There is one sentence that can elicit a uniform nod of agreement amongst an assembly of citizen carriers: “An armed society is a polite society.” It is an argument in favor of owning guns, it is a supposed statement of fact, it is a wish, it is an expression of desire for an older time; what it isn’t is understood correctly. Far too many gun owners use the expression in ignorance of its original context and do not understand that this statement actually condones senseless violence. In its full context, from science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon, it is
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 gun-fighting has a strong biological use. We do not have enough things that 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. 
Heinlein’s futuristic world is one where men carry guns and fight duels as in the legends of the Old West and the Antebellum South. Men die over petty matters.
At the heart of what many citizen carriers and gun owners mean when they utter that phrase is that a society where more law-abiding and responsible citizens carried guns is one where crime is less frequent. Those who would victimize their neighbor do so at a heightened risk of being shot in the act and thus self-preservation compels many to avoid committing violent crimes. Others, who we will look at later, report that carrying a gun forces them to be more polite; not to avoid a duel, but to avoid being painted as an armed aggressor by someone who mistakes or misconstrues impoliteness as hostility.
A lack of understanding about the true nature of honor violence in American history leads to an incorrect belief that an increase in guns correlates to an increase in homicide. This theory is a social misperception dating back to the Old West and Antebellum South where firearms were plentiful and so was killing. What is critical about these times and places was not that guns were present, but the attitudes of men condoned casual violence as a means of social control. Men, in those times as in Beyond this Horizon, killed over words and trivial matters, seldom facing the consequences. While we still murder each other today for the same reasons, society and the courts take a very dim view of using violence to settle interpersonal problems.
Honor violence is responding to an insult or defending one’s intangible self (reputation, personality) by fighting, assaulting the offender, or dueling. It is damage to the ego magnified by anger until it manifests as an outward, hostile act. It can be compounded by social expectations that one who injures another’s reputation (or that of his family/friends) must receive physical remonstration for a verbal or other assault to the other’s personhood.
It is not self-defense. It is seen in the schoolyard by the boy who punches the kid who teases him. In bars, it is a man who decks a drunk over a spilled drink. It is gang members who kill each other over a failure to show proper courtesy (disrespect, or “diss). The justifications can be any rude act or even an accident or mistake that another takes offense to. The response of physical violence is an excessive response to the insult.
How trivial the spark of honor violence can be is seen in the an incident in Beyond where Felix Hamilton, one of the main characters, who has never eaten crab before, accidentally sends a crab leg is he trying to crack into a woman’s drink, soaking her in front of her date.
The two remaining men were both armed, both standing, and staring up at the balcony. The younger, a slender youth in bright scarlet promenade dress, resting his right hand on the grip of his sidearm, seemed about to speak. The older man turned coldly dangerous eyes from Hamilton to his youthful companion. “My privilege, Cyril,” he said quietly, “if you please.”
What we see here is a highly formalized ritual and very stiff, almost ceremonial language. Even in their futuristic world, casual conversations do not contain the level of courtesy use in avoiding the duel. Politeness is central to the ritual and Heinlein’s honor culture. The need for politeness, the backbone of civilization, is exemplified in the excessively formal language. Whereas in our contemporary society, overly formal words can have the effect of seeming insincere and it is the spontaneous heartfelt apologies that do the best at diffusing tense situations.
The romanticized version of the Old West gunfight, the walk down, involves the same level of ritual, probably drawing from code duello procedures. The similarities involved in pacing off the distance and the presence of a sidekick or henchman (the seconds) could only be taken from the dueling tradition by writers. It reminds one of two vicious male creates, cobras perhaps, carefully dancing around each other, trying to avoid a fight or get the best position should one begin.
We can feel the same gravity in this standoff, Heinlein himself almost certainly drawing from the Western genre. He understands "the drama is one of self-restraint: the moment of violence must come in its own time and according to its special laws, or else it is valueless.” His honor culture would be immediately familiar to readers in the 1940s and later.
Both men, knowing it was an accident and not desirous of violence, resolve the matter peacefully. Note how Hamilton apologizes first, even as the other man’s hand hovers near his weapon. The other man asks for confirmation before accepting, his eyes still hard with skepticism. Once assured that it was nothing more than a mortifying mistake, the matter drops. But why are the ritualistic aspects of the exchange necessary? The drunk answers that question.
The drunk, totally unrelated to the party who experienced the unexpected crab leg cocktail, is unsatisfied with the outcome. His first comment “Where is your brassard?” refers to the “brassard of peace,” an armband for those that are “armed but immune to attack;” those that don’t wish to fight. The drunk called Hamilton a coward because he apologized rather than escalate the situation into a fight. Hamilton doesn’t match up to the expectation of the drunk man and alcohol made suggesting this seem like a good idea.
