SBJ/April 8 - 14, 2002/Opinion

Too many guns, too much human tragedy

There is no question that each time an athlete is arrested, fans on the brink stop watching.

Drugs and sexual assault are the most frequently mentioned crimes. Murder and manslaughter charges present a far more menacing image for sports. League officials and owners shuddered when Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth were charged in murder investigations. Understandable cries of outrage shattered the sports world.

The arrest of Jayson Williams offers a cautionary tale for sports and for America.

Yet many people were mostly saddened recently to see the arrest of Jayson Williams on charges of manslaughter in the shooting death of limousine driver Costas Christofi. I was one of them.

Sad because a driver who probably thought it was a great night to be around so many celebrity athletes ended up dead. Sad because of how routine guns have become in our society. Sad because it is another mark against an individual athlete that is resonating in questions about "all athletes" and their use of guns. Sad because the athlete is Williams.

As the son of former St. John's coach Joe Lapchick, I watched Williams play each year in a tournament named after my father. I helped present the awards each year and noticed that Williams was one of a handful who looked me in the eye and said thank you. That distinguished him right away from so many of the players over almost two decades of tournaments.

In the NBA, his hard work made him a star for the Nets. It did not surprise me that he devoted a great deal of time to the community along the way. The fact that he made a huge donation to his alma mater did not surprise me. The size of his gift to St. John's did: $2.1 million, making it the second largest gift ever from a pro athlete to an institution of higher education.

He was that rare combination who drew the affection of his fellow players, fans and even the media. When an injury prematurely ended his career, the Nets offered to pay out his contract many years into the future. NBC jumped to hire him as an NBA studio commentator.

But now Williams stands charged with firing the shot that killed a man.

His attorney, Joseph Hayden, said: "The death of Mr. Christofi is a tragic accident, but it was still an accident. ... We are confident that the evidence will show ... that Mr. Williams is innocent of any reckless or criminal conduct."

I sincerely hope that is the outcome. The case is, however, one more example of how having guns around can lead to tragedy. Guns in the home are a real risk to family and friends, tripling the risk of homicide at home. Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 22 times more likely to kill a family member or friend than to kill in self-defense.

It is clear that Williams was fascinated by guns and shooting them for sport. He was quoted about it and even wrote about it in his book.

Williams, Lewis and Carruth were not the first athletes to wind up with problems with guns. When Allen Iverson was stopped by police in 1997, they found a gun in his car. Coincidentally, a survey came out a week later that showed that 1 million high school and college students were carrying a weapon to school. If Iverson had not left Georgetown early, he would have been among the million. Because he was in the NBA, he was the one.

A rash of stories began to appear about athletes and guns. Yet the story about a million possessors disappeared quickly while stories written about Iverson even today sometimes refer to his problems with guns.

I received nine media requests in the two days after Williams was arrested, all inquiring about what his arrest said about "why athletes are so drawn to guns." I tried to give some context as to why this story is about "an athlete," not about "athletes."

America is obsessed with guns. While this is not new, experts say the numbers are even higher in the wake of Sept. 11. According to Handgun Control, the organization chaired by James Brady, Americans own approximately 192 million firearms which are in an estimated 39 percent of our homes.

Too many thought it was an urban phenomenon until school shootings in Pearl, Miss.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Bethel, Alaska; Littleton, Colo.; and other places showed that there were no geographic, racial, ethnic or economic boundaries for the spread of guns among children. An average of 10 children die each day from handguns. More than 3,500 students were expelled in 1998-99 for bringing guns to school; 43 percent of these were in elementary or junior high school.

These are our children. Between 1993 and 1997, an average of 1,621 murderers who had not reached their 18th birthdays took someone's life with a gun. I have been with parents who thank God if their child reaches the age of 18.

It shouldn't take the arrest of Jayson Williams or a school shooting to make us realize that guns make us, especially our children, so much more vulnerable. In a recent year, firearms killed American children at 15 times the rate of children in 25 industrialized nations combined.

The story of guns in America is more about the pro gun lobby's power. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created in 1972, guns were made exempt. The political power of the National Rifle Association is so enormous. That can happen when nearly 40 percent of our households have a gun.

Pro sports can do something about it. We have seen very effective public-service campaigns about reading, drugs, alcohol and steroids. Why not about telling kids about the dangers of guns? Why not team-by-team gun-buyback programs where each team would give rewards — game tickets or events with athletes — in exchange for turning in guns. The Bulls and White Sox have given away tickets for guns. Imagine Reebok establishing a buyback fund in Iverson's name. There are so many opportunities.

We need all possible partners because we can easily be confused as a society. The shootings at Columbine High School resulted in 13 deaths. When it was discovered that the shooters wore trench coats, the call was to ban trench coats. When will we understand that the gun lobby's extraordinary power enabled it to get exempted the one product that is designed to cause death and injury?

We are equally confused when we take the tragic death of Costas Christofi at the hands of an athlete who owned guns and try to make it a story about athletes and guns. Like too many other tragedies, it is a story about the accessibility of guns for too many Americans.

Richard E. Lapchick directs the Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.

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