The Second Amendment: A Q&A With MGA’s Dr. Chris Lawrence

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2023 1:00 AM
Categories: School of Education and Behavioral Sciences | Faculty/Staff | Pressroom

Macon, GA

Dr. Chris Lawrence

Ratified in 1791 along with nine other articles of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a controversial topic for millions of Americans. The Second Amendment is brief – one sentence with only 27 words:

“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.”

Exactly what the Founders meant by the amendment’s language and how that applies to contemporary American society have been hotly debated for years. Some individuals and groups call for stricter gun control measures, while others advocate for the preservation of their Second Amendment rights as they interpret them.

We asked Dr. Christopher Lawrence, chair of MGA’s Department of Political Science, to discuss this complex topic.

In your view, what is the original meaning of the Second Amendment, and how has it been interpreted over time?

I think to understand the Second Amendment, and the Bill of Rights more generally, you have to understand the context in which it was written. Originally, James Madison and other supporters of the new Constitution didn’t think a Bill of Rights was needed, as they argued the powers of the new federal government wouldn’t be expansive enough to threaten individual rights and liberties, but they promised to add a Bill of Rights to the proposed Constitution in order to secure its ratification. So Madison drew on several existing sources, including existing common law, state laws and constitutions, the Magna Carta, and a 1689 British law we today call the “English Bill of Rights,” in writing the proposed amendments that ultimately became the American Bill of Rights. One of those rights was that the king’s subjects “may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law,” which by the time of the American Revolution a century later was a right understood to extend to most or all of the freedmen of the colonies.

My personal belief is that Madison’s intent in the Bill of Rights was to codify the individual rights of Americans as he saw them at the time, including the somewhat limited right to keep and bear arms for personal defense that appeared in the English Bill of Rights, along with a broader authority for the states to maintain militias for the common defense derived from the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.

For much of the history of the United States, however, the Second Amendment didn’t have much practical bearing on the right to keep and bear arms, as the federal government made little effort to control guns; up until the 20th century, most regulation including the regulation of firearms was very much a state-exclusive matter.

When people did challenge state regulations of guns as violating the Second Amendment, as was the case after the Civil War when several southern states imposed Black Codes that made it illegal for freed slaves to keep and bear arms, the amendment was interpreted by the courts as not being applicable to the state governments at all (which was consistent with how all of the Bill of Rights was interpreted at the time, as being a restriction only on the powers of the federal government). Later when, in response to violence associated with Prohibition, the federal government sought to regulate machine guns, the courts allowed those regulations, interpreting the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment as a restrictive one—in other words, that there was only a right to bear arms to the extent it was connected with militia service.

This position was largely unchallenged until relatively recently, but in 2008 the Supreme Court ruled in D.C. v. Heller that the Second Amendment did protect, at least to some extent, an individual right to keep and bear arms against federal intrusion; two years later, the Supreme Court extended that ruling to apply to state and local governments in McDonald v. Chicago, making the Second Amendment one of the last parts of the Bill of Rights to be interpreted as applying also to the states. In those cases, though, the Court did make clear that just because there was an individual right to keep and bear arms did not mean that right was not an unlimited one.

By way of analogy, the First Amendment on the surface would appear to allow virtually unlimited freedom of expression, yet the courts have also ruled that governments can place “reasonable time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech, and some forms of expression like obscenity and libel are not protected by the Constitution.

Should the Second Amendment be interpreted as an individual right to bear arms, or as a collective right for the purpose of maintaining a well-regulated militia?

As I discussed above, my opinion is that the Second Amendment is intended to protect both an individual (but not unlimited) right to bear arms for personal defense along with the collective right (or power) of the states to maintain militias for the common defense. I don’t think there is enough to the “well-regulated militia” clause to truly make it a restrictive clause in a legal sense, and Madison was a skilled enough lawyer and writer that if he wanted to write it to be a restrictive clause, he would have.

There is a huge divide about whether the Second Amendment protects the right to own and carry all types of firearms, including weapons such as assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. What are some of the reasons that Americans, especially political leaders, draw very different conclusions about the meaning of the Second Amendment?

Neither the Heller or McDonald decisions went so far as to argue that there was a right to own and carry any firearm of one’s choice. Fundamentally I think the disagreement among Americans revolves around the question of the correct balance to strike between safety and freedom.

Those Americans who do not own guns would not be giving up anything if they were more heavily regulated, and so to them further regulating or even banning private gun ownership would be an acceptable cost if it even somewhat reduced gun violence.

Many of those Americans who do own guns have observed that in other countries around the world, further regulation of guns has been a precursor to most or nearly all law-abiding citizens having to give up their firearms, and they perceive even relatively limited regulations as part of a slippery slope down the path to making it impractical or impossible for the vast majority of law-abiding citizens to own most guns, as has been the case in other predominantly English-speaking countries that relatively recently imposed restrictions on firearms. They’re not convinced that further regulation would take enough guns out of circulation to radically reduce gun violence, particularly mass shootings. At the same time I do not think gun rights supporters appreciate the degree to which their views have increasingly become out of step with those of a majority of the public.

What is the relationship between the Second Amendment and the concept of gun culture, and how does this influence public opinion and policy decisions?

I think the Second Amendment functions as a rallying point for gun culture, in the sense that it provides a bedrock foundation for guns in the broader political culture of the country. I also think both sides in the gun debate have unrealistic expectations about their ability to get their way over the long term.

For gun rights supporters, their preferred interpretation of the Second Amendment depends on a 6–3 Supreme Court majority that may not persist, and a future liberal court will certainly interpret Heller as allowing for far more extensive gun control than the conservative majority has permitted (although the court has declined to overturn quite a few federal and state gun regulations over the past decade), if not overturning it entirely.

For those who want more gun regulations, widespread noncompliance with any effort to confiscate firearms is virtually inevitable (particularly given many state and local governments would refuse to cooperate in implementation), and thus regulation is unlikely to have as dramatic an effect on gun violence as advocates might believe or hope based on other countries’ experiences.

While there could be potential common ground on harm-reduction strategies I do not think there is sufficient trust on either side of the debate to make much progress.


Dr. Chris Lawrence has been a professor at MGA since 2012, after teaching at several other colleges and universities. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of American and comparative politics, including legislative politics, public opinion, and voting behavior. After growing up in a military family, he earned his B.A. in political science in 1998 from the University of Memphis and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Mississippi in 2003.