Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old in Kansas City, was shot when he knocked on the wrong door while looking for his twin siblings. Twenty-year-old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed when the car she was in turned into the wrong driveway while looking for a friend. Two cheerleaders—Payton Washington, 18, and Heather Roth, 21—were shot when one of them accidentally opened the wrong door in a parking lot. Six-year-old Kinsley White, her father, and the father of a friend were shot after children went into a neighbor’s yard to retrieve a basketball that had rolled away.
All of these incidents happened in a week. In that same week, five people died and 32 others were injured in a shooting rampage at a Sweet 16 birthday party. Four men were shot when someone took offense to their painting over graffiti outside an ice cream shop. Four more were shot when an argument got heated on a residential street corner. And those are only a selection of the 14 mass shootings—those in which four or more people were wounded or killed—over that seven-day period.
The aphorism “an armed society is a polite society” is a frequently used saying among gun supporters on the right. It’s also been featured on banners, buttons, and T-shirts from the National Rifle Association. But no one ever seems to ask what it really means.
This is what it means. All of this. It means in a society with more guns than people, even the slightest provocation ends with someone getting shot.
The origin of the phrase, usually described as “a Robert Heinlein quote,” is actually the dystopian novel “Beyond This Horizon.” The antihero of his novel is a privileged product of eugenics who happily shoots people for the slightest infraction, real or perceived.
The context of the quote—which ends with the character saying, “We do not have enough things to 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”—rarely makes a T-shirt or bumper sticker. Neither does the novel’s lavish praise of eugenics, telepathic powers, and general weirdness.
But even if it were a fictional quote taken completely out of context, the saying turns out to be true, in a way. In a sufficiently armed society, any small transgression is met with bullets. America is sufficiently armed.
The shooting of Kinsley White and her family—that’s the 6-year-old who tried to chase down a basketball—illustrates this perfectly.
As reported by The Guardian, several neighborhood children were playing basketball when the ball bounced away and rolled into the yard of 25-year-old Robert Singletary. Singletary responded by screaming and cursing at the children. The ages of all the children weren’t given, but this included screaming and cursing directed toward at least one kindergarten-aged girl. In response, one of the fathers told Singletary he needed to stop yelling at children, and that if he had a problem, he needed to come over to the adults and work it out. Instead, Singletary went into his house, got a gun, came back outside, and began shooting.
Somewhere in this process, Kinsley White’s father also grabbed a gun and returned fire. Singletary unloaded at least one full clip, hitting Kinsley’s father, the father of another child present, and leaving Kinsley with bullet fragments in her cheek.
“Why did you shoot my daddy and me?” Kinsley said into the camera in an interview with a local television station. “Why did you shoot a kid’s dad?”
If you were ever a child in this country, or likely any country, you’re bound to have run into a situation like this at some point. The neighborhood asshole who yells at any kid who steps on his perfect grass, or who has some utterly nuts feelings about the inviolability of his patch of earth. The guy who, old or not, screams, “Get off my lawn!” or something worse at the first provocation. Maybe that’s the end of it. Maybe it comes down to two neighbor guys squaring off across the invisible boundary between one patch of green and the next and glaring at each other. Oh yeah? Yeah! That’s not how things work in an armed society.
As USA Today reported in March, the United States is also seeing a sharp increase in “road rage” incidents that lead to shootings. Among the more than 550 incidents last year were a man who was shot while driving kids to a birthday party when he asked another driver to slow down, and a man who was shot while driving his son home from a Little League game. As states drop requirements on concealed carry, these incidents continue to rise.
In an armed society, the perceived insult of being asked not to cuss at a child is a shooting offense. Opening someone’s car door is a shooting offense. Pulling into a driveway where the owner was tired of people using their little stretch of blacktop to turn around is a shooting offense. Asking someone to slow down is a shooting offense. Anything that might have ended with an exchange of fists, or just hot words, a raised finger behind a window, or even with one person just mumbling under their breath is a shooting offense.
That’s the point of the saying. In an armed society, you don’t dare offend anyone, at any time, about anything. Because everything, no matter how trivial, is a shooting offense.
