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“An armed society is a polite society”

January 20, 2011

Aphorisms are brief, pithy statements that distill some perceived truth from observation.  An example might be James Madison’s “If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” Aphorisms draw conclusions, or they can be considered starting points.  When you hear one, you might ask; “How’s that work?” and the speaker might explain; “A threat from outside can become a pretext for granting powers normally considered dangerous for one group to have” and the discussion goes on from there.

So how is the aphorism; “An armed society is a polite society” supposed to work?  I often hear people use it who advocate universal access to firearms as a solution to social problems.  What form, exactly, would that politeness take?  And what would happen if it were violated?  What would the result be in very crowded places?  How would it work out for people who cannot conform socially? What about the exchange of ideas considered by some to be inherently rude?  How would social innovation ever take place? A bit of imagination is in order and for that we might turn to a very imaginative author.

The saying occurs often in the writings of Robert Heinlein, who is one of my favorite authors.  It is well expounded in the 1942 story; “Beyond This Horizon“, about an adventurer living some centuries from now in a technologically advanced society.  Cultural evolution has moved to Heinlein’s ideal of all adult males going armed at all times in public, or wearing a special brassard that marks them as unarmed and thus having essentially the social status of children and not to be taken seriously.

In this incident, a young man in  a crowded restaurant has behaved rudely toward the protagonist, Hamilton Felix, who by convention must then respond with deadly force.

Beyond This Horizon, by Robert Heinlein

They were exchanging bows and were about to resume their seats, when a shouted remark from the balcony booth directly opposite interrupted them. “Where’s your brassard?”

They both looked toward the source of the disturbance; one of a party of men — armed citizens all apparently, for no brassards were to be seen — was leaning out of the booth and staring with deliberate rudeness. Hamilton spoke to the man at the table below. “My privilege, is it not, sir?”

“Your privilege. I wish you well.” He sat down and turned his attention back to his guests.

“You spoke to me?” asked Hamilton of the man across the ring.

“I did. You were let off lightly. You should eat at home — if you have a home. Not in the presence of gentlefolk.”

Monroe-Alpha touched Hamilton’s arm. “He’s drunk,” he whispered. “Take it easy.”

“I know,” his friend answered in a barely audible aside, “but he gives me no choice.”

“Perhaps his friends will take care of him.”

“We’ll see.”

Indeed his friends were attempting to. One of them placed a restraining hand on his weapon arm, but he shook him off. he was playing to a gallery — the entire restaurant was quiet now, the diners ostentatiously paying no attention, a pose contrary to fact. “Answer me!” he demanded.

“I will,” Hamilton stated quietly. “You have been drinking and are not responsible. Your friends should disarm you and place a brassard on you. Else some short-tempered gentleman may fail to note that your manners were poured from a bottle.”

There was a stir and a whispered consultation in the party behind the other man, as if some agreed with Hamilton’s estimate of the situation. One of them spoke urgently to the belligerent one, but he ignored it.

“What’s that about my manners, you misplanned mistake?”

(“Easy, Felix.” “Too late, Cliff.”)

“Your manners,” Hamilton stated, “are as thick as your tongue. You are a disgrace to the gun you wear.”

The other man drew too fast, but he drew high, apparently with the intention of chopping down.

The terrific explosion of the Colt forty-five brought every armed man in the place to his feet, sidearm clear, eyes wary, ready for action. But the action was all over. A woman laughed, shortly and shrilly. The sound broke the tension for everyone. Men relaxed, weapons went back to belts, seats were resumed with apologetic shrugs. The diners went back to their own affairs with the careful indifference to other people’s business of the urbane sophisticate.

Hamilton’s antagonist was half supported by the arms of his friends. He seemed utterly surprised and completely sobered. There was a hole in his chemise near his right shoulder from which a wet dark stain was spreading. One of the men holding him up waved to Hamilton with his free arm, palm out. Hamilton acknowledged the capitulation with the same gesture. Someone drew the curtains of the booth opposite.

Hamilton sank back into the cushions with a relieved sigh. “We lose more crabs that way,” he observed. “Have some more, Cliff?”

From Beyond This Horizon, © 1942, 1948, by Robert Heinlein pp 15-16.

In this incident, violence ensues when the antagonist looks at the protagonist the wrong way (staring) and speaks rudely (accusing the protagonist of uncouth behavior not fitting in polite society).  I leave it to present-day proponents to defend the actual desirability and workability of this social model.


