A community right we can well do without
In the United States the right to bear arms has produced a gun culture so widespread that there are now three times as many stores selling guns as selling groceries, regulation so weak that the most powerful assault weapons are permitted, and a gun lobby so powerful that eight US presidents have been members of the National Rifle Association.
And it has produced once again a distressing tale of murdered children and teachers, traumatised friends, and stricken families.
It all looked so very different when the Founding Fathers passed the Second Amendment in 1791. Their goal was intensely idealistic: to eradicate the possibility of war and to lay the foundation for liberty and peace.
A centralised standing army, they believed, would always become an instrument of internal oppression and external aggression, would inevitably be used to perpetuate tyranny and propagate war, but would not be needed if citizens in every neighbourhood would voluntarily organise themselves into a people’s militia, for purposes of defence. And so the Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It was indeed the most revolutionary of all community rights, designed to ensure that military power would be distributed and democratised.
In England the idea was quickly adopted by the pioneer of democratic localism Thomas Spence, who is believed to have trained citizens in the use of arms in rooms above his shop in Holborn, to maintain freedom against tyranny, though never to act aggressively.
Sadly these original ideals were soon distorted. After Spence’s death, his followers formed a Society of Spencean Philanthropists. Their notion of philanthropy was not one that modern charities would necessarily recognise: they took up their weapons in an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister and all his Cabinet in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.
In the United States, the forces of centralism soon reasserted themselves, and a standing army was revived in the early nineteenth century, to provide military backing for economic growth, as westward migration of White settlers led to all-out war against American Indians. So America ended up with the worst possible outcome, armed citizens and an armed state, and the original notion of community association as a safeguard against tyranny seems somehow to have been lost along the way.
Which I suppose should remind us that, as we strive for a radical shift of power towards neighbourhoods and communities, impelled by idealism, we should be careful what we wish for, and always beware the unintended consequences.