Ex-Terp Baxter held on gun charges in D.C.

Latest incident triggers closer look at gun ownership among athletes

August 17, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

When former Maryland basketball player Lonny Baxter was arrested near the White House and charged with carrying an unlicensed handgun yesterday morning, the incident was news locally but didn't get much play nationally.

Baxter isn't a high-profile player. That's part of it. But there's also the fact that his arrest was only the latest in a numbing string of incidents involving athletes and guns.

Just a week ago in Ohio, police say they found four loaded guns in Maurice Clarett's truck after a high-speed chase that ended when they pepper-sprayed the former Ohio State football star.

There are no studies that say athletes own more guns or are more likely to be arrested on weapons charges than anyone else. But the number of arrests and numerous anecdotal comments lead to an easy deduction: Gun ownership is a fact of life among sports stars.

The NFL and NBA are concerned enough to have policies preventing firearm possession at or on the way to league events.

"I think there's this ethos in pro sports that says people are out for you, they're out for your money, you are a target," said Josh Horwitz of the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "There are enough weapons charges among pro athletes that you have to start asking why."

Gun scholar and advocate John Lott sympathizes with athletes and other public figures who protect themselves with firearms.

"Despite the fact they're very strong, they're also very attractive targets," Lott said. "... Given the threats they face, I think [owning a gun is] a perfectly rational response."

Others, however, see something beyond normal fear at play.

"I think there is some validity to that need for protection, but I think it becomes too convenient an excuse," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

Roby believes that the obsession with masculinity in pro sports can lead to some athletes carrying guns for the wrong reasons.

"It's that feeling of you're going to take care of yourself and nobody's going to mess with you," he said.

Roby said athletes might be better off hiring bodyguards, who are trained to assess and defuse threats.

Plenty of company

The list of sports figures who have faced gun charges is long and distinguished. Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Scottie Pippen and Jose Canseco are a few of them.

Former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer was stopped for trying to pass a gun through an airport metal detector in 1997.

A few incidents have ended in tragedy. Former NBA star Jayson Williams was charged with aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of a limousine driver but was acquitted. Former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiracy in the 1999 shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend. Eastern Shore native Carlton Dotson is in jail for shooting former Baylor basketball teammate Patrick Dennehy.

Baxter, who recently signed a one-year deal with an Italian team, isn't even the first member of the 2001-02 Maryland championship team to face gun charges. Chris Wilcox was arrested last year after police reportedly found a gun in his car during a traffic stop in Howard County, but the gun charges were later dismissed.

Several current and former Ravens have been connected to incidents involving firearms. Quarterback Steve McNair faced a weapons possession charge in 2003, though he had a permit for the 9 mm handgun found in his car during a traffic stop. The charge was dropped after a Tennessee judge ruled that the charging officer didn't have sufficient cause to stop McNair.

The quarterback said he regretted the incident but never addressed why he thought he needed the handgun.

Cornerback Corey Fuller was acquitted last year of felony gun charges in connection with allegations that he ran high-stakes card games out of his Florida home. Fuller's residence had been the scene of an attempted robbery and ensuing shootout.

To provide context, Americans own about 200 million guns, according to the National Rifle Association.

"We don't know if athletes own more guns than anyone else, but we do know there are an awful lot of guns in private hands," said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Most handgun owners say they've bought guns for protection, Vernick said. But homes containing guns are actually at a five times greater risk for suicide and three times greater risk for homicide, he said.

No. 1 targets

Players feel they're at a greater risk because they're well-known, perceived to be wealthy and in some cases flaunt their status with fancy clothes, cars and jewelry. A few incidents suggest they have a point. This year, Ravens linebacker Roderick Green was stabbed in the stomach outside a Randallstown bowling center. In 2000, Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce was stabbed in the face, neck and back at a nightclub. Other NBA stars, such as Antoine Walker, have been robbed at gunpoint.

Threats like that send athletes scrambling for protection, and some turn to guns.

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