The Persecution of Gilbert Arenas

How gun prohibitionists and an image-conscious NBA scapegoated a basketball star

On December 19, 2009, NBA star Gilbert Arenas and fellow Washington Wizards player Javaris Crittenton got into a heated argument over a card game, exchanging violent threats. (Arenas maintains that his were made in jest.) After Crittenton challenged him to a fistfight, Arenas told his younger teammate he was too old to fight him, but he’d burn his SUV or shoot him in the face instead. Crittenton answered that he’d shoot Arenas in his surgically repaired left knee.

Two days later, before practice at Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center, Arenas placed four unloaded handguns on the chair in front of Crittenton’s cubicle in the team’s locker room with a note that read, “PICK 1.” 

“You said you were going to shoot me,” Arenas reminded Crittenton. “So pick one.” Crittenton then flung one of the tendered guns across the floor and withdrew from his backpack one of his own (whether it was loaded is unclear), which he displayed for Arenas, holding it “below his waist and pointed downward,” according to the government’s proffer of facts. Any tension quickly dissipated, and soon the two were bantering together in the Jacuzzi.

That’s what Arenas did. Here are some things he did not do:

• hurt anyone;

• fire a gun; 

• own illegal firearms;

• bring a loaded gun into D.C. or the Wizards’ locker room, let alone brandish one in a threatening manner. He didn’t even own any ammunition for the weapons in question.

On January 15, 2010, Arenas pled guilty to one felony count of carrying a pistol without a license in the District of Columbia, punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and five years in jail. On March 26, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Morin sentenced the player to 30 days in a halfway house, two years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $5,000 fine.

The judge got it about right—but only after three months of overkill from the other featured performers in the Arenas morality play: the overreaching prosecutors who pressed to lock him up, the tabloid heckler who mousetrapped the player with reckless smears, and the NBA commissioner who peremptorily wiped out Arenas’ season.

You don’t have to support gun control laws to see that Arenas committed a stupid act that could have ended far worse than it did. But you don’t have to support gun rights to see that he has paid a price grossly disproportionate to his mistake. 

The Law After Heller

Arenas’ crime was jurisdictionally specific. His acts would likely have been legal at his home in Virginia, where no license is required to own a handgun and concealed-carry permits are issued based on criteria that Arenas seems to have satisfied. Even in D.C., if Arenas had been found with guns in his home or “place of business,” it would have been only a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or up to a year in jail. (Counterintuitively, the Wizards’ locker room did not qualify as Arenas’ “place of business,” which D.C. law defines as the place where the owner of an enterprise transacts its affairs.)

In 2008 the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller struck at the heart of D.C.’s blanket ban on gun possession. Explicitly recognizing an individual right to keep handguns in the home for self-defense, the majority opinion sowed doubt, among the general public and constitutional scholars alike, about the continuing viability and extent of the city’s highly restrictive gun laws. Arenas says he mistakenly believed that as a result of the decision he no longer needed a license to carry unloaded handguns in the city, when in fact D.C.’s post-Heller regulations continued to prohibit public possession of firearms in most situations. In an unusually broad 26-page sentencing memo making their case for a prison sentence, prosecutors ridiculed this “feigned ignorance of the law excuse,” noting that Arenas had attended a compulsory November 2009 briefing in which law enforcement officials explained D.C. gun laws to Wizards players.

It’s hard to evaluate the efficacy of the briefing—did it, for example, directly address the issue of unloaded guns?—without access to the unidentified (and un–cross-examined) players the prosecution cited as witnesses. But if the new gun rules were as easily mastered and non-controversial as the prosecution implied, why was a special briefing needed to explain them? The Heller ruling and the D.C. government’s recalcitrant response to it left the city’s comprehensive gun ban suspended in a confused and contentious atmosphere of constitutional limbo. Arenas’ misunderstanding of the law could have been feigned—who knows?—but in this shifting legal environment there is surely no reason to assume that it must have been.

