The Ja Morant gun situation is not just about Ja Morant
The Grizzlies All-Star is a problem, but he’s not the problem. The problem is guns and their prevalence in society.
Ja Morant was caught playing with a gun on Instagram Live.
This isn’t a story from March.
He did it again.
The Memphis Grizzlies guard was suspended from the team on Sunday for once again brandishing the blicky on social media, just over two months after being suspended for doing the same thing in March.
For that initial offense, the 23-year-old was suspended for eight games, CliffNoted his way through a few therapy sessions, and was back on the court in time for the playoffs to start.
There was much finger-wagging at the time at how stupid Morant was acting — the Grizzlies looked primed for a deep postseason run and Morant was headed toward a $200 million-plus payday based on his All-NBA play during the season. But then the Grizzlies got disposed of in the first round of the playoffs and Morant lost nearly $40 million because he was left off of all three All-NBA teams.
But as much as Morant’s behavior and actions warrant criticism, that is the easy way out when it comes to judging this entire situation.
When it comes to irresponsible gun possession, as Morant has exhibited, it really can be as simple as a person acting stupidly. There doesn’t need to be some pathology about the lack of a father figure (Morant’s father, Tee, attends just about every Grizzlies game), “playing gangster,” or running with the wrong crowd. Between the first Instagram Live incident, the alleged punching of a teenager at Morant’s house, and the incident involving the point guard’s mother at a Memphis mall, one could argue Morant himself is the wrong crowd.
Morant, of course, doesn’t get off the hook. His flagrant behavior is the reason we’re talking about this now. But zeroing in on Morant’s actions misses the forest for the trees. Morant being reckless with a firearm on two occasions is bad, sure, and doing it on social media shows a defiance that, if left unchecked, will lead to even worse results for the fourth-year player.
But the fact that it was a firearm that Morant was waving around in the separate videos is the real cause for concern. Firearms are dangerous, and but for the presence of them in regular American life, fewer people in this country would have bullet holes in their bodies … or be dead.
Morant is a problem, but he’s not the problem in this circumstance.
The problem is guns and their prevalence in society. This country loves guns: A study estimated that there are more guns in this country than people — and that study was published in 2018. That was two years before the coronavirus pandemic and global protests against white supremacy led to purchases of a record number of firearms. Guns are in all of our popular media. Guns are nearly a protected class of citizen: On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that expands legal protections for gun manufacturers and others in the wake of yet another mass school shooting.
When gun violence rocks this nation, something that’s become more and more common in the last two decades, the line we’re most likely to fall on is that guns don’t kill people, people do. And while that is technically true — a gun can’t shoot itself: Or can it? — the presence, celebration and preservation of guns in this country lead to countless shootings, fatal or otherwise.
In 2021, nearly 50,000 Americans died of gun-related injuries (which includes suicides, homicides and other causes), the most on record. That’s more than 130 dead Americans a day. Firearms are the No. 1 cause of deaths of teenagers, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Last September, a gunman went on a killing spree across Memphis, Tennessee, killing three people (and wounding three others) in less than 24 hours. Months later, 200 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, a 28-year-old killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at an elementary school.
The latter shooting was three weeks after Morant’s first Instagram Live video. Since Morant’s first video on March 4, there have been three mass shootings (defined by the Gun Violence Archive as four or more victims, fatal or non-fatal) in Memphis alone. So far in 2023, there have been eight mass shootings in Tennessee, including the Nashville school shooting.
According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, as of Monday, there have been 225 mass shootings in America this year, claiming the lives of 296 people. As careless as Morant has been over the last few months, he’s but a symptom of a much larger disease. He is just a product of his environment. And not in the came-from-the-ghetto sense. He’s a product of America. An America that has an unconditional love of firearms. Even if you believe that “responsible gun owner” is an oxymoron, you have to admit there’s a wide gap between someone who keeps a handgun locked in a safe in the closet and Morant flailing around that thang for an audience of hundreds on Instagram Live … twice.
That being said, Morant is a representation of this country’s infatuation with guns, but because of his celebrity … and recklessness … and defiance … and skin color, he’s not the visual representation of gun ownership that this country seeks out. He’s not the All-American white boy who likes to hunt or protect his family or whatever other excuse there is to own weapons in this country. He’s viewed as just another ghetto boy from the inner city who brings back memories of the crime-ridden 1980s and 1990s.
Morant watched as the George Zimmermans and Kyle Rittenhouses of the world were celebrated, so why would he see a problem in waving a firearm around in a nightclub for his hundreds of live watchers? Black Americans understand the adage “rules for me, not for thee” as it applies to everyday American life, but maybe Morant missed that lesson. Maybe he thought he could be like the white politicians who pose with automatic rifles with their kids for Christmas cards or aim shotguns at their daughter’s prom date for a campaign ad, but he can’t. (Those are real examples, by the way.)
The last time the NBA had an incident with guns on this level, one participant eventually ended up in prison for a separate, fatal gun incident, and the other, nearly 15 years later, is still too immature to understand why the league — no pun intended — brought the hammer down on him when he was suspended for 50 games for bringing firearms into an NBA arena.
The league is considering a “significant” suspension of Morant to start next season, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. They probably should do that, but that doesn’t address the overarching problem when it comes to Morant and firearms.
Because as I was in the middle of writing this column, a news alert on my phone reported that three people had been killed in a shooting in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Morant was hundreds of miles away in Memphis somewhere, suspended from team activities, likely seeking redemption yet again.