Does the Second Amendment cause people to take matters into their own hands?

Co-authored with Dan Bartels

A small Church in Gainesville, FL recently planned to burn Qurans as part of a protest against “the radical element of Islam.” The burning was to be conducted on September 11, 2010. In response to public and government outcry, the Church’s Pastor called off the protest.

Terry Jones, Pastor. How would you stop this man?

Prior to the Pastor’s decision to relent, we ran a brief study with several undergraduate classes (N = 135). After presenting a brief description of the situation to the students, we asked them two questions:

Is it morally wrong for the Church to burn the Qurans? (yes/no)

Should someone stop this from happening – even if it means taking matters into their own hands? (seven point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree)

Some respondents (based on random assignment) were also reminded that the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect the Church’s behavior, and we presented the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Although respondents were slightly less likely to call the behavior morally wrong after reading the First Amendment (82%) than those in the control condition (who saw no amendment; 89%), they were not more likely to endorse the statement that someone should take matters into their own hands (M’s = 3.6 vs. 3.8, respectively).

An interesting effect, however, emerged when we included the First and Second Amendment in the reminder for third group of students:

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.

Respondents who also read the Second Amendment were just as likely to say the behavior was morally wrong (82%), but they were significantly more likely to endorse the idea that someone should take “matters into their own hands” (M = 4.3).

That is an interesting finding, but what is unclear is what is causing the effect. We put the question to the Moral Research Lab (MoRL) and two ideas emerged from the discussion.

The Aggression Hypothesis

The first idea is that reading the Second Amendment makes people more aggressive in general. Classic research in social psychology has found, for instance, that the presence of a gun in a room (even if it is just sitting on a table) makes people act in more aggressive ways. So it may be the case that thinking about guns similarly makes people more aggressive and more likely to endorse the idea of taking matters into their own hands.

Feeling aggressive?

The Action Hypothesis

The second idea is that the presence of the Second Amendment changes people’s preferences for action itself. Militias exist to exert their will to change things, be it to protect their rights by counteracting the constraints someone else imposes on them (e.g., British occupation) or, in more extreme cases, to forcibly overthrow a sitting government. In any case, thinking about a group of people armed to the teeth might make the idea of forcibly departing from the status quo (do nothing) a more accessible or more viable an option.

Would you be the hero?


So, what do you think of the hypotheses?  What is the next study should we run?