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Hometown U: UAA debate team takes on Harvard over gun rights

Kathleen McCoy

About this time last spring, orators from UAA and Stanford University matched wits and fiery words in a debate over whether hate crimes warrant extra punishment.

A campus recital hall overflowed with the curious. Engaged listeners even stood up to argue themselves when UAA coach Steve Johnson opened mikes at intermission for one-minute commentaries.

Get ready for round two. This time the school is Harvard University, the debate is over repealing the Second Amendment, and the venue is Bear Tooth Theatrepub, complete with pizza, beer and $10 tickets.

Johnson says he notched up the event for a couple of reasons. First, Alaskans get little opportunity to see Seawolf debaters in action. The team competes nationally and internationally and regularly brings home the trophy bling. Last year they were second in the U.S. and among the top 20 in the world.

But statistics are one thing, seeing the team in action is another. "Imagine a basketball team that never played a home game?" he says. "It's tough to get behind them."

Johnson also feels responsible for taking critical discourse directly to the people. "How can you say these skills are valuable for engaging with important public issues if you don't do it? It's our duty."

The popular Bear Tooth is a refreshing choice. Johnson considers debate entertainment and relishes bringing it to a place that people associate with good food and good times. Words like "populist" and "raucous" blend well with his team's style of British parliamentary debate. Think House of Commons with members pounding desks and loudly shouting, "Hear, hear!"

Mike Jipping coordinates special events at the Bear Tooth. "Hosting a debate at the theatre is definitely a first for us," he said, "but we actually collaborate with a lot of community groups to host events during daytime hours, when we have space and time."

Ticket sales are brisk, he said, and based on experience, he expects a 400-seat sell out.

Johnson chose the debate topic because, until the Senate stopped it Wednesday, gun reform legislation was moving through Congress in the emotional aftermath of violent shootings in Newtown and other American communities. The subject continues to rivet attention.

The wording of the motion being debated is precise: "This House would repeal the Second Amendment." Johnson wants the debate to take gun control arguments and public discussion to places they haven't yet been.

"The team does gun debates in competition all the time," he says. "There are countless permutations, from background checks to banning assault weapons, limiting clip capacity or outright banning hand guns.

"But all these arguments terminate in one bottom line: 'Well, the Second Amendment gives us the right ...' It's the trump card played every time.

"The context for the amendment was the American Revolution so naturally you want something in your founding document that speaks to being able to defend yourself. But we're now 200 years old. By orders of magnitude, we have the biggest military in the world. There are threats, but not threats deterred by personal ownership of handguns.

"So should the Second Amendment be the punctuation mark at the end of every conversation we have about regulating guns?"

Of course there are those who argue they need weapons to defend themselves against their own government. "I want a debate that interrogates that more deeply," Johnson said. "What does the Second Amendment do for us?"

Johnson proposed the topic to Harvard. They liked it. Then, as is customary in exhibitions, the host offers the guests the first choice of position. Harvard chose to defend the Second Amendment.

The Seawolf debaters were amused. "It would be unfair," one joked, "to fly those East Coast kids up to Alaska so they could talk about taking our guns away."

UAA's two debaters, senior Amy Parrent and junior Wiley Cason, are preparing to support a side they know many Alaskans won't favor.

"We have a joke on the team," said Parrent, an economics major. "The two things Alaskans love the most are their PFD and their guns. There'll be lots of popular sentiment against our side. But I'm fine with that. Debate gives you the format to figure out the arguments rationally, regardless of your predisposition to the topic."

Cason, a philosophy major, was more blunt: "I like guns. I like to shoot guns. Don't shoot me!"

The team is in high spirits at the prospect of a rowdy Bear Tooth audience, and most of the 25 members will play supporting roles at Thursday's event as well as staffing and judging a high school debate tournament this weekend and one for middle schoolers next weekend.

At least two team members plan to live-tweet the debate, leading quick-witted wordsmiths to propose #akmilitia as their hashtag of choice.

For more on the debate, including profiles of the four debaters and background material on the motion, visit the UAA-Harvard Debate blog leading up to Thursday's event.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.


Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U