  • You can read the whole incident with more context, plus more about Robert Heinlein, in the 2000 Cabell Prize essay, “The Heir of James Branch Cabell” By Bill Patterson, at the Virginia Commonwealth University library.  The whole paper is worth reading but for this incident scroll down to the section titled “Gallantry”.  The author notes: “It is an axiom of the novel that ‘an armed society is a polite society.’”
  • The weapon in question is a Colt .45 – quite an anachronism in the distant future.  On page 11 the protagonist introduces it this way: “It’s a terror weapon. You wouldn’t even have to hit with your first shot.  Your man would be so startled you’d have time to get him with the second shot.  And that isn’t all.  Think… the braves around town are used to putting a man to sleep with a bolt that doesn’t even muss his hair.  This thing’s bloody.  You saw what happened to that piece of vitrolith.  Think what a man’s face would look like after it stops one of those slugs.  Why a necrocosmetician would have to use a stereosculp to produce a reasonable facsimile for his friends to admire.  Who wants to stand up to that kind of fire?”
  • I enjoy Heinlein’s stories immensely, though his writings should no more be mistaken for serious political discourse than the antics of a romantic comedy should be mistaken for relationship advice.   Practically everyone has read Stranger In A Strange Land but don’t miss out on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.  Or just pick up the wonderful collection of short stories, The Past Through Tomorrow.
  • See also, NYT blogs, The Freedom Of An Armed Society
  • and Dave Hill, An Armed Society Is A Polite Society and Simple Gun Answers Are Generally Simplistic Gun Answers.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 20, 2011 at 10:08 | #1

    You know, it’s posts like this one that make me think your site is horribly mis-named. You’re far from “decrepit” or a “fool,” and “old” is an entirely relative term that, I think, only applies if we compare you to, say, a two year-old. Brilliant!

  2. Mike S.
    January 20, 2011 at 12:53 | #2

    People who use the phrase “An armed society is a polite society” don’t understand the difference between politeness and fear. Blacks in the old South were almost uniformly polite to whites. Some were undoubtedly genuinely polite people, but many were simply afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t act polite.

  3. Dale Austin
    January 20, 2011 at 14:18 | #3

    Heinlein did have a fondness for anachronistic weaponry. His description of the .45 is spot on. Many of its newer cousins are smaller, more accurate and have higher capacities, and monsters like the Desert Eagle have greater “overkill” appeal. But the folks who designed the .45 stuck to a very simple requirement: to send as many messily lethal rounds downrange as quickly as possible in a one-handed (sorta) weapon. As a bonus it’s loud and spits quite a muzzle blast-very impressive at night. Even the sound of the slide when chambering that first round is evil. Scariest sound I ever heard in the dark when I knew it was going to be aimed at me. The .45 clearly has two ends, and there is no question which one you’d rather be on.

    As far as the the axiom that an armed society is a polite society-what it really means is that the best armed, fastest, and most uncaring can be as rude as they want. Free speech? Out the window. Property rights? Gone. In a society where objecting to injustice can get you killed-well, see Somalia.

  4. iota
    January 20, 2011 at 19:07 | #4

    In the western movies and TV shows I grew up watching, the first act of the new marshal a in rowdy town was to prohibit hand guns. There must have been a reason for that.

  5. Neil
    January 20, 2011 at 22:57 | #5

    As I sometimes do, I am going to duck the larger question you were illustrating, and stay with the example of Heinlen’s ideas as presented in his writing. It will still be at least mostly on topic, since the example you picked was so appropriate.

    I can really enjoy some Heinlen when I’m in the mood, and I can take his characters and apparent “philosophy” with a few handfuls of salt grains…it works on a pulp level, like cowboy novels in space. Maybe I’m just too sensitive(or incurious) for his style, but some of the time it really does seem like he is promoting these ideals seriously. I know that many of his fans take them quite seriously. I’ve seen his fans discuss the validity of restricting voting and citizenship to those who have performed military service, a la Starship Troopers, and end up leaning towards the notion. And he seems to draw a lot of libertarians and war hawks as fans. Maybe they’re making the same mistake I am, but in the opposite ethical direction.

    I think you’ve covered this before, but one of the things I enjoyed about the movie version of Starship Troopers was the over-the-top comic book approach of the movie, with the recruitment commercials, over-dramatization, etc. I found it telling that the only way a writer could make all the philosophical conclusions about military service, violence, and authority that Heinlen does is too invent an enemy so terrible, relentless, inhuman and unreasonable that worldwide, compulsory militarization and institutional vioplence are the only possible solutions. If he had made the enemy anything less than a hive-minded swarm of absolute destruction, none of those ideas would have been justified. For all I know, maybe that’s what he was saying under it all- but if that’s the case, he sure does a great job of hiding it under huge piles of machismo and soldier-worship.

