By George Dohrmann
January 04, 2010

After New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg in a nightclub in November 2008, costing him millions of dollars and earning him a two-year prison sentence, one might have assumed that we wouldn't be reading about another prominent athlete illegally toting a firearm anytime soon.

Burress' precipitous fall, it was assumed, would scare athletes to the point that they would review their gun habits in the same way that Michael Vick's demise educated them about dogfighting and associating with nefarious individuals.

The Burress incident, however, appears to have brought no such awakening, as evidenced by last week's news that Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, one of the NBA's most popular players, stored guns in his locker at the Verizon Center and may have pulled a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton.

The particulars of Arenas' case (he admits to storing the weapons but denies threatening Crittenton) don't matter as much as the broad meaning: Burress' downfall apparently had no impact on Arenas.

"You would have thought the Burress incident and some of the others would be teaching moments for athletes, but obviously with Gilbert they were not," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "What he did is such a stupid thing on so many levels. [The District of Columbia] has such strict gun laws and he violated NBA rules. And his explanation was that he was just joking around. Guns are not toys, you don't joke with guns."

It is not easy to understand why so many athletes carry guns. Some do it because they fear for their safety; they believe they are targets of people jealous of their fame and fortune. Others have known only a life with guns, having grown up in parts of the country where shootings and murder are commonplace. Then there are those who do it to feel connected to the hip-hop culture; in some circles, guns are cool. Whatever the reason, guns and athletes go together like popcorn and butter.

Three current Division I college athletes (two football players and one basketball player) say they know at least five athletes at their school who own handguns and routinely carry them. "You got to a party and you see some guy with a bulge on his lower back and you know what that is," said the basketball player. "There are usually guys who come from big cities, who for them that is just the way it is."

One football player said that these athletes aren't in any danger, "but they just feel better holding a gun. I guess part of it could be that it makes them feel [cool]."

If guns are that prevalent in college, imagine what it's like in the NBA or NFL, where the wealth of the athletes adds the element of fear that they could be targeted. After Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was killed in his home in 2007 during an attempted burglary, scores of athletes talked about fearing for their safety, and it is likely that fear led many to purchase a gun.

Arenas owned a weapon long before Taylor was killed. In 2003, when he was with the Golden State Warriors, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful possession of an unregistered firearm, for which he was suspended one game.

One can only guess why Arenas felt he needed to carry a gun back then. To outsiders, the most convenient explanation may be Arenas' rough upbringing in Los Angeles. Or that he's been linked to high-profile figures who have also made a point to protect themselves, such as rapper P. Diddy,who was once charged, but later acquitted, of criminal possession of a firearm, and The Game,who has been involved in several gun-related incidents. Most recently, in 2007, The Game threatened a man with a gun over a disagreement during a basketball game, for which he pleaded no contest to a felony gun charge.

But such assumptions would be misguided and lack validity. One can only guess why, after signing a $65 million contact with the Wizards in 2003 or a $111 million deal in 2008, Arenas didn't hire an armed bodyguard rather than arm himself.

"Too many times people think carrying a gun is part of the image they want to portray," Helmke said. "It is a culture that really needs to change with athletes, who kids look up to."

As when Burress was arrested, Helmke believes that Arenas should serve time in prison if he is found to have violated D.C.'s gun laws. Helmke is not optimistic, however, that Arenas receiving a prison sentence will change the gun habits of athletes or resonate with kids who idolize them.

In other words, the lesson from Burress' fall (and perhaps Arenas') is that it will serve as no lesson at all.

You May Like