Posted by Mad Rocket Scientist | Filed under Guest Authors
(Guest blogger: Mad Rocket Scientist from Afternoons With the Mad Rocket Scientist)
Join any online discussion about gun rights and gun control, and you are bound at some point to see the above statement. It is ubiquitous and has become an almost a Godwin type statement (usually appearing alongside Nazi and Holocaust references). The statement appears on the pro-gun side, and someone will undoubtedly pop in with counter-points about how “more guns do not make us safer”, or how “we are already an armed society and we are not very polite”, and back and forth, with what seems to me to be a powerful misunderstanding on both sides about what the statement actually means. I think both sides envision this Armed and Polite Society as being one where everyone walks around with their favorite chunk of polymer and steel strapped on. Gun rights supporters see the result of such public carry as the impetus that causes the return of civility, gun control supporters fear that overheated tempers will result in deadly shootings over parking spaces.
Both could not be farther from the truth.
The original statement was made (to the best of my knowledge) by Robert A. Heinlein:
An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.
Now maybe you read that and instantly see the truth of it, but I am writing this under the assumption that you are missing the point, so I am going to break it down for you. The first thing we need to look at is this: What is an armed society?
The Armed Society
An Armed Society is not one where guns are on every hip in full display, or one where even every person is carrying concealed. An armed society is one that recognizes that society and civilization are like any great dynamic work, in that they require constant attention and maintenance, and that trouble must be dealt with in the fastest means possible so as to avoid the spread of damage. In any human society, trouble is defined as crime. It doesn’t matter what the crime is, as the definition of a crime is up to that society to choose, but crime is trouble, and if crime is not treated ASAP, the damage it will do can have a ripple effect throughout a society.
Think of a society as a great ship sailing along. In the Navy, every single sailor is trained to keep an eye out for potential damage to the ship they sail on, and any suspected damage is reported to damage control, who then dispatches the appropriate people to fix the damage. Except in the case of fire. If a sailor on a ship detects a fire, a call to damage control is done after the fire danger is located and assessed, and the person who found the fire, while calling for help, will begin to fight the fire. Any who are nearby and hear his call will join his efforts. There is no waiting for damage control because every sailor knows how to fight a fire and where the fire fighting equipment can be found anywhere on a ship, and he or she is expected to get busy doing what they can to prevent the fire from spreading and to knock it down as much as possible. Every sailor is ARMED with the knowledge and tools needed to fight a fire, and everyone is expected to use that knowledge and the tools to do their duty to the ship and the sailors that live within her. Due to discipline and prevention, fires on a ship are rare. Due to every sailor knowing how to fight a fire, large fires on a ship not in battle are very rare.
In the Navy, an uncontrolled fire is so deadly to the ship as a whole that everyone MUST know how to combat a fire. In an armed society, crime is recognized as so deadly to fabric of the society that every citizen is trained and equipped to combat crime. Every ship has Damage Control Personnel, who are the people the Navy hires to deal with all ship damage, all the time, much like the police are hired to deal with crime in a society. The difference is, for the DC folks on a ship, their primary duty is not to fix damage on a ship, but rather, to make sure everyone else knows how to repair damage to a ship and to coordinate the repair efforts. In an armed society, this is what the police do. They train the populace in how to safely fight and resist crime, they coordinate citizen response efforts, and they investigate crime when needed.
The society itself is armed to fight crime. Typically this means the society is also armed with the tools and the training and knowledge to fight crime as well, i.e. weapons that can effectively resist criminals. This is why people on both sides of the debate get this wrong, they think the weapons define the society, rather than the society defining the weapons. Weapons need not be guns or swords or knives. As I told my wife once, if I could carry a hand held device that would enclose a person in a sticky web or glue and effectively restrain them 99% of the time, I would carry that. The weapon is whatever is effective to stop crime. As things stand, we do not have an armed society, despite the presence of weapons, because in general, the people have chosen to abrogate their duty to fight crime to the police. We will not have an armed society any time soon since social mores would have to shift significantly before we would.
