Spring 2014 Richard Legum, Ph.D.
We began the semester with a discussion of morality of Gun Control. In the aftermath of the mass
killing of young children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, gun control
advocates once again began a push to have the government ban the ownership of weapons like those
used to kill the students and teachers. Before turning to the moral questions up for discussion related to
gun control, I think that it would be helpful to clarify some of the facts, so that we can address the moral
arguments without getting into the quagmire of debates on facts about firearms and people who use
them to commit murders and mass murders.
Facts About the Attacker and the Weapons Used:
Let me recount some relevant facts about the perpetrator, the circumstances surrounding the
killings, and weapons employed in this tragic crime to ensure that in our discussion of the morality of
gun control we get the facts straight about the weapons that advocates are proposing to control (and
not proposing to control):
1. This heinous crime was committed by a 20 year old male, Adam Lanza, who, it is alleged, was
suffering from some significant mental issues.
2. The killer had murdered his mother earlier the same day, before perpetrating the mass killing at
Sandy Hook Elementary School.
3. The rifle used in the Sandy Hood killing was
a. A Bushmaster XM-15-ES2 rifle (an “AR-15” – the civilian model of the M-16 rifle which is the
standard weapon used by US army soldiers. Weapons such as this are referred to as assault
weapons, as a result of the fact that they are versions of weapons designed for military use
that are modified for use by civilians).
b. This weapon is not an automatic weapon. An automatic weapon is a weapon that will fire a
continuous stream of multiple bullets when the trigger is pulled and held engaged. The
weapon is a sem-automatic weapon. Semi-automatic weapons automatically reload after
each bullet is fired. Thus, someone can fire bullets rapidly, one after another, simple by
pulling the trigger one time after another. This means that someone may fire as many
bullets as are held in a magazine one after another, by pulling the trigger as many times as
the shooter had bullets in the magazine.
Most modern handguns are semi-automatic weapons. In fact, the handguns used in the
wild west (sometimes called six shooter for the six bullets that they held in the revilving
chamber) were semi-automatic.
The limit to the number of bullets that can be fired in a row in a semi-automatic weapon is
determined by the number of bullets held in its magazine. Infantry soldiers in the US
typically use magazine that hold 20 bullets in their M-16 Assault Rifles. Other armies using
the M-16 (e.g., the Israeli Defense Forces) use magazines that hold 30 bullets.
Many hinting rifles, which holding their bullets in a magazine, are not semi-automatic. This
means that in between shot, a shooter must pull back on a handle referred to as the bolt,
after firing one shot and before being able to fire another. Military sniper rifles are often
“bolt action” rifles. President Kennedy was killed by an assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, who
used a “bold action” hunting rifle. Oswald learned to shoot when serving in the US Marine
c. The AR-15 rifle that Lanza used was legally owned by his mother
d. Lanza was carrying two semi-automatic hand guns on his person when he committed the
murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The Moral Question of Additional Gun Control
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings had an emotional effect on the citizens of the
United States. Everyone, both gun control advocates and opponents, were saddened by this
incident. Gun control advocates, including President Obama, used this tragedy to once again try to
convince the US population of the moral need to pass tighter gun control laws. There are a
tremendous number of alternatives gun control proposal that range from banning certain weapons,
to pre-screening purchasers of weapons, to registering all weapon, and to keeping a national
database of gun owners. Trying to deal with all these proposal will get one completely confused,
without even beginning to think about the issue of whether any, some, all or none of these
proposal ought to be adopted from the moral standpoint.
In your second paper, I would like you to address the morality of gun control from the
perspective of the theories that we have discussed this semester. In order to frame the question of
gun control in a fashion that can be dealt with from a rational moral perspective, I would like you to
consider two very specific questions:
1. Is it morally obligatory for the government (in 21st century America) to outlaw the ownership of
semi-automatic military style weapons?
2. Is it morally permissible for the government (in 21st century America) to outlaw the ownership
of semi-automatic military style weapons?
