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ATHLETES AND GUNS | Special Report

Loaded question

Possession, and use, of firearms by athletes has become a hot-button issue, triggering concern for pro leagues such as the NBA and NFL

December 17, 2006|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Tampa Bay running back Errict Rhett was making a career of fearlessly confronting 300-pound linemen and rock-solid linebackers, but his first encounter with real, heart-thumping fright came the day he faced a .45-caliber muzzle.

That was a decade ago -- on a day when the NFL's 1994 offensive rookie of the year needed a car wash and a haircut. He pulled into a neighborhood shop that provided both.

His uniform of the day: a stylish linen shirt and white pants. When he rose from the barber's chair, he looked sharp. So did the freshly washed and shining red Lexus waiting for him outside the door. Maybe too sharp. He stood out in the crowd.

A car wheeled in front of Rhett, blocking access to his car. The driver, a menacing stranger, challenged him -- then reached under his seat.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Guns and athletes: An article in Sports on Sunday about recent incidents involving professional athletes who own guns said NFL player Jabar Gaffney was found by New Jersey police to have a gun in his glove compartment that was legally registered in Texas, but not in New Jersey. Texas does not register firearms, though the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires gun buyers in Texas to fill out a form for national records.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 24, 2006 Bulldog Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Guns and athletes: A story in Sports on Sunday about recent incidents involving professional athletes who own guns said that NFL player Jabar Gaffney was found by New Jersey police to have a gun in his glove compartment that was legally registered in Texas, but not in New Jersey. Texas does not register firearms, though the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires gun buyers in Texas to fill out a form for national records.

"I know that motion there," Rhett recalled in an interview. "Where I'm from, the inner city of South Florida -- Carver Ranches -- whenever you see that motion, everyone knows that damn motion."

And, as Rhett rightly sensed, in another instant he was staring at a handgun. It was pointed at his head.

"My heart started beating so fast it was uncontrollable," he said. "I've never been so scared. The whole world got quiet."

That moment changed him. Rhett, like a lot of other professional athletes, decided he would never again leave home without his own concealed handgun.

While NBA and NFL officials decline to estimate how many players are licensed to carry weapons, a spate of recent gun incidents involving professional and college players has revealed that numerous athletes apparently are armed.

Three NBA players were found to be carrying concealed handguns after police were called to a shooting incident in October outside an Indianapolis strip club.

Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers had fired off five shots in the parking lot outside the club. He said the driver had threatened him and his friends.

Police found that all three Pacers teammates were armed. Jamaal Tinsley and Marquis Daniels, like Jackson, also were licensed to carry concealed weapons.

Prosecutors charged Jackson with criminal recklessness and misdemeanor battery. Tinsley and Daniels had not used their guns and were not charged.

"Stephen Jackson should be ashamed of himself," said attorney David Cornwell, who nonetheless defends an athlete's right to be armed. The Atlanta lawyer represents such prominent football players as Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints and Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers.

Athletes "have a right not to be assaulted," Cornwell said. But he regarded Jackson's alleged gunplay as a dangerous example of someone apparently using a gun to gain "respect in the streets."

There have been a number of other incidents.

In January, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry pleaded guilty in Orlando, Fla., to a concealed weapon charge. During an argument with a group of people, he had pulled his 9-millimeter Luger and allegedly pointed it into the crowd.

In February, point guard Sebastian Telfair, then a Portland Trail Blazer, was questioned by Massachusetts state police after a loaded handgun was found in his luggage aboard the team plane. Telfair said he had accidentally carried his girlfriend's gun on the road trip to Boston. He was fined by the team.

And in August, former NBA player Lonny Baxter was arrested in Washington, D.C., after shooting a gun from his vehicle near the White House. He was sentenced to two months in jail and is working out in Italy, trying to land a spot on a professional team in Europe.

"He has nothing to say about it, and he wants to move on," said Baxter's Washington attorney, Richard Finci. "The fact is it's a felony to have a gun near the White House, and it's stupid to discharge one into the air."

Such incidents have raised new concerns throughout the sports world and focused critical public attention on the issue of armed athletes.

NBA Commissioner David Stern tackled the subject during his annual preseason conference call in October, saying he prefers that players keep their guns at home.

"We think this is an alarming subject," Stern said. "Although you'll read players saying how they feel safer with guns, in fact those guns actually make them less safe."

The commissioner argued that carrying a gun dramatically increases "your chances of being shot by one."

The league's collective bargaining agreement restricts players from bringing even licensed firearms to arenas, practice facilities or promotional appearance. NBA rookies are instructed about the pros and cons of gun ownership during their league transition program.

Stern said players can own guns, but "I would favor being able to have a firearm to protect your home. Period."

One of the worst incidents involving a gun and a basketball star, however, took place at home. In 2002, then-recently retired New Jersey Nets star Jayson Williams was charged with reckless manslaughter after a limousine driver was shot dead in Williams' New Jersey home.

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