Benner/Sports and Professional Athletes and Pro Sports and Public Safety and Government & Economic Development and Government and Sports Business

Gun owners, athletes or not, must be responsible

December 8, 2008
I grew up on a farm just south of Indianapolis where hunting — usually for rabbits — was a given. While my father owned a double-barrel shotgun, his zest for hunting waned over the years. Still, we regularly welcomed relatives and friends onto the property for their own hunts.

As a boy, my father let me fire that shotgun once. The recoil nearly knocked me down and left a deep bruise on my shoulder. As far as guns went, that was it until I joined the Army where, of course, learning to accurately fire an M-16 was part of the training.

But the day I was discharged was the last day I had anything to do with guns, or weapons, as we were required to call them.

I have no use for guns. They scare the daylights out of me.

That said, I don't begrudge those who legally obtain and carry guns, whether their intended use is hunting or self-protection. I do believe in the Second Amendment, even though it has been stretched far beyond the vision of the Founding Fathers (could they have imagined assault rifles?) just as the First Amendment's protection of free speech has been time-warped.

It's a naive notion, I know, but I believe that guns, like words, should be used responsibly.

Anyway, lest you be residing in the proverbial cave, New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress was hanging out in a New York City nightspot recently when the gun he was carrying accidentally discharged, wounding him in the thigh.

With Burress being a prominent member of the defending Super Bowl champions and New York being, well, New York, the media leaped upon the incident and turned it into a feeding frenzy. Since Burress' weapon was not legally registered in New York, where there are strict gun laws, he was subsequently charged, booked and released on bond. He faces possible jail time.

He also was suspended for the rest of the season. Worse, he may take down with him a teammate and the doctor who treated him.

Professional athletes aren't candidates for much sympathy — many commoners like to apply the adjectives, "rich, pampered and spoiled" to any definition. Nor am I going to try to mount a defense for Burress. That's what he pays his attorney for. Shooting himself may have been an accident, but carrying a concealed weapon without a permit is plain dumb, again proving that all the money in the world can't buy a lick of sense.

Yet pro athletes, like all of us, do have the right to legally arm themselves. And by most accounts many of them do, including members of our Colts and Pacers. Speaking of the latter, we remember too well Stephen Jackson's gunplay in the infamous Club Rio incident and, later, Jamal Tinsley and friends dodging bullets downtown.

Athletes who admit to packing heat say they do so for protection, that they are targets — especially to those who resent their wealth and fame.

There are plenty of examples. A year ago, the Washington Redskins' Sean Taylor was killed during a robbery at his house. Denver Broncos' defensive back Darrent Williams was shot and killed outside a nightclub. Unlike Taylor and Williams, Baltimore Raven Corey Fuller was able to respond when confronted by two armed robbers outside his Tallahassee, Fla., house. Fuller went into his home, grabbed his gun and fired at the assailants, who fled.

Still, too often, athletes — mostly young and with lots of money — place themselves in harm's way, exercising poor judgment. They don't see themselves as representatives of their franchises or their communities. They live in the moment and the desire for a good time, not anticipating that it could turn into a bad time or a tragic time.

Especially among the young, that's a trait not limited to professional athletes.

Again, I'm not making excuses for Burress. Yet, having never walked the walk of fame, celebrity and wealth, I cannot place myself in their mind-set of the need to carry a pistol.

I would also caution those quick to condemn and rush to generalizations that the majority of professional athletes do not carry concealed weapons, certainly not illegally, anyway, and have managed to find balance between professional and private lives.

It was also interesting to note that, amid the media attention focused on Burress, six NFL players received four-game suspensions last week for violating the NFL's anti-doping policy for using a diuretic to mask steroid use.

The suspensions didn't receive near the media attention Burress did.

Yet which goes to the integrity of the game more?

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Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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