Two Cents: The November PF Topic Wordings

Briefly is happy to announce a new article series! Every month, VBI staffers will be giving their two cents on the topic wordings and how debates will pan out. This month, we have Caroline Wohl, Matt Salah, and Kyle Chong to offer some thoughts on the Gun Rights Topic Wordings.

Here are the NSDA’s topic choices:
OPTION 1 – Resolved: The United States Constitution should be amended to prohibit the civilian ownership of handguns.

OPTION 2 – Resolved: The United States should require universal background checks for all gun sales and transfer of ownership.

Caroline Wohl

Caroline Wohl competed for Summit High School in New Jersey, graduating in 2016. At Summit, Caroline qualified to TOC both her Junior and Senior year, the first Summit team to do so. While competing, reached elimination rounds at Yale, Bronx, Princeton, Laird, and Lexington, Harvard, TOC, and Nationals earning 5 career bids. Caroline is a sophomore at Georgetown University.

The most notable aspect of the first resolution is the phrase “the United States Constitution should be amended” for many reasons. First, many debaters will interpret the inclusion as implying some moral obligation- which in Public Forum tends to be very messy as most debaters are not very familiar with the intricacies of different moral frameworks. For this topic, debaters should at least become familiar with the foundation of different moral frameworks even if they do not plan on using a morality argument as they will likely hear such arguments. Personally, I think the usage of “should” unnecessarily clouds the debate and I think debaters would all be better off agreeing to a very basic cost-benefit analysis. I would recommend debaters take this approach or something similar, as judges, even those experienced with Public Forum debate, may not be very comfortable with varied lenses of morality.

The inclusion of a constitutional amendment I think beneficially expands the debate in allowing political disads and other politically implicated arguments to come into play. Debaters, however, should be cautious to not just base their arguments off of broad generalizations, i.e. Republicans like guns, Democrats don’t, and instead look for specific disads that are likely to occur. All debaters should familiarize themselves with particular politicians and lobbyist groups specific stances on such an issue.

While I think that disads are acceptable in this debate, and serve to make it more interesting, I would warn debaters against any sort of feasibility argument. Again, I think the best interpretation of this topic is “On balanced, an amendment to the US constitution prohibiting civilian ownership is beneficial.”
Final grade: B+

The second topic option again utilizes the word “should” in the resolution. Similar to my views with the first topic, I think the introduction of morality in the debate makes it unnecessarily confusion for both debaters and their judges. I would again advise debaters against making moral arguments and instead focus on more substantively based strategies. The second topic option also lends itself to a wide array of political arguments that could be made. Especially given the generally liberal slant to the overarching debate community, I think the inclusion of such arguments garners the Neg some more ground. Notably, for both resolutions, there is no explicit timeframe (as to be expected.) I would advise debaters to posit that arguments exist in the status quo. However, due to the lack of an explicit time frame, arguments along the lines of “on balanced, background checks good/bad” are more inherent. As such, I think that the second resolution area is a much more limited debate.
Final grade: C

I expect the first topic area to be chosen next week via the student vote and look forward to hearing the arguments and framing mechanisms teams use.

Matt Salah

Matt Salah debated four years at the Nueva School in San Mateo, California, graduating in 2017. Matt amassed a total of 8 bids to the Tournament of Champions, taking the 2017 title. Some of his most notable accomplishments include championing the Bronx Science Tournament (2015) and closing-out the Harker Invitational (2015) and Houston Round Robin (2016) with his teammates. Matt is a freshman at Swarthmore College.

The first resolution is surprisingly good. While the debate community may lean liberal and therefore find gun control topics to be aff biased, I think that this topic is less aff biased than many in recent memory (viz. The popular vote or the internet of things). There is a plethora of high quality literature on both sides on the issue (and exponentially more uninformed blog posts) which should make for a great debate. One thing to note is that there was an almost identical LD topic around a year ago, which will help a lot of teams find fairly recent cards quickly. In my opinion, the thing this resolution does best is that it is clear and specific: it details the mechanism of implementing the plan, and there is little debate as to what “prohibit the civilian ownership of handguns” means. This will prevent the all too common “specific advocacy vs. general endorsement of the resolution” debate, and it will prevent definitions and framework from deciding the round. This topic will lead to clean debates on a controversial and somewhat interesting issue.
Final grade: B+

The second resolution is similar to Option 1, but there are a couple of factors that make it worse. First, I think it is far more aff biased. Almost everyone agrees that universal background checks are a good idea, and the negative ground is restricted to arguments about the time it would take to purchase a gun and perhaps the negative economic effects of such a provision. The negative could also take an angle of personal freedom (or argue the resolution violates the constitution), but that approach is less appealing. Arguments about black markets and hurting personal safety are far less compelling when the resolution entails background checks instead of an outright ban. Additionally, framework debates will probably be more important on this topic. The extent of the background check certainly matters, and this isn’t specified clearly in the resolution. Moreover, it doesn’t specific who the guns will be sold or transferred to, which could lead to teams trying to sneak in weird arguments about the military, police, or international groups. These framework questions might not be a huge deal, but they certainly make the topic more frustrating to debate than option 1.
Final grade: B-

Kyle Chong

Kyle Chong is an Assistant Coach at The Nueva School in California. As a debater, Kyle was the President of Bronx Science’s Debate Team, where he won seven bids to the Tournament of Champions, ending his career at tenth in the country. His students have achieved success at both the local and national level, with just this year boasting championships at SCU, ASU, Berkeley, Kandi King, and TOC, along with final round appearances at Harker, Bronx, and MLK. Kyle is a junior at UC Berkeley.

Topic one is tricky. The debate over amending the constitution can lead to some very weird arguments, considering how complicated and difficult it is to pass an amendment. Negative teams can adopt a strategy entirely around the fiat of constitutional amendments, and for the more flow-friendly tournaments like Bronx, I think this strategy (and the inevitable theory arguments the affirmative will make against them) will actually work. That’s not to say that there aren’t other negative strategies that tackle the central questions of the resolution. I think this topic is much more balanced in terms of arguments for and against an amendment than topic two; not only are there a number of different angles to take the topic (legal/constitutional, symbolic, util debate, etc.), but also because there is a very deep pool of topic literature available to cut. There are a number of proposals of constitutional amendments exist at the academic level that are worth looking into for this resolution.
Final grade: A-

I think topic two isn’t a debate. Not only do the vast majority of Americans support some form of background check, there is also a very clear reason why background checks are used pretty frequently. Background checks at their core are a good idea, which makes the affirmative side of this debate a lot stronger, especially for judges who will be coming in with preconceived biases. That being said, I do think there are a few arguments for the negative. First, a world that requires background checks will probably increase the size and scope of illegal trade of arms, because the demand for arms from those who would fail a background check would remain the same given shifts in their supply of arms. Second, there isn’t that much of a need for further action on this issue considering that the problem is so small. Though this argument is primarily defensive in nature, there are implications in the realm of feasibility, political will, etc.
Final grade: B-

What are your thoughts on these topics? Let us know by leaving a comment below!