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Holstering the NBA

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"Guns don't kill people -- bullets do."

In 1968, that crack was the centerpiece of comedian Pat Paulsen's mock-presidential campaign. Today the line has new meaning in light of the gun drama surrounding Gilbert Arenas, the exiled point guard of the team formerly known as the Washington Bullets. This time around, nobody's laughing.

My own experience with Washington and bullets dates to the summer of 1974, when I worked in D.C. as an intern for Congressman Jerome Waldie, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Mostly, I summarized testimony to help prepare him for the Watergate hearings and the vote on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

About a month into the program I accompanied another intern to Dulles Airport to meet a Haverford College classmate flying in from Iowa to start his own apprenticeship on Capitol Hill. On the walk back to our townhouse in northeast D.C., a few blocks from the Supreme Court, we were approached by three teenagers. When each teen brandished a revolver, the three of us froze. One youth pointed a gun at my head and demanded money. Staring down the barrel, I slowly reached into my pants pocket and carefully withdrew my wallet. As I handed it over, I hoped -- no, I prayed -- that the kid wouldn't pull the trigger.

The city's staggeringly high levels of gun violence that summer prompted laws that prohibited residents from, among other things, carrying guns, both openly and concealed. Though the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 was later overturned, the provision requiring gun registration remains intact, as does the District's assault weapon ban.

I was reminded of this by the ongoing crisis over Arenas, whose argument with a Washington Wizards teammate led to a display of handguns in the team's locker room at the Verizon Center. On December 21, Arenas reportedly brought four unloaded weapons for which he had no permit into the dressing room and put them on a chair with a note asking the teammate to "pick the gun you want." According to the Washington Post, the teammate then grabbed his own pistol, loaded it and chambered a bullet. Last week Arenas was suspended indefinitely without pay. He now faces a possible lifetime expulsion from the NBA and the forfeiture of his contract, which has four years and about $80 million remaining on it after this season.

Personally, I abhor guns and the posturing of the National Rifle Association. I'm normally a fierce advocate of player's rights, but when it comes to carrying firearms or bringing them to the workplace, this Dude cannot abide. I'm unsettled by the notion that athletes need guns for protection. If they're concerned about their safety, they should hire licensed security guards. Guns only increase the possibility of violence.

Arenas brought the wrath of the NBA upon himself. Though some details of his gun story are hazy, no one disputes that his actions and subsequent conduct were inappropriate, insensitive and downright reprehensible. Arenas has done a tremendous disservice to his teammates, fellow NBA players and the Wizards organization. The incident occurred in a pro basketball arena and violated the sanctity of the locker room.

So what is the appropriate penalty? Three years ago Stephen Jackson of the Indiana Pacers was suspended for seven games after he pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness, having discharged a firearm outside a nightclub. A year later Sebastian Telfair, then of the Boston Celtics, got a three-game suspension after copping a plea to criminal possession of a weapon -- after pulling him over for speeding, New York police searched his Range Rover and found a loaded handgun under the passenger seat.

In Arenas' case, lifelong banishment is too draconian. If he were playing up to his former All Star standards, no one would be calling for the termination of his contract. Arenas' behavior should not serve as cover for the Wizards to void a deal that they now regret. His punishment should be firm and severe, but not excessive, and certainly not open-ended. Currently, the NBA's ban on guns imposes no specific penalties, and past sanctions have proven to be inadequate deterrents. Last week Devin Harris of the New Jersey Nets claimed that 75 percent of NBA players, approximately 270 total, own guns. If accurate, that figure -- or even half of it -- is truly horrifying.

The NBA has a zero-tolerance policy on firearms. The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement -- implemented in 2005 -- forbids guns at any NBA venue or event. If I were writing policy, I'd go even farther: Players could own guns for hunting or to defend their homes, but they would not be allowed to pack heat. Violators would draw substantial penalties. I realize that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the Constitution, but in professional athletics, rights are sometimes limited in deference to a sport's well-being. This issue should be resolved now, while it's still Topic A. Why wait until the CBA expires in 2011? In this era of "teachable moments", there may never be a better time for the league and its players to demonstrate that toting guns is dangerous and reckless and has no place in our society.

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