Arenas gun drama again reveals a nation's contradictions

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

After three months of escalating drama, the sentence of no jail time for Gilbert Arenas felt like an anticlimax. I was glad to see it, though, because I'd become fed up with all the self-righteous outrage over the incident in which the Wizards basketball star brought four unloaded -- repeat, unloaded -- handguns into the team's locker room in December.

Was it illegal? Yeah. Was it stupid? Double yeah.

But the hand-wringing over Arenas has been out of proportion to the offense, given the extent to which guns are tolerated and even lauded in our culture.

Which do you think is more relevant to society's overall health: Arenas's using the guns as props to taunt a teammate on Dec. 21, or the 15 people shot to death in the District since that date?

Now, which of the two has attracted more attention?

There's a broader lesson. The episode shows what a split personality our society has over guns. Other than abortion, there's no issue about which world views are so separate and impossible to bridge.

On one hand, the National Basketball Association, prosecutors and most commentators are deeply upset about Arenas's actions, and he has suffered accordingly.

Arenas has lost $7 million in salary and about $50 million in endorsements. He's now a convicted felon. His career might be over; at the least, there's an enormous blot on it. Gun control advocates are unhappy that he was sentenced Friday only to probation rather than prison time.

"If we're going to take gun violence seriously, we have to treat any gun as a very real danger," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In contrast, gun sales are up nationwide. The Supreme Court and various state legislatures, such as Virginia's, are busy loosening restrictions on firearms. Customers can carry guns openly when they go into Starbucks for a cappuccino. Large chunks of popular culture, especially action movies and video games, make billions by feeding the public's appetite for fantasies of shooting bad guys.

Some gun rights supporters thought it was outrageous that Arenas was even charged.

"The fact that he would be prosecuted for the mere possession of [what should be] a very legal item is just horrendous," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. "The criminal who's going to rob a bank or threaten someone is who you need to worry about."

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