Don’t joke with guns in America !

The gun story of basketball star Gilbert Arenas reveals the complexity and hypocrisy of America’s relation with firearms.

(article datant de janvier 2010)

Gilbert Arenas

Gilbert Arenas (Keith Allison/Flickr/CC)

Gilbert Arenas is one of the funniest NBA players. Always ready to joke and horse around, the eccentric point guard of the Washington Wizards has delighted fans and journalists for several years with his crunchy blog posts under the pseudonyms of “Hibachi” or “Agent Zero”. He is also a great basketball player who signed a $111 million contract with the Wizards two years ago. And despite many severe injuries, he was still the leader of his team this season. On top of that, Arenas is a very unselfish man, engaged in many philanthropic activities.

But none of that really matters now. For many Americans, Arenas is no longer funny. His implication in a gun story, and furthermore his lack of maturity handling the media storm which followed, has deeply undermined his popularity. On January 2, the New York Post reported that “NBA all-star Gilbert Arenas and his Washington Wizards teammate Javaris Crittenton drew guns on each other in the team’s locker room during a Christmas Eve dispute over a gambling debt”. In fact, what really happened did not look like a Far West duel. The basketball star has been betrayed by his strange sense of humor.

After losing at a card game, Arenas owned Crittenton a 25 000 dollar debt, but refused to pay. A row broke out between the two and Crittenton said he would shoot him in the knee. Therefore Arenas decided to “play a joke” on his teammate and laid down four unloaded firearms on Crittenton’s locker seat with a note reading “Pick one”. Crittenton did not appreciate the note and, according to several sources, drew his own weapon, without pointing it at Arenas though. Here are the facts, and if details are still to be checked, what really matters is that Arenas confessed storing four guns in his locker. He is now under the fire of critics.

The shooting season is open
Arenas said he had brought his firearms to the stadium because he wanted to keep them away from his young children at home. Yet it is strictly forbidden to bring weapons to the sports arenas. The guns were unloaded, and no ammunition was found in his locker, but it was still quite awkward to joke about it. Worse still, Arenas had no license for his weapons. To cap it all, after the story was disclosed, Arenas did not seem to realize the severity of his behavior. On his twitter account, he made fun of the situation: “I wake up this morning and seen I was the new JOHN WAYNE… media is too funny”. He sarcastically answered to the media on the subject: « You guys, I wanted to be a bank robber on the weekends ». During a pregame team huddle, Arenas mimicked gunshots with his index pointing at his beaming teammates (cf. photo).

That was too much for NBA commissioner David Stern, who decided to suspend the NBA star indefinitely. « The possession of firearms by an NBA player in an NBA arena is a matter of the utmost concern to us » said Stern. Both the NBA and DC police are currently investigating to unveil the last details of the story. Meanwhile, Arenas has pleaded guilty to felony weapons possession in a court hearing in DC. After his lawyer reached a plea deal, he is facing up to six months in prison. The NBA could take its own disciplinary action.

In a country where image is so important, and where a sports icon like Tiger Woods can burn his wings in a split second, Arenas’ career is clearly threatened. According to experts, the Washington Wizards may put an end to his huge contract. A large banner of Arenas outside the Wizards’ Verizon Center stadium in downtown Washington was taken down after the incident, and the team removed all Arenas-related merchandise from the building’s souvenir stands. Adidas announced it was putting an end to the 8 year and $40 million sponsorship deal signed in 2003 with the Wizards’ star.

The story triggered a firestorm in the NBA, most of the reactions around the league sounding like “you don’t joke with weapons” or “I’m profoundly shocked and disappointed”. Such statements are a bit surprising, not that Arenas’s behavior is excusable, but considering that a majority of NBA players have a gun (75% according to a player’s estimation), because they feel safer with it than with a bodyguard. “You can’t tell somebody how to protect their family” said player TJ Ford about the league’s efforts to prevent players from having a firearm and carrying it with them. “We cannot legally forbid them to have guns as the American Constitution gives them the right!” commented the NBA director of security Bernard Tolbert.

Acknowledging the real issue
Is Arenas’ bashing really a matter of gun license? Or is it all about the image and reputation of the NBA? We say sportsmen have to give the example. These last years, some scandals of players carrying or even drawing guns in public have actually caused some concerns. Yet, as Ford says, “there are a lot of regular people that have weapons and not only athletes”. Indeed, an estimated 45% of American households own at least one gun. The problem with firearms is certainly broader than a simple athlete bringing unloaded guns to a locker room.

There is undeniably a cultural acceptance of guns in the US. A Gallup poll last October revealed that only 28% of Americans are supporting a ban on handguns, the lowest level in 50 years (60% approved gun control in 1960). After the Virginia Tech shootout last year, some pro-guns advocates said that students should be allowed guns on campus to defend themselves! In June 2008, the US Supreme Court overturned a ban on handgun ownership in Washington by ruling that bearing arms was an individual right enshrined in the Constitution. The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, is gaining new members every year.

Gilbert Arenas is facing legal charges linked to his possession of guns without a license. But the main criticism was that he brought guns to the locker room and made fun of it… Isn’t that a little hypocritical? As if being serious and keeping your gun at home was solving the problem. Karl Malone, an NBA legend and lifetime member of the NRA – he had his first gun at eight – said quite relevantly that Arenas must not “take all the charges because he is a superstar”. Choosing a scapegoat is always a good way to deter attention from the essential.

The real issue is not about Gilbert Arenas taking guns to the workplace, but about gun control in America. In the US capital, the basketball team used to be called the “Washington Bullets”. In 1997, the owner Abe Pollin decided to change the name to “Wizards” because of the negative and violent connotation of “bullets”. This is typically the type of action which shows that Americans sometimes have a contradictory behavior towards firearms. But if no law is passed to fight against guns, being politically correct or bashing Gilbert Arenas will not change anything.

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