John Locke, who was crucial to the Founders’ thinking, held that we are possessed of the inalienable right to own our bodies. From this we get the “life, liberty and pursuit of property” construction that was subtly changed in the Declaration to make more explicit the personal nature of property. And from the notion that one controls one’s body and may defend it, we get the attendant right to bear arms; you can’t defend yourself with parchment. This progressive notion that the police and armed forces should hold a monopoly on the legal violence necessary to defend each individual thus betrays both foundational and fundamental principles and the traditionally auxiliary role of law enforcement in American society. The police, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, are employees of the public and not the sole enforcers of public order. Americans who would leave the means of violence in the hands of the state and, inevitably, the criminals, would remove the means of self-defense from the one group in American life for whom the social compact was constructed: the People. This will not do.
When Thomas Jefferson drafted his constitution for Virginia, the proposed qualification that “no free man shall be debarred the use of arms” was undoubtedly designed to explain that slaves were excluded from the right. But in doing so, it betrayed something else. To found a government on the principle that “We the People” are sovereign, but then to fail to entrust those for whom the state was constructed with the means by which, as a desperate last resort, that state might be forcibly dissolved, would have been to undermine the whole edifice. “Governments” in Europe, wrote James Madison, “are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Not so America.
These ideas had a profound effect on me, ushering in the startling realization that, far from merely being a larger England, the United States had become something quite different: an incubator of lost or diluted British freedoms. As the Liberty Bell was originally cast in England, but rang out in America, so those guarantees of the “rights, liberties and immunities of free and natural-born subjects have found their truest expression across the Atlantic. “That rifle on the wall of the laborers’ cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy,” wrote George Orwell in 1941. “It is our job to see that it stays there.”
In Britain and beyond, that rifle has long been taken away. England’s bell has fallen silent. Americans would do well to ensure that the crack in theirs grows no larger.