I had the opportunity to judge and watch some debates at Minneapple this weekend and I must say that I was impressed both by the quality of argument, especially considering that for most debaters it was their first tournament on the topic.
I posted my flows here, but will review some of the major arguments and offer a number of general comments.
Depth. While there are fewer different arguments on this topic, the depth of coverage is much greater. There are for example, many more detailed debates about the workability of UBCS than there were about the workability of THAAD. Debaters really need to understand the details of the UBCs debate to prevail. It’s just not enough to have a basic understanding of the gun control debate.
Offense/Defensive. It is difficult for the Con to win offensive arguments against universal background checks. I don’t think that this is due to a lack of offensive arguments, but the simple fact that constructing them requires a lot more work, explanation, and articulation in the debate than the Pro’s offensive arguments do. For example, there is a massive body of empirical research over the impact the UBCs may have on reducing gun deaths, but there is no empirical research on how much of an impact that UBCs have on discrimination. So, teams that wish to win on the discrimination debate need to do a lot more work in the debate to explain the scope of the problem and the magnitude of the impact (as compared to potential solvency for gun deaths) that the Pro, who can rely on evidence that quantifies reductions to do that comparative work for them.
In this section, I will discuss some different Con arguments and their merits.
Commandeering. As I discussed in the intro essay, there are two ways that a federal gun control policy could be implemented/enforced – the federal government could either require the states to implement it or the federal government could implement it themselves. I judged one debate where the Con argued that the Pro was unconstitutional because it required the states to implement the law and that federal commandeering of state officials was unconstitutional (US v. Printz). The Pro didn’t know how to respond to this argument and dropped the claim that UBCs are unconstitutional because they require commandeering the states..
While the Con is correct that federal commandeering is unconstitutional, this does not mean that UBCs are unconstitutional. First, the federal government has a background check system now (it just doesn’t apply to private sales). The Pro isn’t arguing for a new background check system that is enforced by commandeering state officials. It is simply arguing for an expansion of the existing system to cover private sales. The current system does not rely on commandeering for enforcement, instead it uses federal resources to enforce. This is the same situation with immigration – the federal government cannot require the states to enforce federal immigration law, but the feds can enforce federal immigration law, which is why we have ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Second, it’s not even clear that the UBCs have to be enacted by the federal government. As I explained in the first essay, the resolution merely says, “The United States.” There is a lot of evidence that says the “United States” refers to the state governments.
7 U.S. Code § 7702 – Definitions, Accessed June 11th 2014, http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/7/770
(20) United States The term “United States” means all of the States.
Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965,
As Amended (“PWEDA”), Accessed June 11th 2014, http://www.commerce.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2012/january/eda_pweda_042310_0.pdf
(11) UNITED STATES.– The term ‘United States’ means all of the States.
PUBLIC LAW 106–224—JUNE 20, 2000, http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/plant_pest_info/weeds/downloads/PPAText.pdf
(20) UNITED STATES.—The term ‘‘United States’’ means all of the States.
So, the Pro can advocate for the states implementing UBCs, which makes sense since 17 have already done so. Anyhow, I don’t think this is a very good argument, but unless you understand some of the basics as to how UBCS can be implemented, you’ll lose to this. Basically, just don’t argue your plan would be implemented in an unconstitutional way..
Constitutionality good. As I predicted, very few people are arguing about constitutionality, but I’m sort of shocked that when they do (and I think it can be useful in some instances) that they are unable to explain why the Constitution is a good thing and that the government shouldn’t violate it. Most Pro’s respond to arguments about constitutionality by explaining that the Constitution is just some “old thing,” and that we should default to a crass utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number. In other words, they say, it is better to save five lives than worry about the constitution.
