Armed Societies

“An armed society is a polite society.”
 — from the novel Beyond This Horizon, by Robert A. Heinlein.

I grew up reading Heinlein and I consider his work to be among my most formative influences. I still enjoy reading his work today, although I am far more critical of it now.

Heinlein’s assertion of a correlation between gun ownership and manners might have been true for the society in which he was raised, but it is certainly not true of all societies. There are many real world counterexamples: societies which are polite (Japan) yet have virtually no gun ownership, and heavily armed societies (Somalia) which we Westerners would in no way regard as “polite”.

Before I get to far into this, I’d like to say that the issue of gun ownership and gun control is not one that I spend too much energy on. I’m a “pick your battles” kind of guy, and I like to focus my efforts on issues where I feel there is some leverage (like campaign finance reform).

Gun control in the United States is pretty much a settled issue — both gun rights activists and gun control proponents are fairly adamant in their positions, and neither is likely to move the needle very much. And the various proposals floated in the last few years — like limiting magazine sizes — are fairly minor tweaks that aren’t going to have a huge effect. Yes, they might limit the damage of a mass shooting, but mass shootings are not where the vast majority of gun deaths originate from. (For the record, nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides.)

Nor am I opposed to people owning guns for things like hunting and recreation. Canada is a good example of a place where there are lots of rifles and shotguns, but relatively few handguns, and which has a much lower gun death rate (although there are many other factors involved.)

As far as owning a gun for self defense, I won’t try and stop you, but from a statistical point of view it’s actually pretty stupid — it’s many times more likely that your gun will kill you, or kill someone you love, than it will ever protect you. (If being armed makes you feel safer, I suggest pepper spray — it’s cheap, non-lethal, and doesn’t require a license.)

You’ve probably at some point in your life seen a bumper sticker that says “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” My rather snarky response to this is “I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea that only outlaws would have guns, because the number of outlaws is a tiny fraction of the number of idiots.”

Now, before you get too emotionally charged about my labeling gun owners as idiots, let me confess — I’m an idiot too. At least, when I’m frightened or angry, I can be act in ways that are pretty dumb. And this is true of most people. We’re all idiots from time to time.

This is especially true under fire — when you find yourself in a deadly crisis situation where the adrenaline is flowing and lives are on the line, unless you have been specially trained for combat you are most likely going to act stupidly. I don’t care how many hours you have spent plinking targets at the shooting range, in such a situation you are unlikely to hit what you are aiming at, assuming you bother to aim at all.

Even police, who are supposed to be trained for this, frequently get it wrong. It’s hard to train people to react well to danger, because training scenarios are at some level artificial, and you can’t actually put trainees in serious danger if you want all of them to graduate.

Another reason why people own guns is because they see gun ownership as the last line of defense of our civil liberties — a deterrent to potential tyranny, the Red Dawn scenario. While I have some sympathy with this view, I agree with Charlie Stross’s position that this represents 17th century thinking. In the 21st century victory goes not to the side with the most guns, but the side with the most cameras. The Red Dawn scenario simply doesn’t work, not unless you are willing to utterly destroy the productive capacity of a nation in your quest to control it. (Hint: slaves are not productive when it comes to making computer chips).

However, I want to get back to Heinlein’s statement, because I think there’s an interesting philosophical nugget that’s worth digging out.

Here’s my question: Why does gun ownership in different societies produce different social outcomes?

What Heinlein was trying to promulgate is a theory of distributed accountability: That in a society where everyone can hold everyone else accountable, we have an incentive to be polite and mannerly.

Imagine the following scenario: bank robber comes into a bank, whips out his pistol, and aims it at the teller. But before he has a chance to even say “hand it over”, a heroic bystander pulls out his own concealed weapon and shoots the bank robber dead. Now rewind the tape 10 seconds — the bank robber, knowing that this is the likely outcome, will supposedly think twice before robbing the bank. Result: politeness!

But as you can well imagine, there are all kinds of ways that this could go wrong. The bystander, although armed, might be unwilling to shoot a robber in cold blood. One with imperfect aim might hit the teller or one of the other bank customers. The bystander might hesitate, allowing the robber a chance to shoot first.

But there’s another failure mode that I think is more interesting: Imagine that the bank robber has a brother who is out for revenge against the vigilante hero. And this brother pays a visit to the local crime boss or warlord and says “I demand justice for my brother and my family! I want this meddling ‘hero’ to pay for what he’s done!” And the warlord says, “Sure, I’ll put my people on it. But you owe me one.”

Now rewind the tape again. Our hero, knowing that there are in fact warlords in the neighborhood and that the enterprising young bank robber is likely to have connections, thinks twice about pulling out his weapon, and instead lets the robbery proceed without his interference. Result: Politeness fail, intimidation for the win!

But this is a different kind of society than the one that Heinlein was envisioning. It’s a culture based on personal revenge rather than justice.

In a justice-based society, ordinary citizens believe that criminals will eventually be caught and punished. In such a society, people may get into gun fights, but eventually justice will prevail — there is some agency or authority that ensures that the good guys will win in the long run.

In a revenge-based society, however, there’s no such guarantee. In fact, there aren’t really any “good guys” or criminals, there are only opposing sides. The side that wins is the side that can gain tactical advantage — the strong will overcome the weak.

I would argue (and bear in mind this is all speculation and dangerously theoretical) that Heinlein’s principle could only ever operate in a justice-based society. In a revenge-based society, arming people does not lead to distributed accountability but rather distributed warfare.

Moreover, if the institutions of justice are particularly swift and efficient (not always true in the real world), there is in fact no need for ordinary citizens to be the enforcers of it, because there are professionals who can do the job much better.

In other words, Heinlein’s principle is not context-free: it depends greatly on the underlying culture. And in fact this is the problem with a lot of political theories.

So my conclusion: when it comes to armed societies, it’s really the culture, and particularly that culture’s belief in the principle of justice, that does most of the heavy lifting.

The same is true, by the way, for democracy and voting, but that’s a topic for another article.