But if we did have an armed society, how would that make it polite?
The Polite Society
This concept is a bit tougher to get right off, but hopefully I can make it clear. First, what is “polite”?
1. Marked by or showing consideration for others, tact, and observance of accepted social usage.
2. Refined; elegant: polite society.
Heinlein puts it simply that Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life. Now, if you are at all familiar with RAH and his writing, it should be obvious that the second definition is not what he is talking about at all. While RAH may himself have been elegant, and some of his characters certainly were, the truth is many of his heroes and heroines were decidedly not. No, I do believe the polite he is thinking of falls into the first definition, that of showing consideration for others.
Think about it, when we think of manners, the ones that matter, what we are really talking about is being considerate of others. Even manners we have that don’t seem to make any sense have their roots in being considerate of others (why do we keep our elbows off the table? try eating in close quarters and put your elbows up). So if being polite is in essence being considerate of others, what is the epitome of bad manners?
Rape, murder, theft, assault, etc.
Now, if a person can commit violence against another unopposed, i.e. they can demonstrate a complete lack of manners and consideration without being called out on it, how do you think such a person is going to regard the smaller niceties? So how does the armed society create good manners? The reason we get a polite society is because the people are armed against crime. All crime, not just crime committed against them, but crimes against their neighbors and fellow members of this polite society. These members of this polite society are considerate of the other members of the society. If they are considerate at the level of being willing to potentially put their lives on the line for their fellows, chances are they will be considerate at any level. Such a statement is not always true amongst individuals, two people could really not like each other and could be rude to each other specifically, but in general, people will have manners toward strangers and friends. Even two people who are socially rude to each other could understand that should a crime befall one, the other should still respond in order to maintain the social order.
Now look back at RAH statement. If a person knows he lives in a society where the great majority of persons around him can and will, without pause, meet any violence he chooses to enact with violence in return, he is going to be very careful with regard to his location and environment when committing his crime if he has any hope of getting away with it. He isn’t going to walk into a bar and shoot someone, because the other patrons will detain him at the least, or shoot him in return. He will not get away with his crime unless he plans carefully and takes pains to keep his crime out of the public eye. This means an armed society is not free of crime, it is, however, better able to respond and deter crime, and it means that persons will likely not be committing crime in full view of the public. There will still be murders, and rapes, and theft, and assaults, but you won’t have a whole lot of events like a kid shooting up a classroom, or a gang beating a person on the street, or a husband dragging his wife out her place of business to die, because others will respond, with force, and not when the sirens arrive, but right now, as it happens. If the act of being impolite can lead to my death in very short order, I will take pains to be polite and I will carefully weigh any decision to committ a crime.
When you care enough about your neighbor, and by extension, your community, to step up and defend it against crime in the public eye, you are being considerate of others, and therefore, polite. People who are armed with a weapon are also less likely to commit violence because they don’t want a minor thing to become a fatal thing. In an armed society, drawing a weapon without need must be a crime, much the way that the Samurai of old would not draw their sword unless there was a need. When you grow up knowing you have the power to take a life, and you have been raised to be considerate and respectful of others, you understand the responsibility and rationale not to take a life unless there is no other choice.
A polite society need not be armed, and an armed society need not be polite, but neither will survive well or long unless both conditions are met. To be fair, arming everyone will not create a polite society, however, allowing those who wish to be armed to carry a weapon they have demonstrated proficiency with, and who have demonstrated the ability to obey the law and exhibit restraint, is a good start. The fact is, through, that until we give up this idea that the police are all we need to protect us, and we begin to reinstall a sense of civic obligation that goes beyond working at the soup kitchen or putting some money in a kettle during Christmas, we will continue to have an impolite society. The number of people who wish to be armed and trained is still too small to act as much of a deterrent, except in certain areas where the local population has a greater incidence of persons carrying, but as more people decide to take responsibility for their own safety, things should improve. Things won’t change overall until we as a society decide to change it, and parents and schools begin to instill a sense of civic duty in their kids, that they need to protect society if they want society to protect them.