Perhaps I’m old, but there is near universal agreement in society that we should not violate the Constitution. It is, after all the, “supreme law of the land,” our “social contract.” One Pro debater answering it, said, it’s only the “foundation of the Democratic Republic.” Beyond that, think of the practical consequences. If the government could violate the Constitution every time it was trying to save lives, it could just walk into your house any time they might suspect (rightly or wrongly) criminal activity (a violation of the Fourth Amendment). They could suppress all anti-government free speech on the grounds that it might incite violence (a violation of the First Amendment). They could get rid of the Sixth Amendment, right to counsel, because a criminal might be able to get himself off a charge if s/he had a lawyer. They could just take away all guns from everybody (violation of the Second Amendment). The fact is, such an approach is tyrannical and completely relies on the government to function as some form of benevolent dictatorship where the government only does good things when it violates what we believe are our rights. Since we don’t trust the government to do this, we rely on the protection of individual rights and have a Constitution that both empowers the government and limits its authority.
I do think it is hard to win link to constitutionality on the Con, but if you win it, you should never lose the impact.
Purchase spikes. This argument. claims that if UBC legislation passes that there will be a spike in gun purchases. This is probably a fact, as there is usually a spike in gun purchases after mass shootings, as people fear that new gun control legislation is coming. Also, when gun control legislation is passed there is usually a future date when the law goes into effect. Between the announced date and the “into effect date” there is often a spike in purchases. So, this is a reasonable argument, but there are a few problems with it.
First, all or nearly all of the potential purchasers would likely try to buy guns anyhow. It’s just that in the world of UBC legislation, they would buy them a bit faster. It’s hard to see what the impact to that is.
Second, the goal of UBCs (and any gun control law) is to reduce gun violence over the long term. A short-term spike is not a compelling reason to vote Con.
Third, it’s a silly reason not to pass UBCs, as it means that we would never ever pass any gun control legislation, as it would cause a short-term spike in sales. This leaves us with nothing to address gun violence.
Fourth, evidence the Pro reads that says that gun violence declines over time with UBCS in certain states would assume any short-term spike, as the study would cover the entire period the law is in place.
Fifth, teams can argue they are advocating the adoption of UBCS now., as in right now. If UBCs were to be adopted immediately, there would be no way for those who fear the law to spike purchases.
Sixth, we’ve just had two mass shootings in 45 days. While unlikely, it is possible that those shootings may result in the passage of stricter gun laws. Certainly it is at least reasonable for people to fear that. So any spike argument is really non-unique.
NRA Backlash. This argument is rather simple – it says that if gun control legislation passes that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will backlash. They read a few different impacts – (a) they block future gun laws and (b) they roll back existing gun laws. There are a few weaknesses to this argument.
First, it is circular. How can the impact be that they deny future gun laws? If we always didn’t pass gun laws because the NRA would backlash, there would be no gun laws in the future because we wouldn’t pass them because the NR A would backlash.
Second, the NRA is already essentially backlashing. It is very powerful now and trying to block gun control laws. This is why we need to pass UBCs.
Third, repeal arguments are pretty weak. Remember than background checks were passed in the 1990s. They haven’t been repealed. What gun laws have been repealed lately?
Fourth, last week Massachusetts passed a gun stalk ban. The NRA should be backlashing over that.
Complacency. I wrote a long essay about this in a previous post, but I want to add a few things from this weekend.
First, frequency. This argument was made a number of times, but it wasn’t super common/popular In the debates I saw, Con teams had trouble winning any uniqueness – any claim that there would be gun control absent the “complacency” that supposedly was developed as a result of UBCs. One very good team folded completely, only arguing that it would make us complacent about passing mental health care legislation, which they also didn’t have any uniqueness evidence for. The GOP is constantly trying to reverse the provision of health care, so I don’t see any reason to believe they will pass new health care legislation now.
Second, uniqueness. While I’m pretty down on the overall uniqueness to this position, I don’t think it should be completely discounted. Last week, for example, Massachusetts passed a ban on bump stalks. So, I think it is possible for the Con to weave a story about some gun control measures coming in the status quo. Would UBCs stop those? Hard to say. Would they be better than UBCs? Even harder to say.
Third, turns. While these have gone out of style due to their circularity in other events, general “social movements” arguments are popular in PF debate. So, once of the turns Pro teams read to this argument is that the passage of gun control legislation will mobilize pro gun control social movements. The common reason they give is that if they think legislatures have been receptive to their desires on one issue that they will receptive on others. So, for example, movements may get excited that legislators support UBCS and now have hope that they will support bump stalk bans, increasing their mobilization efforts.
