed society were a polite society, it would be a politeness grounded in fear and the threat of violence. Surely we can do better than this. In a nation that ostensibly values freedom, responsibility, and basic human dignity, we should be motivated to treat each other with respect by something different than the threat of violence. Our common humanity should be enough.


1. See The Gun Debate, by P. Cook and K. Goss (Oxford University Press, 2014); and Reducing Gun Violence in America, eds. D. Webster and J. Vernick (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).