The independent news organization of Duke University

Debating guns and 'Gorgias' at Duke

not jumping to any conclusions

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates elucidates the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric. After debating with the famed rhetorician Gorgias, Socrates establishes that philosophy is an art—a true comprehension of a moral argument—whereas rhetoric is a skill oft used for personal gain. Rhetoric, in short, is the ability to advance one’s particular philosophy; without either component—rhetoric or philosophy— an argument will never see the light of day. Should one utilize philosophy and neglect rhetoric, his or her words will fall upon uninterested ears. Should one utilize rhetoric and neglect philosophy, his or her ideas will remain unclear. 

In the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas, those possessing a public forum to advance certain philosophies have been largely guilty of the latter. While the forum itself may differ—today a tweet or a page on the Chronicle; yesterday, a speech delivered at the base of the Acropolis— those speaking on the topic of gun control have employed the same preference of rhetoric over philosophy used by Gorgias in the Platonic dialogue. Whether it be Hillary Clinton tweeting an uninformed hypothetical about silencers in an effort to bash the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Chronicle editorial board using the incident to condemn “white masculinity,” or the famed conservative rallying cry of “stop exploiting victims for political gain,” modern day orators have taken the Gorgian approach of flattering their audiences with arguments to which they already identify. Those on both sides of the gun debate do this in lieu of discerning a proper philosophy on the gun state.

I, for one, am convinced that there is a solution to the gun debate. I am also convinced that this solution has nothing to do with silencers, which—despite their name— do not actually silence the sound of a gun firing, nor the proportion of white males in the United States. I believe it  does not necessitate “exploiting victims for political gain” simply by discussing it. I truly am convinced that this solution may only be arrived at if we are willing to debate the issue with both candor and compatriots passionate about more than just politics. Unfortunately, this means that the issue will likely have to be resolved outside of the chambers of Congress.

Within the walls of Duke’s Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life—more specifically, in the back of JB’s Roasts and Chops—I sat down with one such compatriot. We discussed what happened in Las Vegas and what, if anything, could be done to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

Our Platonic dialogue began with me taking a pro-Second Amendment stance, in response to my partner-in-debate’s decisively anti-gun viewpoint.

My opponent declared that only non-automatic weapons, for the sole purpose of defending oneself from his or her neighbors, need be permitted—raising the contention 

that no person would need to own semi-automatic weaponry to protect oneself against other civilians if such caliber weapons were banned. He also claimed that the U.S. government could not possibly become a tyranny, eliminating the need for arms that could rival the military’s.

I countered by providing numerous instances of democracies that have turned into tyrannies. I cited two examples of when the United States infringed upon the rights of its citizens, as recently as the 1940s—the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the compulsory sterilization of the mentally disabled and the mentally ill in some states prior to and even after the Supreme Court ruling in Skinner v. State of Oklahoma

He conceded that the possibility of tyranny does exist, but also replied, “By that logic, we should arm the mentally ill.” Furthermore, he stated that, if I were really  passionate about the Second Amendment serving its fundamental purpose to resist government tyranny, I should not be in favor of limiting the U.S. populace to semi-automatic weaponry. For the sake of consistency, he stated, I should wish that Americans have the right to purchase tanks and rocket launchers.

We were both stuck in our arguments. My opponent had based his argument off the notion that the potential for American government tyranny does not exist, and was proven otherwise; I had posited that Americans have a right to defend themselves against government tyranny, but could not reconcile that argument with the risk to security that unfettered access to arms presented. Over two plates of onion rings and strip steak, we had unearthed the central question behind the gun debate: how do we optimize the security of American citizens from both the government and themselves?

For every point in the debate, there was a valid retort.

The Founding Fathers did not write the Second Amendment to apply to modern weaponry. Then, should we not apply First Amendment protections to modern mediums of speech, such as radio and television?

It would be impractical to confiscate all the guns. Maybe so, but why not try to limit proliferation? This is an argument from fallacy—just because it would be difficult to rid the country of guns, does not necessarily mean that we should not rid the country of guns.

Even if we permitted U.S. citizens to carry any and all weapons, a civilian population could not resist the U.S. military. What about the efforts to stabilize Iraq after the 2003 invasion?

Government tyranny must be resisted at all costs. What about the potential to misconstrue government tyranny? Some may argue that the actor who shot Rep. Steve Scalise was fighting tyranny.

At the end of our debate, my opponent and I had made little headway on answering the central question to the gun debate, but we had gained a better understanding of both arguments—which is a hell of a lot more than Hillary Clinton, the Chronicle Editorial Board and conservative outlets like the National Review can say. 

Maybe an annual mass shooting is the “price of freedom;” maybe it’s a completely avoidable occurrence. Maybe American democracy has past the potential for tyranny; maybe, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, it is still “two wolves and a lamb voting on what they are going to have for lunch.” Maybe the solution is a complete and total repeal of the Second Amendment; maybe it is what we currently have. We will never reach consensus, however, if we continue to promote unsubstantiated ideas within neatly defined echo chambers. Optimizing the security of American citizens from both the government and themselves can only come from rigorous philosophical debate, in which facts—not Gorgian rhetoric—serve as artillery.

Jacob Weiss

Jacob Weiss is a Trinity senior. His column, "not jumping to any conclusions," runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “Debating guns and 'Gorgias' at Duke” on social media.