The ritualistic settlement of the offense is part of the honor culture of Heinlein’s world. Dueling has class and so the words that go before, or in lieu of, the act must be classy as well. Glib apologizes or excuses lack decorum and may be mistaken as insincere, compounding the insult if unmeant or failing to communicate the sincerity of the apology. The offended party cannot easily dismiss the matter for fear of looking like he was unwilling to defend his honor with his life. Both parties must be clear in what they mean and satisfy each other that ill-intent was lacking and their remorse is genuine. The exchange also shows the watching crowd that both men take their custom of honor and the rules that go with it seriously. To do less would be to prove oneself uncouth or a coward, unfit as to be a gentleman and invite ridicule.
Even though the men peacefully cleared things up, the drunk felt that Hamilton was a coward. He could have easily challenged the other man for not killing Hamilton, but of course the latter was the one who lost the crab leg. The drunk’s suggestion that Hamilton ought eat in private shows the drunk’s inner conviction that Hamilton is not a gentleman, as the drunk considers himself to be.
Hamilton’s apology factors into this as the drunk assumes what was indeed just an apology for an accident is actually cowardice. The drunk would not have lost his grip on the crab leg and even if wrong, wouldn’t back down from a fight. To his credit, the drunk does not back down and gets shot for his trouble.
The ritual of formalities of the first encounter is intended partially to prevent gunplay. Seeing the matter of honor first acknowledged, then properly addressed, and ultimately resolved in the acceptable way, custom was upheld. Honor and appearances were maintained.
Neither man appears like a coward or insincere. Tradition and culture receive its homage. Society is not scandalized by two men flaunting the rules of gentlemanly behavior. The only casualties were a wet dress, a cocktail, and a crab leg. Had the drunk not been in that condition, he would have realized that no offense was intended, the matter trivial, the issue resolved properly, and kept his feelings to himself.
Besides the negatives of rampant gunfights, death, and injury is that trivializing combat provides an excuse for troublemakers to invent excuses to kill. Legends of the Wild West are replete with stories of bullies provoking men into fighting. Perhaps Heinlein’s drunk wanted to fight and the alcohol made him think this was a good opportunity. Such a culture as this could easily lead to a monopoly on violence where bullies might go around paying lip service to the law to incite barely justifiable grounds to duel.
The Wild West
The attitude of Old West and the South is summed up by John Wayne, as J. B. Brooks in The Shootist: “I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” Brooks was known as a shootist because he killed men. In the Old West, killing a man who had it coming carried little, if any, stigma and was not discouraged, if almost encouraged, by societal expectations. As in Beyond, in the West and the South, personal offenses to honor, life threatening or not, were affairs men frequently killed over, though not nearly as often as Westerns would have one believe.
These peculiar places in American history bear a striking resemblance to the world that Heinlein has constructed. “American men, especially southerners and frontiersmen, were […] touchy about personal honor, which they were inclined to defend by violent means.”  The fights of the average Southerner or frontiersman was nothing at all like the elite’s duels or Heinlein’s rituals. Yet the underlying attitudes that fighting was a convenient way to settle matters was pervasive.
However, in the past of our world, those killed in this kind of violence were not ones who were usually missed. Theodore Roosevelt opined that “Generally every one is heartily glad to hear of the death of either of the contestants, and the only regret is that the other survives.” Men of high social status or wealth in the west didn’t fight like this, the same way today’s elite settles matters in the media or via lawsuit. You will never see Mayor Bloomberg and President Trump squaring off like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
Heinlein’s culture was similar to elite Southern culture, where a failure to defend one’s honor or accept the challenge to duel, was humiliating and cowardly. In the author’s world, good manners can go a long way to making a duel an unnecessary thing, still the boorish and low-class factors remain. What is there to stop a drunk or man with nothing to lose from challenging a man who would rather not fight to a duel? Good thing that the novel’s Hamilton was a crack shot.
In reality, our society came to the conclusion that some things weren’t dying over. Society lost its tolerance for easy killing and this is what began to reverse the high rates of homicide across the county, primarily in the west. Concealed weapon laws were first instituted to curb honor violence (when racism wasn’t the factor) because far too many men were shooting or stabbing each other with weapons hidden on their persons. Gun control as a form of crime control has its origins going back almost two hundred years, and really reached a fever pitch between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century.
Much debate has raged over the exact impact that dueling played in these laws. Rather than looking at dueling, we have to look at the broader culture. Even as dueling was outlaws, personal violence over matters of honor continued to rage, but turned from formal events to sudden brawls. In this respect, nothing has changed over time. Rather through the lens of history, the formal duel was simply a high-visibility and formalized aspect of human violence.
