There is a saying that ‘An armed society is a polite society.’ This is notably, demonstrably untrue. Elizabethan England was an armed society and even a cursory glance through ‘The Elizabethan Journals’ will reveal that it was anything but polite. Modern Somalia is far from being a polite society, and America is certainly not a polite society.

OK, so not more polite- but is it safer? Yes and no. Only a vanishingly small percentage of the guns in America are ever used in a crime. Despite a rash of ‘spree killings’ and single-incident mass-shootings America experiences less violent crime per capita than it has in many decades according to law enforcement reporting- which is more comprehensive than it was at any other point in history. I do not attribute this to the presence of firearms, BTW, but it’s difficult to estimate the net effect of the presence of civilian-owned weapons. Most instances of armed self-defense do not involve injury and are never reported. Contrary to this a vastly higher percentage of the instances of criminal use of a weapon are reported (excepting rape and domestic abuse.)

For much of my adult life I possessed a carry permit and often actually carried a gun. In that time there were two instances (as a civilian) where producing a weapon ended the situation without violence.  That is the most common result of such encounters, and like most people I didn’t bother to report them.

What stands out in my mind though was an incident of armed self-defense that occurred when I was actually unarmed.  It was winter, and I was wearing a jacket partially zipped up and was generally respectable-looking. I am a large man who carries himself with confidence and I appear physically competent- exactly the sort of person that street criminals typically avoid.

I had met a friend in Pioneer Square one Friday evening and was returning to my car, which was parked under the Alaskan Way Viaduct. This area is dark and untenanted in the evening except for people like me returning to their car.  I was walking along a row of parked cars when I saw a group of five boisterous young men approaching from the opposite direction. They were dressed in hoodies and ragged jeans- typical ‘street’ attire for urban toughs. They suddenly turned and began to cross the street directly towards me and I reflexively ‘cleared my coat;’ meaning that I unzipped it and swept it back slightly as one would to prepare to draw a weapon.

The effect was electric- it was like the young men bounced off an invisible wall in mid-street and immediately turned away and went about their business. They had obviously recognized the gesture and knew what it meant; that fact alone means they almost certainly had some criminal intent. It might have been a strong-arm robbery, and armed robbery or a beat-down but we’ll never know now.

Yes, I was unarmed. But we live in an armed society, and they knew that there was a chance that I was carrying a gun. When my gesture confirmed (to them at least) that I was they were instantly deterred. Naturally I did not report this incident- I mean really, there was nothing to report. But this was an instance of effective self-defense that was only possible because a civilian might reasonably be carrying a weapon. One has to wonder how often incidents like this occur, where crime is deterred by the mere possibility that the prospective victim might be armed.

Is this an isolated incident? No.

A friend– we’ll call her Susie– does not care for firearms and will probably never own one. One evening she came home from work at dusk. The house was dim, but it was still bright outside so when she opened her front door she was silhouetted in the doorway. Down the hall she could see a man approaching her from her bedroom with a box of her stuff in his hands. Realizing that he could not see her clearly she raised both hands before her and spot-lighted him with the laser attached to her keychain (that she normally used to play with her cat) and commanded him to ‘Freeze!’ He did- these days everyone knows what a red dot means! She made him put the box down and call the police to report that he was a burglar being held at gunpoint, and would they please come get him? They did, and she was safe. Again, this was effectively armed self defense even though she had no weapon. It was only possible because it was believable to the suspect that a civilian might be armed.

Interviews with felons convicted of violent crime indicate that these criminals are far more concerned about running into an armed civilian than they are about an encounter with the police. They know the rules and conditions under which the police will generally fire. An armed civilian? In their minds all bets are off.

These are two instances where living in an armed society was a positive defense and prevented- or ended- a crime. They come from my own small circle of acquaintance; what are the odds that these events are that unusual given the very small sample group they are derived from?

An armed society is manifestly not necessarily a polite one- but America may be safer as an armed society than it might be otherwise.

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