TCS Daily

One Man's 'Deadly Weapon'...

By Robert McHenry - June 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Once upon a time my wife and I moved from Chicago to Scottsdale, Ariz.. Not long after settling into a new house, I sought out the nearest branch of the local public library to procure a library card. You will know much about Scottsdale when I tell you that the three branches are named Arabian, Mustang, and Palomino. Scottsdale is a "Western" town, in the sense of fringed buckskin outfits, ornately tooled boots, and as much silver and turquoise on the tack as on the cowgirls.

On the door of the library was a sign reading

        "No deadly weapons in building"

This gave me pause. In Arizona it is legal to carry a concealed handgun, and that right is vigorously defended and, so far as I can guess, widely practiced. I try to see my biases for what they are and keep them in check, but nonetheless I confess that I have reservations about being within rifle shot of at least some of the people who might be walking about with six-shooters under their ponchos. One of those reservations is to wonder whether that sort of person would be deterred by that sign. Would he (or she, I suppose), having decided to begin with to go armed to the library and then concealed the thing somewhere about his person, actually stop and disarm before entering? Neither outside nor inside the library did I see any sign of where one might deposit one's weapon before browsing in the stacks or settling into the periodicals room.

Consequently my imagination conjured up a scene in which some fellow citizen and I reach for Critique of Pure Reason at the same time. There is an awkward pause, a fraught silence. He squints at me like Lee Van Cleef. "Drop the book, greenhorn," he whispers, his hand making that barely perceptible move toward his belt, "and back away reeeeaal easy-like." I comply, feeling like the grocer in Tombstone.

Yes, yes, it was the fevered fancy of a dude, something out of "City Slickers." People like me shouldn't try to live among truly free men. We've been urbanized into mice.

Inside the library, behind that sign, there is a considerable body of literature, both fictional and polemical, that argues both sides of the issue. I'm ambivalent. There's a Robert Heinlein tale in which those who choose to go about armed wear a brassard signifying the fact, and legal gunfights may break out at any time over matters large or trivial. The book argues that the mere knowledge that this is the case enforces a generally high standard of deportment. While acknowledging the tough-mindedness of this view, I can't help hoping that we can one day work out how to have a civilization that doesn't depend on the threat of the ultimate incivility.

And surely it's ironic that these books putting the case for an armed citizenry should be deposited in a building that I'm now, as I never have been before, a bit hesitant to enter? How then am I to be persuaded?

This brings me to a second thought. "No deadly weapons in building" is presumably meant to be read as a condensed form of "It is not permitted to bring deadly weapons into this building." But this is ambiguous in its compression. It might just as well expand to "There are no deadly weapons in the building." This flies in the face of centuries of pieties about the power of literature. Are we or are we not prepared to back the claim that at least some of those books in the library are at least potentially deadly, to prejudice and convention if not to living beings? De revolutionibus orbium coelestium suggests itself (Galileo read it, and look what almost happened to him), or The Prince, or the Communist Manifesto, or Uncle Tom's Cabin, not to mention sundry writings of Luther, Voltaire, Mao, and a dozen others.

In short, is the pen mightier than the sword, or isn't it? Or does the thought of real cold steel in the belt of that twitchy fellow over by the reference books chill the life out of the adage?

Among the many questions I am left with are these: Ought I to have faced down Jack Palance, or whoever it was? Was he packing, or just running a bluff? And do I really want to tackle Kant again, at my age?

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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