Three major Southern cities. Three acts of gun violence. Three victims: all African-American men under the age of 40. Reviewed as statistics, they hardly cause one to pause in skimming a paper or web site for news. Perhaps a shake of the head, pursed lips, and a thought bubble: “Not again.”
Only when the names of the victims are read do they capture attention. On July 4th in Nashville, former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was shot and killed as he slept by a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. On July 20th in Memphis, former Tiger and Grizzly basketball star Antonio Burks was shot during a backyard robbery of a dice game. Burks is recovering, but remains hospitalized. Then, on July 25th in Atlanta, former welterweight boxing champ Vernon Forrest was shot and killed near a gas station after a robbery attempt gone awry. (Forrest actually chased his assailant and fired the first shot before being slain from behind.) Forrest’s 11-year-old godson witnessed his murder.
With the wounds of these stories still fresh — literally in Burks’ case, metaphorically with the others — the sports world seems to have turned to the ongoing saga of Michael Vick as its “crime and punishment” story of the day. Conditionally reinstated to play in the NFL by commissioner Roger Goodell, Vick is aiming to return to the playing field after serving two years in prison for running a dog-fighting ring from his Virginia home. The story is going to stir intense debate between hard-line animal-rights advocates who feel barbarism like Vick displayed doesn’t fade (not even with a spell behind bars) and those who feel the quarterback has paid his penalty, served his time, and should receive that most American of gifts: a second chance.
I happen to fall on the side of second chances. And I hope Vick takes the field sometime this fall, and finds a way to use the spotlight of an NFL star to help shine a light on the rights and wrongs of animal care across the country. Who better to focus attention on the myriad abuses of dogs and other four-legged friends of ours than a man who has been in the middle of a bloody ring, as it were, and now sees forgiveness as his own salvation?
But however the Vick story turns out, it’s borderline trite if you consider the violence costing the lives of other members of his professional sports fraternity, not to mention the countless human beings who indeed earn merely a shake of the head when their names appear in the obituaries. If only last month’s events were unusual. If only we could fall on the old crutch, “Bad things happen in threes.” But last November, New York Giants star Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg with a gun he was carrying illegally. Precisely the day before, Washington Redskin star Sean Taylor died from a gunshot wound after a break-in of his Miami home. On New Year’s Day, 2007, Denver Bronco Darrent Williams was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. A review becomes sadly and tragically tiresome.
The mere suggestion of new restrictions on gun possession — like this column — will mobilize members and advocates of the National Rifle Association. And the vitriolic feedback is further proof that the message is either not clear enough, or not getting through. Members of the NRA — those well-versed in how to use a firearm, how to care for a firearm, and how to secure a firearm — are precisely the kind of people who should be carrying guns. My guess is the three people who fired the shots that hit McNair, Burks, and Forrest are not members of the NRA. And that screams for more attention, not just from the government, but from the NRA itself, whose interests are (presumably) in the safe possession and use of guns.
The Michael Vick story is compelling, but it will come and go. How long before we read of the next professional athlete on the wrong end of a gun? And when will we do something more than merely shake our heads?