Yesterday (November 10) I had the opportunity to engage in an abbreviated (through rebuttals) demonstration debate with Bilal Butt. Here are of my thoughts on the debate. I hope these musings will help you not only with the universal background checks debate but also with debate in general.
Crossfires. Three points
Question focus. I thought Bilal did a great job at focusing his questions on my most important arguments and my best arguments. I explained the importance of this in my essay on the crossfire – you need to direct your energy at your opponents’ strongest arguments because those are the arguments you need to beat. It is tempting to focus on your opponents’ weaker arguments and make them look bad in crossfire, but to win the debate you have to focus on their better arguments.
Answering questions. I thought that the better part of the debate that I had was answering Bilal’s questions. I took advantage of the time to really add more depth and nuance to my arguments than I had time to do in my speeches. I thought the answers actually enhanced my arguments, though I’m a little biased.
Asking questions. I didn’t re-watch the video, but I don’t think I asked any questions. This is partly out of habit – As a competitor, I only participated in Policy debate. In that format one side asks all of the questions. So, out of habit, I just didn’t ask any questions. Also, I enjoyed using the time answering questions to strengthen my arguments. Strengthening my arguments was certainly useful, but it also hurt me not to spend any time in crossfire exposing weaknesses in Bilal’s arguments, especially his 35% reduction in violence claim.
Speaking Second and Rebuttals
I agree with the advice that you should choose to speak second. You have more time to prepare your rebuttal and you can use some of the second rebuttal time to respond to the first rebuttal, instead of having to do it all in the summary speech.
That said, one of the difficulties I had in this debate was to allocate my time in rebuttal because Bilal had a very strong rebuttal as first speaker. I originally planned to use all of my rebuttal attacking his constructive, but I couldn’t do this because I needed to respond to at least some of his arguments in my rebuttal. This was compounded by the fact that we were stopping the debate after rebuttals and I wanted to get some answers in. But even in a full debate, I couldn’t have just used my summary to respond to his rebuttal and defend my arguments because the summary is only two minutes long.
So, I think if you are going to speak second you need to carefully consider how much time in Rebuttal you are going to spend answering your opponent’s rebuttal and how are you going to prioritize that time . Will you focus on their best arguments? Their offensive arguments? Defensive answers they made on arguments you need to win?
As one coach noted, if you speak second, there is more pressure/greater expectations from judges that you will more thoroughly address your opponents’ arguments because you have six minutes to do so instead of two (if you only have the Summary time because you are first speaker). As you can tell from this debate, Bilal was able to devote all of his time to attacking my constructive (4 minutes v. 4 minutes), while I was under pressure to cover both his constructive and rebuttal (4 minutes v 8 minutes).
This also, of course, highlights the importance of the crossfire. I was hurt by not asking Bilal questions about the better arguments he was making and likely to go for later in the debate. Without doing that, the time pressure in rebuttal became more dramatic.
Thinking, Common Sense, Evidence
I think that evidence plays a critical role in all forms of debate and should play a greater role in many PF debates. In this debate, I thought both of us read pretty strong evidence. That said, in any given debate you should really step back and think about what is being said.
A 35% reduction in gun violence from UBCS? I’ve heard other teams claim 57% reductions.
How does this claim make any sense?
In order for UBCs to reduce gun homicide by 35%, 35% of people who kill either themselves (60% of gun deaths) or others would have to both (a) not already have a gun and (b) not be able to pass or background check. And, even then, assuming both these conditions are true, wouldn’t be able to get a gun from an illegal market (think about how many people buy drugs on the illegal market) or borrow a gun (the resolution is just related to sales and permanent transfers of ownership).
I’m sure that most people who kills themselves with guns already own a gun (remember that there are 300 million guns in circulation!) and would easily pass a background check, as there are very few mental illness records in the NICS and depression isn’t a mental illness that qualifies a person to be in the database. So correlation studies (studies that claim states with UBCS had lower rates of gun suicides than those without) that attribute large reductions in suicides due to UBCs clearly cannot be explained by the presence of UBCs.
Similarly, most criminals already have guns (again, there are 300 million in circulation) and could easily access them on illegal markets. They are, after all criminals, who are murderers, so I suspect they have strong ties to illegal networks of various things, including guns. In fact, this is why the Pro can claim that 80% of people in jail for crimes involving guns obtained their weapons outside a UBC system – because they are criminals who do illegal stuff and are connected to illegal networks. Even if UBCS are nationwide, they can simply get these guns from these networks. Frankly, they can even just borrow the guns, as the resolution only applies to sales and permanent transfers of ownership.
So, when you are preparing for your debates, don’t get so caught up in your research and evidence that you don’t step back and think about why arguments don’t make any sense. Clearly, most people who kill themselves with guns each year either already own a gun or could easily pass a background check (and are only delayed when purchasing a gun with a background check for a few minutes).
Argument Choice/Time Pressure
In Policy Debate, the competitors introduce many arguments they don’t plan on extending simply to waste the other team’s time answering them. They then develop the other arguments (partially chosen based on how teams respond to the arguments). In PF, there is no time to toss out some arguments, see how teams respond, and then develop arguments. The debate is just not structured that way. So, to win in PF, you have to always choose from the following combination of arguments —
(a) The absolute best arguments on the topic
(b) The arguments that give you a leg-up/establish offensive (or at least defense) against common arguments the other team will make
(c) Are persuasive to different judges (you may have different arguments for this purpose)
And, of course, in addition to doing this you have to be prepared to answer all arguments other teams are making plus turn over a new topic each month! So, this is super hard. It is much harder than people who participate in other formats are willing to acknowledge.
Sometimes topics can make (a) easier for you. For example, on this topic, I don’t think there are any strong pro advantages other than gun violence, which are reasonably strong (gun violence is a fact, the only question is how much UBCS reduce it). On the Con, while there are very strong solvency arguments against UBCs, but the offensive arguments about why UBCS are bad are not very good. Any direct link to a Second Amendment violation is ridiculous. Complacency arguments and gun spike are completely non-unique. Sometimes it’s hard to choose. I think racism/mental health discrimination is a marginally stronger offensive argument than a direct link to the Second Amendment and the complacency argument, but it’s a tough choice between two somewhat weak arguments.
Spending time reading about the topic and preparing responses (a lot of them!) ahead of time is critical to success in PF. With only two minutes of preparation time, there is little time in the debates to organize your materials. You simply have to know the material inside and out and be ready to stand up and make arguments. You also need to write out arguments in advance. One of the reasons Bilal’s rebuttal was so strong was that her prepared it in advance.
While you won’t always know exactly what another person will say before the debate (we exchanged Constructive arguments in advance), preparing for everything someone may say and how you will answer it, is an essential part of any form of debate, but it is especially critical in PF because you have so little preparation time and you only have time to make the very best arguments.
Rate of Speech
Yes, we both spoke too quickly for most PF judges. We were simply trying to exposes students to more arguments. Of course, this just puts even more primacy on choosing the best arguments.
This is the closest I’ve come to actually debating PF (I did some rebuttals at camp so the students would know the likely responses to their arguments. I always enjoy working with debaters to help them learn about the topic, improve their arguments, and strengthen their skills, but I think a critical part of coaching also needs to be about the process/experience of being in a PF debate. Thanks to this demo, I think I can be better at that part of coaching.