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Guns in Sports Reflect Guns in Society

Steve McNair (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Steve McNair (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence had a sports-related report "in the pipeline for a number of years," co-author Jon Lowy said this week in a phone interview. But a steady stream of incidents forced constant revisions and updates, until the authors "came to the realization we'll have to write this as a work in progress."


Guns in Sports: How Guns Have Affected the Athletic Community & What It Tells Us About America's Gun Violence Crisis (pdf) was finally released on July 2. It coincides with the anniversaries of two prominent shooting deaths, those of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair (2009) and former Northwestern University men's basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong (1999).  

Lowy, director of the Brady Center's Legal Action Project, also had a personal reason for moving along the exposé of more than 100 gun-related cases, involving sports figures from every level. The 2007 slaying of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor hit hard at Lowy's home.


His then 9-year-old son was a huge fan of Taylor and used to wear his jersey. "One of [my son's] first introductions to death was Sean Taylor's death," Lowy said. "That meant a lot to me. He loved Sean Taylor."

According to the report, guns claim more than 30,000 lives annually in the United States, and more than 70,000 people are injured. Most of the victims aren't famous athletes or the relatives of famous athletes (such as Michael Jordan or the Williams sisters). But Lowy hopes that highlighting a sliver in sports leads to more attention paid to the big picture.

"Looking at how guns affect the sports world provides a window into America's gun epidemic in general," he said. "As a sports fan, I know how much we care about athletes. Unfortunately, when we read about ordinary people who have been injured or killed or lost loved ones to gun violence every day, as a society we often don't care enough about those people."

The goal is to educate the public and spark conversation on issues such as the legal loopholes for avoiding mandatory background checks when purchasing a gun. Many crimes sprout from that escape hatch: unchecked sales by unlicensed "private sellers" who fuel the gun-trafficking industry. The report states that such "inadequate laws make it far too easy for dangerous people to acquire the means to kill."


Killings and maimings can lead to jailings, and the report points out athletes who are represented in that area, too. Former New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress spent nearly two years behind bars for a weapons violation in 2008. Former NBA forward Jayson Williams, who was entertaining guests at his home when he accidentally shot and killed a limo driver in 2002, served 18 months in prison and paid $2.75 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.

Given their high profile and public platform, athletes are often prime candidates to speak about gun violence and advocate for tougher laws. Burress teamed with the Brady Center upon his release, while ESPN broadcaster Marcellus Wiley — a former NFL defensive end — is a Brady Center board member.


The report uses sports figures to make a point, but Lowy said that athletes don't have a higher risk of gun-related incidents than nonathletes. The common thread in the cases is sports, but the real connection is living in a country with more than 200 million firearms and the easy access.

"We all need to support strong laws that keep guns out of dangerous people's hands without affecting the ability of law-abiding people to have a gun if they choose," Lowy said. "Hopefully Americans will be outraged about these weak gun laws and become more involved with this issue."


Redirecting our passion for sports could make it happen, taking us from fun and games to matters of life and death.

Deron Snyder's Loose Ball column appears regularly on The Root. Follow him on Twitter and reach him at BlackDoor Ventures, Inc.

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