Time for Leagues to Do Something About Players With Guns

By John Feinstein
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 1, 2008 12:32 PM

The New York Giants won an important football game yesterday, throttling the Washington Redskins 23-7 on the Redskins' home field. The victory raised New York's record to 11-1, all but assured the Giants of a division title and put them in excellent position to wrap up home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.

Of course, the lead story in all the New York papers today had nothing to do with the Giants' victory. The New York Times, hardly known for sensationalism, led its sports page with the following headline: "Burress to Surrender to Authorities."

That's because Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress walked into a New York nightclub on Friday night carrying a gun and somehow managed to shoot himself in the leg. News reports indicate he wasn't licensed to carry the firearm.

Burress already had a hamstring injury in the same leg, which was going to keep him out of Sunday's game. But apparently, he felt no need to stay off the leg and rest so that he might be able to play this coming week in another key game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The easiest thing in the world today would be to focus on what a moron Burress is. He's a moron for allegedly carrying an unlicensed gun into a crowded bar, endangering himself and others. He's a moron because he signed a five-year, $35 million contract at the start of this season and then was suspended for one game for failing to show up for practice and team meetings -- and not bothering to tell anyone.

But that really isn't the issue. Athletes say stupid things (ever hear of John Rocker?) and do stupid things (this list is endless) all the time. The real issue -- once again -- is athletes and guns. The most interesting and chilling quote of the weekend came from Giants President John Mara, who spoke about the Burress incident before Sunday's game and about players and guns.

"Players, for whatever reason feel the need to carry guns," Mara said. "It's not something we're particularly pleased about, but that is the choice that they make. You'd like to think that most of them are licensed to do that, but I'm not sure that's always the case."

Most likely, it is not the case more often than not. Burress reportedly had an expired license to carry a gun in Florida, but not New York or New Jersey, where he lives. If he felt he was unsafe going to the New York club two questions arise: Why go there? And, if you think you need protection wherever you go, at $7 million a year, why not hire bodyguards?

This isn't about safety, it is about arrogance. The fact that Burress, according to Giants General Manager Jerry Reese, hadn't returned his phone calls, tells you how arrogant he is. The sad part is, he'll get away with what he did. He's already hired a high-powered lawyer who yesterday asked people to withold judgment "until the facts come out." What facts? Did he not carry a gun he wasn't licensed to carry into a crowded bar? Please.

Before this is over, Burress will not only get off but he'll have people painting him as some kind of victim. Consider this quote from Giants center Shaun O'Hara: "He's a teammate and there's going to be enough people trying to bring him down. We're here to support him."

Fine, support him. But the only person who brought Burress down was Burress.

At the root of incidents like this is a simple fact: athletes -- and many others -- own guns not because they feel unsafe, but because they like them. They like owning them and talking about them. When the PGA Tour announced that random drug testing in players' homes was possible, Frank Lickliter, a long-time tour player -- and hothead -- responded by saying that drug testers make house calls would be greeted by him -- and one of his guns. Most players thought that was a hoot, old Frank would sure show the Tour, shooing drug testers off his property with a gun.

Two days after Burress's shooting, the Washington Redskins staged yet another maudlin tribute to the late Sean Taylor, who was shot and killed in his own home a year ago by young men carrying guns they apparently had no trouble getting their hands on. The re-writing of Taylor's life story since his death has been remarkable -- Nelson Mandela and Jackie Robinson had nothing on him if you watch, listen to and read media reports in Washington -- but that's a separate issue.

One year ago it was written here that if Dan Snyder and Joe Gibbs really wanted to see some good come from the tragedy, they would use their money and influence to lobby for stricter gun laws. Of course, that never happened. Gibbs went into a series of evangelical rants about how Taylor's death was saving souls on the Redskins and Snyder simply staged one ceremony after another -- all the while inviting the likes of Rush Limbaugh to sit in his box.

So let's forget about anyone connected with the Redskins doing anything about guns. What about the NFL? Mara noted that the league is aware of the issue and has discussed it with the player's union. With the owners re-opening the collective bargaining agreement, maybe now is the time to make guns an issue the same way Major League Baseball owners made drug testing an issue in the wake of the embarrassing Congressional hearings on the subject three years ago.

The owners and players should agree that players can't own handguns. That won't prevent players who like to hunt from hunting. If a player feels unsafe for any reason, he can ask his team to provide security -- all NFL teams have good-sized security forces, most of them retired law enforcement officials -- or they can hire their own security guards.

Now, let's not start screaming about the Second Amendment. To begin with, the amendment should be abolished -- a sensible interpretation of the amendment is that it was written to allow the people to raise a militia for protection and to hunt for food. Clearly no one needs to raise a militia these days, and those who hunt for a living can be licensed to do so.

It would be nice if President-elect Obama had the time to focus his energies on repeal of the Second Amendment, but he first has to deal with a broken economy and the incredibly wrong-headed war started by his predecessor. What's more, the issue of gun rights causes almost as much screaming from the right as abortion rights, the irony being that those yelling the loudest about the right to life are usually those yelling almost as loud about their right to carry weapons that kill.

The Second Amendment isn't going to be abolished any time soon. That should not prevent the NFL -- and all sports leagues -- from taking handguns away from their players. It is no more unconstitutional to say players can't own guns than it is to say they must be subjected to drug testing when there is no evidence they have used drugs, or saying they can be fined for speaking their mind about officiating.

So let's not use the constitution as an excuse. If the NFL owners are concerned about guns -- and they should be -- they need to make the union understand why it is important that it be concerned, too. Baseball, basketball and hockey should do the same thing. The leagues need to do something about their players and their guns.

In all likelihood though, nothing will happen. People will scream about the Second Amendment and safety. Neither of which has anything to do with what happened to Plaxico Burress last Friday night.

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