On one debate, I saw the Con read the complacency argument and then dropped the three social movements turn cards the Pro read. So, if you are going to read this argument, you have to be prepared to answer the turns.
Mental illness discrimination. This argument is a bit complex and hard to win, but I think it is one of the stronger areas for offense. I wrote about in more detail in this essay, but let me briefly explain it here. The argument is simply this: There are a very limited number of mentally people the current NICS database, which is what background checks are conducted against. In fact, the Trump administration reversed an Obama regulation that made it easier for mentally ill individuals to be placed in the database. So, the only way for the Pro to solve a significant of gun deaths (suicides or murders, including mass shootings) is to expand the number of mentally ill people in the database. If they do not do this, they cannot achieve any significant solvency. If they do expand the number of people in the database, there will be more discrimination and stigmatization against the mentally ill.
This discrimination has a few impacts. First, discrimination is wrong. Teams can read cards on this. Second, stigmatization of the mentally ill may keep people isolated from society and discourage them from seeking mental health treatment, especially if they know their name will end up in the database. If they become more socially isolated and avoid seeking mental health treatment, they may be more likely to engage in mass shootings (note: This argument needs to be coupled with other Con arguments that claim that UBCS so not significantly reduce gun access). Third, and what I think is an essential part of the argument, is that it results in a very arbitrary process for denying someone access to a gun. As I detailed in the other post, determinations of dangerousness based on mental health diagnoses are arguably incredibly flawed. So, it seems strange to use an arbitrary and discriminatory process to deny someone access to a gun, especially since the courts have ruled that gun ownership is a protected Second Amendment right. Sure, there are times when we should take guns away from people, but we should not do it in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
Racial discrimination. A number of arguments have been made as to why UBC legislation is discriminatory. The first set of arguments are similar to the mental health arguments and concern the construction of the database. The second concern the application of the UBC laws. Let’s start with the database arguments.
There are number of reasons the database is arguably discriminatory. One, Blacks are more likely to be prosecuted and imprisoned for the same crime. Therefore, they are more likely to have a criminal record and be denied a gun that whites. Two, since UBCs are likely to drive up the price of guns due to the increased transaction costs of private sales and fewer guns being on the market, and since Blacks are disproportionately poorer, this makes it more difficult for Blacks to purchase guns, which they may need in self-defense, especially since the police do not provide as strong of protection in their communities. Third, there are a lot of false positivies with background checks, meaning that sale denials often occur simply because somebody has the sane name as someone else. One team argued Blacks are more likely to have similar names and have their purchases denied.
Second, there are arguments as to why the enforcement is discriminatory – that the police will, for example, be more likely to investigate private sales and enforce the law against blacks than whites. And they note, as stated above, that Blacks are more likely to be prosecuted for the same crime as whites and spend more time in jail for it. They contend that long jail terms lead to multi generational poverty.
Third, the rhetoric of gun violence is often ant-black and that “discourse shapes reality.”
One team I argued used these arguments to shape their entire Con constructive speech.
I do think debates can won on these arguments, but there are a few things that Con teams need to keep in mind.
First, it is very difficult to quantify any increase in racism. While racism arguments are more theoretical, there is a lot of evidence that arguably supports a claim that UBCs reduce gun violence by a certain percentage. Since Pro teams can quantify the reduction in gun violence and Con teams can’t quantify the increase in racism, judges default for the Pro. I’ve seen this happen on a number of occaisions.
Second, people think it is worse to die than be discriminated against. It’s hard to argue with this on a 1:1 comparison and many judges may have had limited experience with discrimination. Moreover, discrimination arguments aren’t very common in PF, especially compared to in Policy and Lincoln-Douglas, so I think debaters and judges are less sensitive to the issues involved. Anyhow, generally, judges just don’t afford discrimination arguments the same weight that they do as death.
To overcome these two problems, I think Con debaters need to do a few things.
