Is an armed society a safe society?

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: As the gun lobby moves from the expanding the right to concealed carry to the open carry of guns, let’s examine the stories about guns that so many believe. This is one of the beliefs that form the foundation of the New America being built by Republicans on the ruins of the America-that-once-was, overturning a century of gun laws. This is an expanded and revised post from the archives.

© Jason Stitt | Dreamstime.


  1. Robert Heinlein’s most powerful insight.
  2. The logic of carrying guns in civil society.
  3. What about life on the frontier?
  4. But the polite Swiss have all those guns!
  5. Research tells the tale.
  6. Another idea from Robert Heinlein.
  7. For More Information.
  8. Some interesting books about guns.

(1)  Heinlein’s most powerful insight.

“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).

In books such as The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1965), Robert Heinlein sketched out entertaining yet ludicrously improbable worlds. His stories played a formative role in the rise of the libertarian movement, perhaps more so than the novels of Ayn Rand. Heinlein’s stories were more widely read than Rand’s, and even more often read in full. Libertarianism might be the first political movement based more in fiction and false predictions rather than history and experience.

Beyond this Horizon
Available at Amazon.

Perhaps Heinlein’s greatest impact came from his deeply held belief that “an armed society is a polite society.” He discusses this often in his correspondence. He first explicitly stated it in his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, where (male) citizens routinely and openly carry guns. In his 1949 novel, Red Planet, children come of age in their early teens when they pass the licensing tests for open carry of guns. Heinlein, as usual, was ahead of his time: both boys and girls carried guns.

Heinlein’s myths valorize individual autonomy and power, both symbolized by the open carry of guns. It would have been equally realistic to have his characters sprout wings and fly. History and the present give us many examples of societies with common open carry of weapons (blades, guns, etc.). They usually have high levels of violence, strong groups dominating weaker groups. Open carry is both a result of this instability and contributes to it. In these societies, safety for the individual comes from membership in a group (e.g., gangs or clan) – not from being a bold free armed individualist.

Even well-organized societies often find it difficult to maintain order amidst widespread carrying of weapons. Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers(see the great film: part one and part two) is based on memoirs of d’Artagnan, Capitaine-Lieutenant des Mousquetaires. He describes an early 17thC Paris flowing with the blood of frequent and senseless duels – and careless theft by armed men.

Armed societies often have duels, as men’s reputations depend on their ability and willingness to fight. Alexander Hamilton, one of the greatest of the Founders, died in a duel. We see this in the real history of our Wild West (more on this below). We see this today around the world. In America’s inner cities (which our government cannot regulate), dissing a young man often threatens the reputation that keeps him safe – provoking violence. The extreme examples are ungoverned areas of failed or weak states such as Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Heinlein’s stories are great fiction. That so many people take them seriously is sad and disturbing. See these for more about libertarians.

  • To see a pure form of libertarianism in action, read the fascinating history of the “Dark Leviathan” by Henry Farrell: “The Silk Road might have started as a libertarian experiment, but it was doomed to end as a fiefdom run by pirate kings.”  Or look at Somalia.
  • See the best post ever about Libertarianism: “If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride – A Pony!“ at John & Belle Have a Blog (2004).

“A few anecdotes and a good just-so story outweigh a hundred historical counter-examples.”
— From David Brin’s review of Beyond This Horizon at the Tor/Forge Blog.

John Lennon's bloody glasses
John Lennon’s glasses. By Yoko Ono.

(2)  Why carry guns in a civil society?

“You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”
— Fake quote attributed to Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Fleet in WWII.

I recommend reading “The Freedom of an Armed Society” by Firmin DeBrabander (Prof Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art; website here), an op-ed in the New York Times from 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.”

That was written in the simpler times of 2012, when protests were the street parties of Occupy and the Tea Party. Now we might be in the early stages of accelerating political violence. The abundance of guns in America might make this much worse.

Dodge City, 1879.
A photo from the real Dodge City, 1879.

(3) What about life on the frontier?

The Wild West was a great place to live – as described in John Wayne’s films and Louis L’Amour’s stories (my favorite is The Daybreakers). Unfortunately, western fiction is no more realistic than science fiction.

Many cities instituted tight regulations to reduce the carnage from an armed open carry society — as in the photo above from Dodge City. They did so because most of the Wild West was a lawless horror show. Predatory gangs (often in the employ of cattle “barons”) dominated vast areas. For example, the wonderful John Wayne film “Chisum” is a prettified version of the Lincoln County War. In reality, the bad guys won. As they often did. (More details here about guns in the Wild West.)

For some facts about this lost history, masked by myths, see Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West.

America provided a cautionary example for Canada. They ensured that the Mounties would maintain order as their frontier developed.

Guns in Switzerland

(4)  But all those polite Swiss have guns at home!

Most men in Switzerland are in the militia from ages 20 to 30. They keep their rifles at home. But they do not have ammo at home; it is kept in government armories – a detail which far-right propaganda seldom mentions. They can buy their guns after their service ends.

Switzerland has strict gun registration plus tight controls on sales of gun and ammo – all of which are more comprehensive and thoroughly enforced than in the US. Concealed carry permits are rarely issued. Open carry of loaded weapons is illegal, with the obvious exceptions (e.g.hunting). Open carry of unloaded guns must meet strict criteria.

See the Wikipedia entry – and its supporting links – for more information about guns in Switzerland.


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

(5)  Research tells the tale about guns.

There is a large body of research showing that an armed society is a violent society. For example: “The ‘weapons effect’” by Brad J. Bushman (Prof of Communication & Psychology at Ohio State U) in Psychology Today, 18 January 20113 — “Research shows that the mere presence of weapons increases aggression.” See the references at the end of his article.

Also see “Is an armed society a polite society? Guns and road rage” by David Hemenway et al. in 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…

  • made obscene or rude gestures at another motorist,
  • aggressively followed another vehicle too closely, and
  • 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 about guns, with summaries and links, see these posts…

  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.
  3. The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.

Robert Heinlein

(6)  Another idea from Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s fans on the far-right consider him to be a sage when writing about guns and libertarian ideology. But they seldom mention this quote from Beyond This Horizon about political values.

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




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