Ja Morant Can’t Quit His Gun Habit. Neither Can His Country.

Photo for The Washington Post by Brandon Dill
Gun violence has had tragic consequences in Memphis, where Ja Morant and the Grizzlies play.

In the wee hours of a Memphis weekday in February, before Ja Morant later that night would lead the hometown Grizzlies to a victory over Chicago, a Memphis teenage girl drove to pick up a friend. She wound up shot seven times.

A few days later, the 18-year-old’s mother, standing in front of the hospital where she said her daughter lay with a tracheotomy tube in her neck and bullet wounds in her face and torso, begged in front of television news cameras for young people to put their guns down.

But who heeded her plea?

Twenty people were wounded in shootings in Memphis in a 10-day span to close February. Months later, Mother’s Day dawned with four shootings across the city; two died and at least six others were wounded.

Mother’s Day ended with Morant suspended for a second time after being seen in yet another social media posting flashing a handgun. The first incident happened less than a month after that mother’s appeal.

You can dismiss Morant as a moron through a capitalist analysis of the amount of money he is costing himself. You can employ the trite explanation that his wayward behavior is the fault of the company he keeps rather than him being that wrong company. You can point out that nothing he’s accused of doing with a gun is against the law, at least not in the Wild West that reactionary Tennessee lawmakers have turned their state into with some of the least restrictive laws in the country when it comes to the ability to acquire and carry a firearm.

But however Morant appears to you, when you reduce his behavior, what you find is that he is wholly symptomatic of the infection in this country that is its gun culture.

To be sure, in apologizing again for being caught, Morant sounded as if he was fighting substance addiction. “This is a journey and I recognize there is more work to do,” Morant, whom the NBA reportedly sent to counseling, said in a statement.

Whether we are to believe Morant’s words, we as a country are undoubtedly in need of an intervention. Because we know there are too many guns. Too much opportunity for people who absolutely should not have guns to have access to them. Too much relaxing of the flimsy regulations we had to begin with left to manage this malady that has metastasized through society. Gun buying is up. Gun seizures are up. Gun arrests are up. Gun injuries are up. Gun deaths are up.

If sport mirrors society, as some among us are fond to say, then Morant is reflecting it. For no matter all the carnage in and around the city in which he toils – even with so much of it being suffered by young Black men like him, who may even look up to him simply because he’s a ballah – he couldn’t, and can’t, put the gun down. Just like no matter all the mass shootings, and Gallup polling over the past 30 years showing that most people in this country favor stricter gun laws, White Republican legislators – even after watching White children slaughtered, even after being shot at themselves – haven’t been able to, and can’t, put pen to paper to make the ability to obtain guns somewhat burdensome. Instead, they pose before cameras with their families, smiling, with the arsenals they’ve assembled, and send out those pictures on greeting cards.

I wish sports could turn its back on states like Tennessee – where after all that happened in Memphis, and after a gunman killed six people at a Nashville grade school in March, the legislature moved to lower the age for permit-less, concealed and open carry of loaded handguns in public. Or Alabama, where last year lawmakers all but abolished requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public and where early this year a basketball player, Darius Miles, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a shooting that killed a young mother near the University of Alabama campus. Guns are getting unholstered across the country at what seems to be a rapid rate since the Supreme Court ruled at the start of 2022 that New York’s concealed carry law was unconstitutional because it required “proper cause” before a license could be issued. Now, increasingly, it is as easy to lawfully carry a gun as a key fob in your pocket.

Maybe the NCAA can decree not to put its championship tournaments in states where college-age athletes can readily get guns. Or the pro leagues can award their showcase all-star weekends only to states such as California and New Jersey, where restraints remain in place.

But even sports organizations seem confused in taking a stand. The Washington Wizards, for example, this season honored former star Gilbert Arenas. That despite former owner Abe Pollin having changed the team’s name from the Bullets because of its insensitivity to gun violence and Arenas having pulled a gun in the locker room on teammate Javaris Crittenton, for which the NBA suspended Arenas for the bulk of a season. Then, last month, the Wizards held Gun Violence Prevention Night. Crittenton, by the way, was set to be released from prison last month after serving 10 years for the 2011 murder of a 22-year-old woman. She was, of course, shot.

What it is time for is an athlete-led campaign against gun violence like the noise many athletes collectively made around voter registration and participation. But MoreThanAVote.org, which LeBron James led, is dormant. Reactivate it as PutTheGunsAway.org.

That cause was certainly on the minds of concerned Black citizens in Memphis when they held a news conference Thursday in front of a pastel, child-size casket outside FedEx Forum, Morant’s home gym.

“It’s not just the responsibility of Ja Morant when it comes to protecting our children,” Michelle McKissack, a Memphis-Shelby County school board member, told the reporters who turned out. “The state of Tennessee and the gun laws that we have here, that’s what’s really endangering our children on a daily basis. I hope Ja Morant will really learn this time from his choices, but this is not just about Ja Morant. This is about how can we – as a community, as a state – make it safer for our children.”

Athletes and sports could be part of the solution, rather than a reflection and replication of the problem.