Imagine a powerful gun lobbyist with an Irish accent and you get some idea of last week’s debate at Rocky Mountain College.
The RMC debate team took on the Irish Times national champions in a friendly debate over the right to bear arms, with the Irish defending the right and Rocky’s team opposing it. Despite my limited qualifications, I was one of four debate judges.
It was the third time that the Irish Times champions have appeared at Rocky, thanks to RMC’s director of debate, Shelby Jo Long-Hammond, who studied debate in Ireland, and to Brent Northup of Carroll College, who organizes the national tour. About 50 people filled the seats in Prescott Hall to hear the debaters.
Important note: The teams did not get to choose which side of the issue they were on, so nothing they said necessarily reflected their actual beliefs.
Spoiler alert: I was bowled over by the Irish debaters. They were incredibly articulate, alert and quick-witted, always ready with a speedy response and a fresh point. After a half hour with them and a couple of pints of Guinness, and I would have been ready to join the John Birch Society.
That’s no slam on the Rocky debaters, who are still learning the skills that the Irish champions have mastered. To her credit, Long-Hammond doesn’t hesitate to put her team up against the very best, not so much because she expects them to win but because she wants them to learn.
I should note that the judges’ decision was not unanimous. One judge thought that despite the more polished performance by the Irish, the Rocky debaters made the better points. Fair enough, but I also thought the Rocky team missed some chances to undercut the Irish arguments.
For example, the Irish team said the right to bear arms evens the playing field for disadvantaged citizens. Citizens should not have to earn the respect of government to own guns, they said; instead, it should be the other way around. If government starts taking away guns, those who need guns the most are likely to lose them first.
But history tells us that the right to bear arms does little to protect the disadvantaged. If a poor person manages to find a gun to take to a knife fight, his rich opponent will carry a bazooka.
A speaker at last weekend’s pro-gun rally here made a similar error, arguing that disarming American Indians led to their loss of independence. But as S.C. Gwynne points out in “Empire of the Summer Moon,” the powerful Comanche tribe was perfectly capable of defending its way of life until the U.S. Army got six-shooter revolvers. It was superior firepower, not the absence of the Second Amendment, that defeated the Indians.
The Irish also defended the right to bear arms on grounds that America has a unique relationship with guns and with government. Our long history with gun ownership justifies the risks guns pose to public safety, they said. A culture of violence is about ideas, they said, not about weapons.
But it was the right to bear arms enshrined in the Constitution 200 years ago that helped create the legacy of gun ownership in America. Luckily for Rocky, the debate proposition did not address the Second Amendment itself. Instead, the students only had to argue that we “regret” the right to bear arms. Take away the founders’ decision to put gun rights in the Constitution, and America’s gun legacy might be very different, and less regrettable.
Gerald Giebink, who finished Rocky’s arguments, seemed to make the strongest points against gun rights. Putting more guns in the hands of the poorly armed won’t solve their problems, he said.
“Fighting fire with fire never works,” he said, adding that life itself is a prerequisite to all other rights.
“Gun laws need to change to fit society,” he said.
Rocky’s debaters also focused on the high rate of gun-assisted suicides in America. The Irish debaters pointed out that Ireland, with strict gun controls, has a comparably high suicide rate.
It wasn’t clear to me, in any case, what bearing suicide has on a question of rights. If my incisive commentary should cause, for example, Sean Hannity to cut short his intellectually dishonest life, would that justify curbing the First Amendment?
Again, none of this is meant as a slam on Rocky’s accomplished debaters: Flávya Siqueira of Brazil, Jack Jennaway of Melstone and Giebink of Billings. Parliamentary-style debaters typically have 15 minutes to come up with seven-minute speeches, then respond instantly to counterpoints raised by opponents. If I had to produce arguments under those time constraints, my major points would sound like this:
- You know.
- Like I was sayin’.
Still, it was stirring to hear some of the familiar arguments about gun rights coming from citizens of a country that has had its own historical struggle with British rule.
“We both hate the Brits, guys,” said Ireland’s Cian Leahy. “Let’s unite around that, if nothing else.” Leahy, a sixth-year medical student, poked fun at himself by saying he had been voted by his fellow students as most likely to cut off a limb by accident.
It was that sort of freewheeling exchange that made the debate so entertaining and enlightening.
“Weapons aren’t great,” acknowledged Ireland’s Amy Crean, an abortion and gay rights activist. “I’m not here to say I love them, but they exist.”
Aodhán Peelo, a philosophy and law student in Ireland, summed up the gun rights case by stating that some risks are worth taking to protect liberty, culture and tradition.
“To defend yourself with guns,” he said, “often you don’t even have to fire them.”
The National Rifle Association couldn’t have said it better. And in America’s poisoned political atmosphere, the NRA could never make that argument so easy to swallow.