    I just may have to try a little more, so far all I’ve read is Starship Troopers and a book of short stories which I much preferred, although a couple of them seemed like they could have been written by Ayn Rand if she had been a better writer. He seems to have a lot to say politically, some of it contradictory at a first glance. Maybe he’s more complex than his style seems, maybe I should read past the aphorisms a bit more.

    As far as actually living in a society like the example presented here, I would have to decline. I can be a bit of an absolutist when it comes to the first AND second amendments, to be sure, but a society in which all adults were EXPECTED to be armed at all times as the default just seems too much. It only works out in the simplistic, comic-book, black and white fantasies dreamed by socially inept cowards. Too many people acting as judge, jury, and executioner would be no different that complete Mad Max style anarchy, with the most violent on top… and I don’t think any amount of paper rules, speeches, or social expectations would help much if the killing itself were essentially legal.

  6. dof
    January 21, 2011 at 03:37 | #6

    @Neil – from what I’ve read of his talks and letters, Heinlein’s political philosophy wasn’t far from Rand and he did take it seriously, and you’re right many of his fans do. I did too, once upon a time but it’s a case of; “He makes sense until you really think about it.” After that, they’re just entertaining stories.

    @Dale – I’ve never fired a Colt .45, though I did fire a .357 magnum once. Would they be similar?

    You’re both spot-on about what happens if killing for infractions of social conformity should become essentially legal. Well said!

    @Iota – guess they figured out that having guns close at hand afforded their impulsive use.

    In fact, dueling was once popular in this country. Eventually died out though, like this:

    By the time of the Civil War, dueling had begun an irreversible decline, even in the South. Not surprisingly, public opinion, not legislation, caused the change. What once had been a formal process designed to avoid violence and amend grievances had deteriorated into cold-blooded murder. People at last were shocked by it, and they showed their disdain. It may have been too late to save Alexander Hamilton. But if American was to become a truly civilized nation, the publicly sanctioned bloodshed would have to end.

    @Mike – that rings true. For a long time, blacks were not permitted to carry guns when it was OK for whites. Telling, that.

    Thanks Dana!

  7. January 22, 2011 at 03:20 | #7

    Earthbound Misfit wrote this today about the Colt .45 automatic, and its many relations. My guess is that her answer to this question:

    I’ve never fired a Colt .45, though I did fire a .357 magnum once. Would they be similar?

    would be “no”. A .357 round is an Americanized 9mm, as I understand it. I’ve never shot pistols, so don’t know that much. Years ago, I was told that the .357 was faster, which may or may not be true given how much propellants have advanced in the last century, but it’s definitely smaller. You can definitely buy .45 rounds that are as fast as an old 9mm Beretta round.

  8. January 22, 2011 at 06:15 | #8
  9. January 22, 2011 at 06:43 | #9

    A lot of good points in that article, Ole Phat Stu. The DoD has a mantra of sorts for how to make decisions in a crisis: observe, orient, decide, act. Acting is the fourth step, after figuring out what’s going on, where you fit into all that, and deciding what to do. In cases like the one in Tucson, that’s a lot to take in, even for someone who has trained for those sorts of situations. The rest of us would probably be standing around slack-jawed, or, as the article noted, possibly shooting the wrong person.

  10. dof
    January 22, 2011 at 16:59 | #10

    Stu: “May I suggest y’all read Myth of the Hero Gunslinger please?”

    @Stu: Very politely said! ;-) That is a good article. I shudder to think of some of our students showing up armed. And a few of our professors too. Out of everyone in the college there are a couple staff members I would trust with a firearm, if things got crazy.

    @Cujo: Clearly the DoD considers the human cerebral cortex an important addition to the limbic system.

  11. January 22, 2011 at 20:58 | #11

    As far as the firearms are concerned, I’ve never shot a 45 Colt, so I can’t comment.
    The biggest pistol I’ve ever used was a 44 Magnum; scary to fire even, helluva kick, IMHO.
    My smallest was a concealed carry 22 lfB Walther TPH, with insufficient stopping power for anything larger than a feral cat, therefore pretty useless :-( My favorite the Walther 38; my most accurate pistol was a TOZ 35 22lfB single shot 50 meter target pistol .