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  • Suki||

    Good morning reason!

  • d||

    Lame. Get over it.

  • anarch||

    Crittenton’s cubicle in the team’s locker room with a note that read, “PICK 1.”

    As theagitator.com showed us last Wednesday, these guys would have picked >1.

    Mornin', Suki.

  • Suki||

    Hi anarch!

    I see the SugarFree school of HTML is still running ;)

  • anarch||

    Does the link not work?

    http://www.kccn.tv/see-the-video.html

  • ||

    Last I recall, Arenas was sanctioned for violating League rules prohibiting forearms (loaded or otherwise) in their locker rooms. As Libertarians believe so fervently in property rights, how is this persecution?

  • ||

    The NBA wasn't the entity that charged him with a felony, that's how.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    You clearly did not read the article, did you?

    As Libertarians believe so fervently in property rights, how is this persecution?

    Persecution - to pursue with harassing or oppressive treatment. I did not see a requirement that persecution be government-driven.

  • ||

    The NBA is not the entity here who threatened him with a $5,000 fine and five years in jail. That's the pertinent persecution in question. Being punished by an association of individuals (the NBA) for breaking league rules is hardly "persecution." To say he was "persecuted" by the NBA is silly.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Being punished by an association of individuals (the NBA) for breaking league rules is hardly "persecution." To say he was "persecuted" by the NBA is silly.

    That is circular argumentation. "Because the NBA is private, it cannot be persection." Like I said, there is no government requirement contained in the definition of the word. If your main case is "it cannot be persecution because private individuals cannot persecute", you are just assuming the argument. If you would care to delineate why it is invalid to say a private association can persecute, than say so.

  • WTF||

    He chose to be a member of the NBA and participate in its sanctioned events. By doing so he voluntarily subjected himself to its rules and regulations, including the stated sanctions for violating them.

    It's pretty much the same as moving into a neighborhood with an association and restrictive covenants. Don't move in if you don't intend to follow the rules. By moving in there, you agree to be bound by them. So don't get all upset when the association dings you for breaking the rules.

  • WTF||

    Additionally, he violated D.C.'s law. Yes, D.C.'s law is stupid, but it was the law in place when he did what he did.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    That still does not establish that this association is not persecuting him. I fail to see where voluntariness has anything to do with unduly harsh punishment administered by said association.

  • Esoteric||

    It has everything to do with, TAO. Perhaps not semantically, but in terms of drawing practical ethical and moral distinctions...yeah, the voluntary nature of the association has everything to do with why this isn't really "persecution."

  • Mo||

    I don't see how making violent threats on league property and suspending him for it is persecution. See the definitions below and tell me how suspending someone for breaking league rules counts as harassment for his beliefs. Unless you think the NBA is out of line for not allowing him to violent threaten their employees.

    per·se·cu·tion
    Pronunciation: \ˌpər-si-ˈkyü-shən\
    Function: noun
    Date: 14th century
    1 : the act or practice of persecuting especially those who differ in origin, religion, or social outlook
    2 : the condition of being persecuted, harassed, or annoyed

    Main Entry: per·se·cute
    Pronunciation: \ˈpər-si-ˌkyüt\
    Function: transitive verb
    Inflected Form(s): per·se·cut·ed;
    per·se·cut·ing
    Date: 15th century
    1 : to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically : to cause to suffer because of belief
    2 : to annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities) : pester
  • Citizen Nothing||

    There's a word for people who post complete dictionary definitions in comments threads. Perhaps I should look it up.

  • Mo||

    TAO kept talking about what is or isn't in the definition of persecute. I was hoping he could find the part where suspending someone for breaking the rules of making violent threats and bringing a gun on their property qualifies.

    I'm looking forward to Reason's follow up coverage on why Latrell Sprewell was persecuted because PJ Carlisimo deserved to be choked.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    where suspending someone for breaking the rules of making violent threats and bringing a gun on their property qualifies.