I contend that society began to chance and become less violent as both opportunities for violence decreased and legal culture changed. Some scholars would call this the civilizing effect, be it increased responsibilities in the form of marriage, a family, or steady employment. While I think not being a single man in a frontier camp full of men would tend to reduce violence, the other major cause to decrease homicide was a lack of social tolerance.
Women coming west would not appreciate their husbands fighting and killing each other; condoning this could mean the loss of companionship and the loss of financial support if someone is killed, jailed, or hung. As men gained more responsibilities, the risks of fighting became higher. If a man with responsibilities wouldn’t fight, he is going to be more likely to disapprove of others fighting over silly things. In time, the attitude of society is transformed into on that is intolerant of honor violence.
One way to test this hypothesis would be to examine the rise of justifiable homicide laws and jury instructions. From a cursory survey, concealed weapon laws tend to predate laws governing self-defense and justifiable homicide. It was as if lawmakers were experimenting with what solutions to use. In this sense, the experiment of gun control as violence control failed well over one hundred years ago.
Another test would be to correlate homicide rates with the circumstances of each murder. Was it spontaneous violence stemming from an insult? A long-running feud? Or was it a spree killing or for some other form of gain? I theorize that we would see a decrease in impulsive killing as convictions and punishments increased. Additionally court records would support less acquittals on dubious self-defense grounds when it was clear the aggressor provoked the confrontation.
Today is the best proof that the prevalence of guns in society does not cause violence, but rather attitudes. Only in low-class urban (predominately black and Hispanic) drug and gang cultures is murder in the furtherance of honor violence endemic. For a variety of reasons those cultures seem to tolerate it or at least accept it. In America at large, more people than ever are legally packing heat. Our homicide rate is as low as it has ever been. The concealed and open carry wave that began in the late 1980s, incidentally as homicide was sky high, shows that attitudes are responsible for violence, not carrying a gun.
Heinlein’s worlds are fantasies. Science fiction often is. This literature is the airing chamber and testing ground for revolutionary ideas. It is a way for authors to explore societal changes and the effect that new technology or discoveries might have on the structure of mankind. In Beyond, we see Heinlein idolize a world where boorishness is punishable by death. We do not see his society congratulating the store owner killing a robber. We see men shooting each other over petty matters.
In today’s culture, even in an environment where many would be armed, such an incident as occurred to Hamilton in the restaurant is more likely to result in extreme embarrassment and laugher from the sheer preposterousness of a crab leg landing in a drink out of the blue. As later revealed in the story, Mordan, the first man who rises against Hamilton and the District Moderator for Genetics, turns out to be a noted quick draw. Mordan did not realize it at the time, but Hamilton was someone he was quite seriously professionally interested in, as a specimen of certain genetic qualities. In Heinlein’s own words, he explains this and his real motivation for de-escalation.
“They tried to breed the fighting spirit out of men,” Mordan went on, “without any conception of its biological usefulness. The rationalization involved the concept of Original Sin. Violence was “bad”; nonviolence was “good.”
Here Heinlein torpedoes his own hypothesis. Men are allowed to duel over matters of honor in order to overcome a lack of aggressiveness in society. Heinlein lambastes the idea that non-violence is good thing. Then the protagonists admit that fighting without something a valid reason is pointless (that begs the question from the author, what is worth fighting over?). Heinlein even states that self-interest is more important than a fighting spirit.
What kind of point was Heinlein trying to make? Obviously he is saying that valuing passivity over controlled and restrained violence is a bad thing. But in arguing this through his armed, yet polite society, he does a poor job showing how the fighting spirit should be preserved. This is a society that fights boxing to be too brutal!
The author’s bibliography shows him to be a fan of calculated violence and brutality, but for productive purposes. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein states that the purpose of the Mobile Infantry is to provide precise pressure against an opponent in order to force him into capitulating. We would call this a “surgical strike” today’s military parlance. So the author values restraint and calculated violence, but glorifies senseless attempted murder?
Heinlein partially tries to extract himself from this problem by giving most of society laser weapons that don’t usually seriously injure or kill. Okay, then why not just fight hand to hand? Science fiction is often the author’s a suggestion for an ideal society, so in a way, Heinlein can be accused of justifying gunfights today, which invariably kill. He’s trying to have it both ways.
An analogy with current technology is men going around Tasering each other because the other didn’t hold the door open for the first man’s wife. The argument seems less about encouraging casual violence as a way to maintain man’s fighting spirit (presumably so future generations of capsule troopers have enough testosterone to kill the Arachnids) than it is Heinlein thinks the world would be a better place if he could challenge and cap a rude teenager.
Few today who have uttered the iconic phrase incorrectly today would mean that they would like to wantonly kill people over a failure of manners. One of the objections I have run into over carrying a firearm, especially an openly carried one, is that some people are unable to control themselves. They know that a verbal slight can transform them into a beast who will escalate the situation even to violence. A gun in their pocket becomes a grave liability for them.