    Back in my youth I received marksman training, and was a fairly good sniper (Bisley 1000 yard range) so do know a little of the tech talk. Currently I’m a brassard man and intending to stay that way ;-)

  12. Dale Austin
    January 25, 2011 at 13:47 | #12

    @dof Looked up the tech specs for .45 ACP and a range of rounds for the .357. It looks like you can get a higher velocity with the lighter .357-meaning that the .357 has greater energy at the target. That said, I’ve seen some anecdotal reports that the .357 is more likely to go through-and-through, thus expending some of it’s energy on the landscaping instead of the target. Supposedly the slower and fatter .45 is more likely to come to a stop inside the target, thus delivering its full energy where you wanted it. From the target’s point of view it probably doesn’t matter much which piece of lead you get hit with at the ranges most people can hit a chest-sized target.

    From the back end there are some subjective differences. First, I’d characterize the .45 as going boom and the .357 as bang. The .357 is a sharper sound. The nature of the recoil is different as well. My feeling is that the grip configuration and the height of the barrel above your hand account for this. For me, the .45 recoil is lower and the point of rotation is at my elbow. My whole lower arm rises when I fire it. The revolver grip seems to want to rotate the weapon in my hand, pivoting around the web of my thumb. For me at least that means a quicker return to target after each round with the .45. Overall the thing just seems more stable. Could just be that the .45 grip and my hand are more compatible in terms of size than any objective measure of performance. I can’t testify to it for certain, but my impression is that you can feel the .45 rotating opposite the slug spin more than the .357, but that could just be that I’m losing that sensation in the revolver’s tendency to move inside my hand.

    I inherited my .45. My father bought it when he left the reserves in the 60s. It’s a Rand-built 1911A1 marked “Property of the U.S Army Air Force” built sometime between 1941 and 1947. I was told once the serial number put it in 1943/44, but haven’t bothered to confirm that. My father put a lot of rounds through it during his service-his base provided free ammunition and his MOS/posting required he keep his qualification up to snuff. After sixty-some years it is as accurate (or wildly inaccurate depending on your opinion) as the day it was built.

  13. Dale Austin
    January 25, 2011 at 14:17 | #13

    @Stu Regarding the .44 magnum. Agreed-very scary. An aunt of mine has a small scar on her forehead from the hammer of a .44 she lost control of. I was at a range with a bunch of folks plinking away with things like .38s, 9mms, and the like, when the guy at the end of the line let loose. He had one of those shiny, long barrel, “Dirty Harry” numbers with a couple boxes of overpowered hand loads. It would be an exaggeration so say that the ground shook, but not much. The only way he could have gotten more attention would be doping the powder with something that made clouds of fluorescent orange smoke.

  14. dof
    January 25, 2011 at 14:18 | #14

    Thanks Dale! A .45 and a revolver do have very different grips and barrel elevation, now that you mention it. Seems like the farther the barrel is from the axis between the radius/ulna, the more deflection it would cause. And it makes sense about the bullet coming to a stop.

    I always wondered about the scene in Terminator II where they’re firing pistols inside an elevator, and then have a heartfelt quiet conversation in the car afterward. Seemed like they would have been saying “Eh? What’s that again?” a lot but it would have changed the story. In movies, people have lots of unprotected sex, and they don’t wear hearing protection when using firearms. And of course, they jump out of moving cars and stuff.

  15. Dale Austin
    January 25, 2011 at 14:31 | #15

    You’re right, a closed space like that and you’d be deaf for about half an hour and probably some permanent issues. My favorite error is treating the shoulder wound as trivial. There are a lot of nerves, arteries, veins, and complicated moving parts up there. You take a big round at the collar bone and you are down and are not going to be using that side much until after some lengthy reconstructive surgery and physical rehab-assuming you don’t bleed out through the subclavian artery before you get to a hospital and assuming that the shock wave doesn’t just stop your heart and assuming you don’t drown as your lung fills up with blood.

  16. January 25, 2011 at 17:16 | #16

    Y’all know the difference between russian roulette and islamic terrorist roulette?

    Russian roulette : chamber one round in a revolver, spin the drum, point the barrel at your own head (Mr.Buntline excluded ;-) ) and pull the trigger.

    Islamic terrorist roulette : same thing, but with a pistol ;-)

  17. January 26, 2011 at 01:33 | #17

    I wouldn’t call the 1911 in .45ACP anachronistic at all. The design may be a century old but it is still effective and immensly popular.

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