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Steve Kerr’s life was shaken by gun violence when it took his father

Reacting to the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting earlier in the day, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr bangs his fist on the table as he makes a statement before Warriors played the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of the NBA basketball playoffs Western Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Dallas. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
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When Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr assailed Republican senators for failing to take action on gun control following Tuesday’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, his emotional plea to “do something” was grounded in personal experience with gun violence.

In 1984, Kerr was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Arizona when his father, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated by the militant group Islamic Jihad — targeted because he was the president of the American University of Beirut. A caller taking responsibility on behalf of the group told Agence France-Presse that “not a single American or Frenchman will remain on this soil.”

Malcolm Kerr, a noted expert on the Arab world, was born in Beirut and lived there as a child. His parents both worked at the university — his father as a biochemist and his mother as dean of women. It was his lifelong ambition to lead the school, after mostly teaching at UCLA.

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He had been president for less than two years when he was shot twice in the head in the hallway leading to his office. He was 52.

“The assassination, the first of a prominent civilian American in the current wave of violence here, shocked the country and stirred fears that similar figures might become targets,” The Post reported at the time.

Kerr took over the school at a tumultuous time for Lebanon, which was embroiled in a civil war. His predecessor, acting president David S. Dodge, was kidnapped in July 1982 by pro-Iranian gunmen and taken to Tehran, and released the following July after Syria intervened. In October 1983, a suicide car bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 military personnel. The Marines were there as part of a peacekeeping mission, and a few months later, President Ronald Reagan announced the Marines would withdraw offshore. The university, meanwhile, had been shelled occasionally in the 1970s.

“He was killed, his friends insist, not for being who he was, but because now that the marines and the American Embassy in Beirut are smothered in security, he was the most vulnerable prominent American in Lebanon and a choice target for militants trying to intimidate Americans into leaving,” wrote Thomas L. Friedman, at the time the New York Times Beirut bureau chief.

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The university had assigned Kerr a bodyguard, but Kerr quickly dismissed him because he thought the university president shouldn’t be walking around campus with a bodyguard. At the time he became president, Israel had invaded the country, and Kerr “personally stood down an Israeli armored personnel carrier that crashed through a campus gate,” The Post reported.

"I wish they'd knocked, but their way of knocking is to crash through with a tank," Kerr told an Associated Press reporter.

Kerr knew the danger. “I bet there’s a 50-50 chance I’ll get bumped off early on,” he told his daughter Susan in March 1982, according to her memoir, “One Family’s Response to Terrorism.”

In an interview, he said that Beirut is as safe as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His wife, Ann, quipped: ''I know. That isn’t saying much,” the New York Times reported.

Fluent in Arabic, Kerr was the author of several books about the Middle East and Lebanon’s history. He was a popular figure among the university’s nearly 5,000 students.

In a statement, Reagan called Kerr “a highly respected member of the academic world who, as president of the American institution in Lebanon, worked tirelessly and courageously to maintain the principles of academic freedom and excellence in education.”

“Dr. Kerr’s untimely and tragic death at the hands of these despicable assassins must strengthen our resolve not to give in to the acts of terrorists,” the president added. “Terrorism must not be allowed to take control of the lives, actions, or future of ourselves and our friends.”

Steve Kerr was born in Beirut and moved to California as a toddler, but he attended schools overseas for a few years, including in Cairo. He said in an interview during his college days that basketball helped him cope with the tragedy of losing his father.

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“Playing basketball took my thoughts away from what was going on,” Kerr said. “It helped me out. It gave me something to fall back into; it gave me some little time to relax.”

Kerr mentioned the pain of losing his father after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

“I know what it feels like,” he said at a town-hall-style meeting at the time.

“I know how the Parkland families feel, or the Aurora families, or Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to other recent mass shootings. “I met with some of the families from the Las Vegas shooting. … It’s awful. It’s devastating. It’s horrible. This is pretty simple: Let’s see if we can do something about it. Let’s save some lives.”

That tone shifted to anger on Tuesday after the latest school shooting, when he said Republicans opposed legislation to expand background checks because they wanted to hold on to power.

“It’s pathetic! I’ve had enough,” he said at a news conference, before storming out of the room.