A lot of folks know Robert Heinlein as one of the Big Names of the Golden Age of Science Fiction - from the 1930s to the 1950s. Some folks know his later, creepier stuff. And every Randian Objectivist nerdbro knows him as the guy who articulated their anarcho-libertarian power fantasies better than they ever could, from TANSTAAFL ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch") to his famous dictum on guns: An armed society is a polite society.
That's a quote from one of Heinlein's pulpier works, Beyond This Horizon, in 1942. It's gained enormous currency among gun enthusiasts since then, because it brilliantly encapsulates what might seem to be an obvious train of thought: People won't gratuitously insult, assault, or cheat someone who can kill them.
And that's too bad, for a couple of reasons.
First - and it's sad that I even have to say this - it's a bad idea in life to rely on the threat of death to make folks "respect" you. That's the behavior of punks and thugs, not the kind of people who actually do build "polite societies."
And there's ample evidence that armed societies are NOT polite. The opposite, in fact. [ETA 2022: Overwhelming, nauseating, horrifying evidence.]
In American towns like Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City - every man (and some women) went armed. Yet these were the towns that gave us the phrase "Wild West" and hundreds of Hollywood movies about gunfights. So...not exactly polite.
In 1999 in Mogadishu, the disintegrating capital of war-torn Somalia, the Red Cross estimated that the 1.3 million inhabitants owned more than a million guns. In fact, the number of civil wars across the African continent surged in the 1990s after the Cold War ended and vast stockpiles of small arms were made available to Africans at bargain prices on the international arms market.
Hell, right now, there are more guns in America than there are citizens. Do you think we're a particularly polite society?
Second...Heinlein himself didn't necessarily believe his own epigram. He scattered thought experiments throughout his early work, and they dealt with political and social ideas as much as technological ones. Space Cadet, the first Heinlein YA I ever read, referenced Plato's notion of the Ideal State. Starship Trooper [the book, not the movie] examined the nature of the right to vote. Coventry asked how a society devoted to the maximum freedom for each individual might punish an offender...and what that offense might be. And in Beyond This Horizon, the character who utters that famous maxim is a genetically superior member of a society that is based on two things absent from today's world: DNA enhancement..and dueling.
In short, Heinlein was making an argument. The last thing he would have wanted was to shut down the discussion. It was just his gift (and his curse) that his writing voice was so convincing that even basic prose gelled into epigrams.
In 1955, more than a decade after Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein wrote Tunnel in the Sky. The protagonist is scheduled to go on an Outward Bound-type survival test on another planet. He asks his military-trained sister what equipment he should take:
"Uh, Sis, what sort of gun should I carry?"And that is the attitude I tried to maintain when I owned a gun. Worked, too.
"Huh? Why the deuce do you want a gun?"
"Why, for what I might run into, of course. Wild animals and things. Deacon Matson practically said that we could expect dangerous animals."
"I doubt if he advised you to carry a gun. From his reputation, Dr. Matson is a practical man. See here, infant, on this tour you are the rabbit, trying to escape the fox. You aren't the fox."
"What do you mean?"
"Your only purpose is to stay alive. Not to be brave, not to fight, not to dominate the wilds- but just stay breathing. One time in a hundred a gun might save your life; the other ninety-nine it will just tempt you into folly. Oh, no doubt Matson would take one, and I would, too. But we are salted; we know when not to use one. But consider this. That test area is going to be crawling with trigger-happy young squirts. If one shoots you, it won't matter that you have a gun, too- because you will be dead. But if you carry a gun, it makes you feel cocky; you won't take proper cover. If you don't have one, then you'll know that you are the rabbit. You'll be careful."