One, they need to very much minimize the solvency for UBCs. I don’t think this is hard and I will discuss it in the next section. In my opinion, Pro debaters are getting away with way too much in terms of how much solvency they are winning.
Two, debaters need to be able to explain the scope of the discrimination. While a limited number of people die from gun violence, any minority that wants to purchase a gun is subject to the discriminatory nature of the database. So, while at a 1:1 ratio death is probably worse than discrimination, it’s not so obviously when it becomes 1,000:1, 2000:1, etc.
Three, debaters should read material impacts to discrimination. Discrimination isn’t just bad because people feel bad. It is bad because if they end up in prison then their families, particularly, their children suffer. This often leads to multi-generational poverty. Poverty kills and, therefore, discrimination kills.
Four, there are strong moral considerations. Yes, you can read the Memi card, but explain it. One team argued that “should” in the resolution implies morality and that the advocacy should not do harm. It’s a pretty basic argument, but it was not responded to by the other team.
Five, although you can’t have an explicit counterplan, suggest that we should try some non-racist approaches to combatting gun violence.
Six, read a Second Amendment impact. Some judges are not sensitive to discrimination claims (perhaps they never experienced it), but many are very sensitive to Second Amendment rights – don’t take away my gun. So, like with mental health care, explain that the UBC process is a very arbitrary and discriminatory way to deny people gun rights. Gun rights that are protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution (see above).
So, while in general, these discrimination (mental health, race) arguments are a bit difficult to articulate, they are, frankly, the real world Con arguments. That’s why Trump overturned Obama’s mental health regulations and it’s why we don’t deny gun access to individuals on the terror watch list – because the process for individuals getting into those systems is very discriminatory and arbitrary. That discriminatory and flawed process not only has impacts unto itself, but it can result in the denial of guns to individuals who are constitutionally entitled to possess them.
Database overload. A few teams make this argument briefly but I saw one team invest their whole contention in it. The argument is that if there are more background checks that they system will become overloading resulting in delays that allow gun sales to those who would not otherwise pass the background check. (if a background check cannot be completed in three days, the sale automatically goes through). As noted by the Pro in the debate I watched, this argument overblown. First, there is no uniqueness to this argument – new individuals who do not undergo background checks and would receive them under UBCs are not receiving background checks now. So I fail to see how overloading a system that caused some people who do not currently receive a background check to not receive them would be bad. As it is, under UBCs, there would be a net increase in background checks. Second, if UBCs were expanded nation-wide and to include private sales, it seems reasonable to assume that more resources would be provided to improve the system. Third, most background checks take 2-3 minutes. How overloaded could this system become? Sure, this argument could create a small solvency deficit, but I fail to see how it is significant and why it is a turn.
Ghost guns. This argument claims that people can buy parts of guns on the internet and then self-assemble them There is no UBC legislation that subjects gun parts to background checks and it would obviously been (nearly) impossible to enforce. I think this is a pretty good argument (I haven’t done any research on it yet but it seems reasonable) but it probably should not be overblown. There aren’t that many people who can self-assemble a gun and it would obviously be risk to use a self-assembled gun in a crime.
Midterm elections. I didn’t judge a debate with this argument in it, but Poly Prep argued against my team that if UBC legislation was passed at the federal level that it would results in Democrats losing critical House and Senate seats in the next midterm elections because they are in pro gun rights areas. Losses in the Senate could make it easier to repeal Obamacare (their impact) or past a number of other policies (that are arguably bad). As I wrote in the first essay, the link evidence to this argument is very strong.
Some will argue that this “politics” disadvantage does not belong in Public Forum debate, but I fail to see the rationale for that. First, the main reason we haven’t adopted UBCs is Politics. Second, debaters are already making other politics style arguments: NRA Backlash and movements. These all deal with political and popular reaction to UBC policy. So, I’m not sure why we ignore the electoral implications of the policy. Third, this is not a political capital disadvantage that relies on Trump pushing the plan or something, it is simply the electorates’ reaction to the plan. Teams are already making arguments about how various “movements will react to the plan.