These people are wise enough to not to carry or restrain themselves when they do. Others who don’t have such easily triggered tempers are careful not to misbehave or be rude while openly carrying. One reason is optics; a rude open carrier give the practice a bad name. The second is that should discourtesy intensify to violence, the carrier could be considered a provocateur which hinders a self-defense defense in court.
At least murder and violence in reaction to rudeness is very much the exception rather than the rule. In Beyond, the legal considerations an armed citizen faces today don’t exist. Its not murder if the guy had it coming. The author’s trick of changing legal consequences with a total adjustment to what constitutes murder by altering society’s attitude towards killing is a cheap out. Decriminalizing dueling doesn’t solve the fact that dueling or permanently branding oneself a coward are the only two choices in navigating discourteousness.
Heinlein does seems to recognize the problems of his culture taking things too far. Hamilton is concerned about his genius, but socially awkward son who has a habit of correcting people.
“But when they’re wrong I have to tell them!”
Perhaps Theobald might get tired of having to defend himself against men who mistook what very well might be a form of autism and choose to reform society. Surely men who aren’t cowards, but don’t want have to fight over trivial matters to prove they aren’t cowards or etc. would get tired of wearing the brassard.
The fallacy of men simply accepting their fate as brassarded cowards is stupid and ignorant of human nature—unless aggressiveness was truly magically bred out of men, which I doubt, as choosing the brassard or a gun is a choice. In Starship Troopers Heinlein writes that the disenfranchised civilians never rebelled over the veterans because, though they may be dissatisfied, they are not aggressive (else they would have signed up for federal service).
Once again, I challenge Heinlein’s ideas towards the subservience of men as ignorant of reality. Even enough dissatisfaction, the desperate will acquire aggressiveness through that desperation and revolt against the prevailing order. Eventually, the men in brassards will become tired of being accused of being cowards and will no longer tolerate the existing order and change it. We did this via legal means to curb violence more than a century ago. The shop owner who fought in the Civil War, but refrained from killing his hecklers in the bar, and condemned the bully to hang, was not a coward because he turned the other cheek.
Some might argue that social perception of weakness is all important, as we saw with Southern culture. So why couldn’t Heinlein’s world take a fatalistic attitude towards things and just go with it? In the literary analysis sense, the author is being naïve. Again I will argue that as society sees needless losses over pointless violence, the perceptions of a restrained man as weak will change or that society will be or remain disorganized, weak, and unproductive.
Perhaps this whole book, published in 1942, was a reaction to American isolationism before its entry into WWII, appeasement of Hitler, and the attempt to “end war.” Maybe Heinlein was lamenting the death of the world of his grandfather and indulging his fantasy of plugging rude people. It could be an allegory for the world needing to have the willingness to stand up for itself and peace in the world against small, angry European nations. I’m not sure. We’re really just looking at the iconic quote here.
The 1930s and 1940s were a domestically peaceful time, bootlegging aside. Homicide rates were falling to their lowest in ages, not to be that low until the end of the century. Handgun ownership and especially carry was nearly demonized. In 1934, Congress almost put handguns in the National Firearms Act with machine guns. Perhaps Heinlein was mourning a culture that was able and willing to defend itself.
I’d like to think that in this day and age, Heinlein would be preaching about the virtues of self-defense. Maybe Hamilton would have valiantly defending himself against a mugger after leaving dinner with the reactions of his compatriots supporting the decision to carry for self-protection. Instead I think Heinlein mistook the stories and history of the Old West for something it wasn’t and glorified gunfighting.
In conclusion, an armed society isn’t a polite society, it’s one where crime is risk to criminals, which in turn dissuades them from crime. Dr. John Lott, Jr.’s work has shown that an armed citizenry is a deterrent to crime and does not increase the rate of violence. So let’s think up a better way to say carrying guns isn’t a bad thing, maybe “An armed society is a safer society.”
 Heinlein, Robert A. Beyond This Horizon. Baen (2011 ed.). 1942. pp. 217-218
 Heinlein. [Ibid.] pp. 14-16
 I concede that such excessively polite and formal language, seen elsewhere in fiction, may be the author’s exaggeration for literary effect.
 Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. 1962. pp. 89-105 in Mottram, Eric. “'The Persuasive Lips': Men and Guns in America, the West.” Journal of American Studies. Vol. 10, No. 1. Apr. 1976. pp. 77
 Heinlein. [Ibid.] pp. 17
 Courtwright, David T. Violent Land. Harvard University Press. 1998. pp. 3
 Roosevelt, Theodore. Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. 1888. http://www.bartleby.com/54/ Ch. 6, Frontier Types
 Heinlein. [Ibid.] pp. 31-32
 Heinlein. [Ibid.] pp. 200