America … is an armed society. We’ve reached that dystopia where a child fetching a basketball, or a cheerleader touching the wrong car on her way back from practice, or a kid stepping onto the wrong porch doesn’t get words or glares. It gets bullets.
Forget for a moment the big shooting sprees, those in which someone decides to show that their wonder weapon is capable of wiping out a school full of children, or a crowded nightclub, or an office packed with former coworkers. These incidents aren’t about plans drawn up by people who spent weeks making those final adjustments to their manifestos.
These are such tiny, ordinary, everyday events that they should be forgotten in a moment. That guy next door? Sorry, I don’t remember. What was his name again? Except they turn into trauma, or injury, that can last a lifetime. Or they cut that lifetime hugely short. The guy who thought you turned in front of him at the stoplight becomes the most important figure in your life, and the life of your family. Because, when you add a gun, every momentary loss of control is a murderous rage.
The incident with Singleton and Kinsley White’s father illustrates another important point: All those scenes you see on TV and movies where multiple people point at each other and no one shoots? Those. Are. Bullshit.
When two people have guns, they both shoot. Or at least one of them does. Standoffs make for good tension on screen, but people shoot and keep shooting in real life. If the second person doesn’t shoot, it’s because the first shot saw to that.
No gun on the planet is capable of generating a force field to protect the person who carries it. Guns are murder machines. It’s all they do. They may provide some form of self-defense, if your idea of self-defense is pointing a gun at someone who isn’t carrying a gun. Pointing a gun at someone who also has a gun just gets you shot.
Singletary fired. The little girl’s father fired. Three people got hit. That it wasn’t worse comes down to the fact that most people who own guns are really terrible shots, especially when more than one gun is firing.
There’s another factor in at least one of these shootings over the most everyday of events.
As the grandson of the 84-year-old man who shot Ralph Yarl for knocking at his door made clear to the Kansas City Star, his grandfather sat on a couch, soaking in Fox News and OAN constantly, immersing him in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.”
Over the last decade, that indoctrination of suspicion and anxiety drove a wedge between the shooter and his family. It also guaranteed that, when a Black teenager stepped onto his porch, that event would be viewed through a lens in which Black Lives Matters had burned down cities and the rogue armies of Antifa were being bused to every neighborhood for scenes straight out of The Purge. Take 120 million guns, stir in a thick broth of fear, add actual laws that make it just dandy to shoot someone so long as you think they need shooting. The result shouldn’t be a surprise.
Here’s what Missouri’s “stand your ground” law says about anyone who claims they killed another person because they were afraid.
…the burden shall then be on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not reasonably believe that the use of such force was necessary to defend against what he or she reasonably believed was the use or imminent use of unlawful force.
That’s not a presumption of innocence. It’s a presumption of justification in taking another life. Being afraid is the one and only requirement.
A prosecutor has to prove that the person who shot first was not afraid. Which they can’t do. Because of course the shooter was afraid. That’s not just why they shot. That’s why they had the gun in the first place.
The original dystopia of the “an armed society…” quote was one in which the slightest infraction, real or imaginary, resulted in death. That’s not just the promise of an armed society; it’s the inevitable result. But the novel missed that if you also bathed that society in a miasma of fear, such infractions as simply being Black were sufficient cause for death.
The only way to stop the smallest action from bringing the threat of death, is to stop being an armed society. There are plenty of democracies around the planet which are not. In fact, every other democracy on the planet is not. Somehow they maintain their freedoms even when they can’t shoot someone for being on their porch, touching their car, etc.
But the trouble is that the people who have the guns bought them out of fear, and now one of the things they fear is that someone might take their gun, and next up on Fox News … more things to be afraid of.
America could learn a lot from how other countries elect their leaders! Political science professor Matthew Shugart joins us on this week's episode of “The Downballot” to explain how a variety of electoral systems around the world operate, as well as his thoughts on which might work well here—and actually improve our democracy. Shugart gets into the weeds on proportional voting, single transferable vote, "decoy lists," and much more. If those terms are new to you, you'll definitely want to listen!