And, well, I saw another team read a couple politics arguments on the neg, though I don’t think they fully understood the arguments. First, they said UBCS would cause political polarization in Washington, reducing the influence of moderates and that moderates were generally good. They also said that rider legislation would be attached to the UBCs and that it would hurt the environment. They didn’t read any impact to that and didn’t extend it as a proper rider politics DA.
States are better. I didn’t see this argument read at Minneapple, but I heard it was popular at Blue Key. The basic argument is that it is better to let the states adopt UBCS and other gun control measures and that they are headed in that direction now. A few answers —
One, as noted above, Pro teams can argue that the states are the “United States” and that the word “federal” is not in the resolution.
Two, as noted in the complacency essay, while many states are passing gun control laws, they are passing laws a 3:1 margin that make it easier for people in certain states to buy guns.
Three, teams can argue the federalism/strong state power is bad.
Solvency answers against UBCs. Con teams made a number of solvency arguments against UBCs. I will address those some when discussing the Pro arguments and in a separate essay. Of course, we now know that the Texas shooter was able to buy guns because the Air Force did not alert the FBI about the killer’s past, leaving him out of the database.
General gun deaths. All the teams that I watched or judged only claimed advantages that stem from gun deaths – homicides and suicides. Sometimes they discussed these in the aggregate, including how effective UBCs would be at solving these problems. They also discuss specific gun deaths “scenarios” that I will address shortly.
To start, however, I want to explain how various empirical studies are done. Basically, the research will start by comparing overall gun deaths (suicides and homicides) among and within certain states to try to determine if UBCs were likely contributors/causes to the decline in gun violence. So, at a very basic level, they might note that gun deaths per 100,000 people were lower than a state with background checks (say California) than in a state without background checks. (say Kentucky). They may say, well, California has fewer firearm deaths than Kentucky and so UBCS reduce gun violence! Now, of course, only an absolutely horrible study would be constructed based exclusively on these two facts, though, surprisingly, many teams, including Pro teams, do not understand the research they are citing beyond this simple comparison.
Any decent research also needs to demonstrate two things.
First, they have to demonstrate that other variables are not what likely explains the change. For example, they need to show that changes in crime rates, differences in mental health care, poverty rates, growth rates, education rates, other gun laws, and perhaps some other factors. So, if they find that these factors are similar in two different states – one with UBCs and one without, they can show that UBCs were likely the cause of the difference or (more realistically) a contributing factor.
Even within a state, they still have to show this. Demonstrating that gun violence fell in Connecticut after UBCs passed is not helpful if one cannot show that other factors such as crime rates and poverty rates held steady.
Second, there has to be a warrant (suggested reason) why UBCs contributed to the decrease. For example, if someone did a study that proved that the average height in Connecticut increased between 2005 and 2007 and crime rates fell between 2005 and 2007 you would not think that was because tall people commit less crime. So, even if a strong correlation that can accounts for causation is present, there still has to be some strong reasoning as to why the change happens.
If the reasons don’t make any sense, attributing significant reductions in gun violence to statistical correlations in gun violence reductions makes little sense.
To make this point, let’s look at a couple Pro scenarios and then revisit the aggregate.
Suicides. Many teams rightly point out that approximately 60% of all gun deaths (18,000/year) are suicides. Then they argue that UBCs will reduce suicides. Some will argue they will reduce suicides by 35%! Really? Any student that makes such a claim is really suspect. Why?
Well, the Pro will offer two reasons that UBCS reduce suicides – they delay gun purchases and prevent mentally ill people from buying guns.. One note on each –
Delayed purchases. Most background checks take 2-3 minutes, so how will a background check delay a person’s decision to kill themselves in any meaningful way. Does it make any sense that a person who is about to kill themselves and decides to go to the store to buy a gun to do so will change their mind because they have to fill out a background check form and wait 2-3 minutes?
Database checks. The second reason Pro teams give is that it will be more difficult for people who suffer from mental illness to get guns. But this makes little sense. First, people who are in the database because they are mentally ill are in it because they are dangerous. Depression is not a qualifier for inclusion in the database. Second, as noted above, Trump is making it more difficult to expand the number of mentally ill people in the database. So, how in the world are more background checks going to screen out more potentially suicidal people.
