Independence Day undoubtedly stirs sadness in many folks, including loved ones of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair and former Northwestern University men’s basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.
McNair, who led the Titans to within one yard of potentially tying or winning Super Bowl XXXIV, was shot and killed by his girlfriend July 4, 2009. Ten years earlier, Byrdsong — who in 1994 took Northwestern to its second postseason appearance in school history — was the initial victim of a white supremacist’s shooting spree during Fourth of July weekend.
Of course, such crimes aren’t limited to early July or sports figures. But the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence released a new report this week that features more than 100 cases of high-profile and no-profile sports figures, in an effort to educate and spark conversation.
“Guns In Sports: How Guns Have Affected the Athletic Community & What It Tells Us About America’s Gun Violence Crisis,” is an expose that highlights cases from high school athletes to icons such as Michael Jordan, Junior Seau and former Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, among others.
“Looking at how guns affect the sports world provides a window into America’s gun epidemic, in general,” said Jon Lowy, one of the report’s authors. “As a sports fan, I know how much we care about athletes. Unfortunately, when we read about ordinary people who have been injured or killed or lost loved ones to gun violence every day, as a society, we often don’t care enough about those people.”
A link to sports isn’t behind the athletes who lost their lives, or lost family members (Jordan and the Williams sisters), or lost their freedom (Jayson Williams and Plaxico Burress). Instead, the connection is living in a country “with over 200 million firearms,” according to the report, “where inadequate laws make it far too easy for dangerous people to acquire the means to kill.”
The killers of McNair and Byrdsong acquired their weapons through a loophole which allows unlicensed, “private sellers” to make sales without issuing a background check, which is mandatory under federal law when licensed dealers sell guns.
The report states that after failing a background check, the neo-Nazi who shot Byrdsong bought a firearm from a gun trafficker. Because there’s no federal law that restricts the number of purchases, that trafficker bought 72 handguns in less than two years, the majority of which were illegally resold. Publicity surrounding Byrdsong’s case eventually led to the trafficker’s conviction on federal charges.
Lowy hopes that more athletes use their platform to speak out about gun violence and advocate tougher laws. Burress, the former New York Giants receiver who spent nearly two years in prison for a weapons violation in 2008, teamed with the Brady Center upon his release. ESPN broadcaster and former NFL defensive end Marcellus Wiley is a Brady Center board member.
Taylor’s shooting death in November 2007 helped lead to the report. Lowy’s then 9-year-old son was a huge fan of Taylor and used to wear his jersey. “One of [my son’s] first introductions to death was Sean Taylor’s death,” Lowy said. “That meant a lot to me. He loved Sean Taylor.”
The report intends to use society’s love of sports to create awareness and counter the powerful gun lobby. “We all need to support strong laws that keep guns out of dangerous people’s hands without affecting the ability of law-abiding people to have a gun if they choose,” Lowy said.
Though the release is pegged to McNair, who appears on the report’s cover, the Fourth of July holiday isn’t lost on Lowy. It’s a time for celebrating our independence and freedom, even when if that means tightening up on dangerous liberties.
“The ultimate freedom that we’re concerned about is the freedom to live safely,” Lowy said. Hopefully Americans will be outraged about these weak gun laws and become more involved with this issue.”
If it takes sports to get our attention, so be it.