In particular, I would like you to address these two questions with respect to Utilitarianism
and Kant’s Categorical Imperative:
A. How would a defender of each of these theories answer the above two questions.
B. How would you answer these two questions? What reasons can you give for these
C. Are you appealing to Utilitarianism or Deontology (both or neither) with respect to
your answers these questions?
PHI 7400 – Ethics (Writing Intensive) 3 Richard Legum, Ph.D.
D. What does this imply about your about what is the correct moral theory is or seems
This may seem to you to be an impossible set of questions to answer. However, you do it
every day in making moral choices. If you try to figure out the ultimate answer from the start it may
very well turn out to be an undoable task. However, I am going to have you work on doable parts of
this problem one at a time. When you are done, you will be able to put it all together and discover
that you have answered this significant problem. Do NOT think that you need to come up with an
answer that you will live with for the rest of your life. You may decide at a later day (two days after
the end of the semester or forty years from now) that you did not give the correct answer. You are
allowed to change your mind. In the meantime, let’s get this assignment done part by part. Play
along with me. You will be able to finish it and do a good job.
Part 1 – Draft Due on TurnItIn at 11:59pm on Sat, May 30
(Length: 3 – 5 pages, double spaced, 12 point time new roman font)
The first part of the assignment is to write an essay in which you will explain Mill’s
Utilitarianism. To accomplish this, your essay will need to answer the following questions:
1. What is the intuition that many people share that seems to support Utilitarianism?
2. Explain the theory and how it is consistent with this intuition? (You will need to explain the Act
Utilitarianism’s criterion of morality and the terms we used in explaining it, including
Consequentialism and the consequences of actions, Hedonism, the Hedonic Calculus).
3. Explain the three objections that Mill raises to Utilitarianism and how Mill responds to each of
the objections helping to make the theory at least somewhat acceptable?
4. How would a defender of Utilitarianism answer the two questions that we have about whether
it is obligatory or permissible for the government to outlaw assault rifle? Defend your answer to
this questions. (Note: There is no right or wrong answer to this last question. Good answer to
this questions may take opposite positions on the question. What is important is how you
explain and defend your answer? You answer should show that you understand Utilitarianism.
Part 2 Draft Due on TurnItIn at 11:59pm on Sun, June 1
(Length: 2 – 5 pages, double spaced, 12 point time new roman font)
The second part of the assignment is to write an essay in which you will explain Kant’s
Deontological Moral Theory captured by the Categorical Imperative. To accomplish this, your essay
will need to answer the following questions:
1. What is the intuition that many people share that seems to support Kant’s view rather than a
2. Explain the theory and how it is consistent with this intuition? (You will need to explain the
Motive, Hypothetical versus Categorical Imperatives and moral duties, Maxims as rule of action,
Universalizability or Willing that a maxim be a universal law of morality).
3. Explain how Kant’s theory accounts for certain moral intuitions that Utilitarianism cannot
4. How would a defender of Kant’s Categorical Imperative answer the two questions that we have
about whether it is obligatory or permissible for the government to outlaw assault rifle? Defend
your answer to this questions. (Note: There is no right or wrong answer to this last question.
Good answer to this questions may take opposite positions on the question. What is important
is how you explain and defend your answer? You answer should show that you understand
Kant’s Deonotological Moral Theory.
Part 3 – Draft Due on TurnItIn at 11:59pm on Tue, June 3
(Length: 1 – 3 pages, double spaced, 12 point time new roman font)
Write an essay in which you explain and defend your position on gun control by answering
the following questions:
1. What is your answer the questions of whether it is permissible or obligatory for the government
to outlaw assault weapons?
2. What reasons would you cite to convince a friend who is undecided or disagrees with you on
3. Is your view a Utilitarian view? Is it a Deontological view? Does it have elements of either or
5. Does this tell you that one of these moral theories is right? Are both wrong? What is the correct
theory or what elements will it have?
Final Version – Due on TurnItIn at 11:59pm on Tue, June 10
For your final paper, you will write an introduction explaining what you are doing in the paper.
This will be followed with revisions based on the comments that were provided for each of the three
parts that you have already drafted. It will be ended with a conclusion summarizing with what you
did in the paper and any general conclusions.