Plus, of course, many people who decide to kill themselves already have guns and can kill themselves in other ways.
So, given the WARRANTS how can it make any sense that universal background checks would reduce suicides by 35%?! This correlation is not supported by any sound reasoning, and since a gun control advocate likely conducted the study, we should be suspicious of it.
Domestic Violence. Another popular advantage area for Pro teams is domestic violence, and they argue that requiring UBCs means there will be less domestic partner murders (it’s usually men murdering women) because ,more people will fail background checks if the system casts a wider net. They will also cite the most aggressive study they can find that identifies a large statistical decrease in domestic violence.
There are few problems ways you can undercut the warrant that UBCs will reduce domestic violence. First, in most situations, the aggressor already has a firearm or has access to a firearm. Second, individuals involved in domestic violence are only denied access to a gun as long as they have a restraining order against them. Once the restraining order is lifted, they can access guns again. Third, they can always get a gun from elsewhere. Fourth, since women are generally weaker then men, it may be valuable for them to have guns to defend themselves. If they are in the database, they won’t be able to get a gun for self-defense. These combination of factors make it unlikely that any statistical correlation can explain a significant reduction in domestic violence.
Note: Domestic Partner Violence is also referred to as IPV – Intimate Partner Violence
Gun markets. With gun markets arguments, Pro teams contend that they reduce the supply of guns in the illegal markets. This is obviously difficult to solve for, but the negative is going to make the argument anyhow, so they might as well get a heads up on it. To get ahead, Pro teams make the following arguments as to how UBCs will reduce illegal gun activity.
One , teams claim that sellers will be deterred from selling to criminals and that now such sales are not illegal, as no background check is required for private sales. I think this is a pretty good argument, as most people are not going to went to sell weapons to criminals, especially semi-automatic weapons. They may fear these people will engage in mass murder, which they will not want on their hands, and, at the very least, they may fear the crime will be traced back to them.
Two, teams claim that the price of guns will rise, making it more difficult for people to afford guns. This is a somewhat reasonable argument, but are guns prices really going to rise that much?: Does it make any sense that criminals will not be able to afford to pay more for a gun? Many guns are used in crimes related to drugs, and the drug business has very high profits. So, it seems like a stretch to say that this will have a meaningful impact on gun sales
In fact, the higher price of drugs on the illegal market many encourage more people to get involved in illegal gun sales, as this is exactly what happened in the drug markets. And some con teams are arguing that increased gun prices will facilitate the drug trade and provide more revenue for organized crime, though it is very hard to quantify what this increase is and the consequence of a marginal increase in revenue. Nonetheless, Pro teams need to be prepared to answer this revenue turn
Three, teams claim that most guns used in crimes are bought through private, non-checked sales. While this may be true, that doesn’t mean that after UBCS are adopted that people won’t be able to by in underground markets or that underground markets could be policed by background checks.
Four, teams claim that federal UBCs will generally reduce guns in the market because currently if one cannot buy a gun in a state with a UBC they can just go to an adjacent state that does not have UBCs (Illinois has UBCS, Indiana does not) and buy a gun a gun. Obviously they could not do this with federal UBCs, so this makes sense.
Racism. Some pro teams claim that gun violence in minority communities undermines those communities and that a failure to act on it is racist. This is a reasonable argument, but remember that all of the racism Con arguments turn this and that any decrease will be marginal, as it will depend on UBC solvency.
In Summary and Final Focus Pro teams will group all of the very good logical arguments that are made as to why they cannot solve, and say, “Oh, but all of our arguments assume yours and there is a net reduction of (insert outrageous number, like 25%-57%!). But there are two problems. One, if you defeat the warrants you defeat the reasons that the correlation can imply causation. Two, the studies that teams site are outliers and done by pro gun control hacks, even when they are qualified. A claim of a 57% reduction in gun violence is absurd since 60% of gun violence is suicides and it makes no sense as to why UBCS could be responsible for more than a very small reduction in the number of suicides.