    The author makes his case in the article. Perhaps you could start there.

    Do you believe that the NBA's punishment of this individual fit the crime? Because that is the point of the article. So, like I said, your quibble is with the author, not me. I am merely making the point that associational covenant can be persecutorial. The author states why.

  • Mo||

    The author's arguments are weak and you can tell he's an Arenas apologist*. All of his comparisons are completely different from the Arenas situation because none of those other incidents happened on NBA property. If Arenas had done the same thing in his own home, rather than in the locker room, the punishment would have been far less severe.

    * Comparing Agent 0's game closing abilities to Kobe and Lebron is laughable. He has about half as many as Lebron and 50% fewer than Kobe in 03-08, which is his prime. He has 1 more than Jason Terry in that time frame and no one would call JET a closer comparable to Kobe and Lebron.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    You should have answered my question.

  • Mo||

    Yes, the NBA's suspension of Arenas for his actions is justified. Making credible violent threats against another player and bringing weapons on company to emphasize that threat is a serious violation. If you or I had done the same thing at our places of work, we'd be terminated.

  • CE||

    Except that Arenas didn't make any threats, and he wasn't suspended for the gun "showdown". He was suspended for later pointing his fingers like guns on camera, and making David Stern look silly.

  • WTF||

    I am merely making the point that associational covenant can be persecutorial.

    Then I would suggest that you do not sign up to be bound by it.

    Seems to be a pretty libertarian approach - freedom to associate or not with whoever you want to or don't want to.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Still, once again and for the final time, has nothing to do with the discussion about whether a penalty imposed is or is not "persecutorial".

    Seems to be a pretty libertarian approach - freedom to associate or not with whoever you want to or don't want to.

    Is everything in your life reduced to the binary choice of "libertarian" or "not-libertarian"? If yes, you must be have a terribly pedestrian and dull life.

  • WTF||

    Um... no.

    So your argument - the thing you've been railing about is that the punishment was more severe than it should have been, for what he did?

    If that's the case, I'm having a hard time getting worked up over that.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    I hardly see where I "railed".

    And I never said word one about the punishment.

    In the future, it would be best if you read what is there, rather than assume I am on a "side".

  • MJ||

    I'm all for Arenas's right to have own guns and use them in self-defense, but what he did with them here is not defensible. What I had drummed into me by my Dad is that you do not fool around with a gun. You don't use them for a joke nor to make a macho point. You treat a weapon with respect and seriousness or you have no business handling one.

  • DADIODADDY||

    so he broke your daddy's rule...let your daddy prosecute him. my daddy told me to fool with loaded guns all I wanted to and to run with scissors. also went swimming right after eating

  • The Commentariat||

    Our dads told us not to mess around with words, that we should handle them with respect and seriousness. We ignored him, of course, and invented the blogosphere. You're welcome.

  • DADIODADDY||

    you had more thasn one dad?

  • Mommy Dearest||

    I had two moms. Does that make me exempt?

  • CE||

    I thought your name was Heather.

  • ||

    What he did should have in no way been a felony. If the NBA wants to suspend him or take his contract back for violating their rules, that is their right. But no way should this ever have been a criminal matter.

  • Abdul||

    Arenas is hardly a poster-child for over-aggresive gun prosecutions. If Crittendon had shot him for his little "it was unloaded?!?!" stunt, I'd certainly understand why he felt threatened.

    Defending Arenas makes pro-gun people look like the anti-gunner's dream caricture of a guy doing Travis Bickel monologues in front of a mirror.

  • ||

    "If Crittendon had shot him for his little "it was unloaded?!?!" stunt, I'd certainly understand why he felt threatened."

    I disagree. Arenas never pointed a gun at him. He just stuck him in his locker. So, I don't see how he threatened him with a gun. Now, if Crittenden had taken one of those "unloaded" guns and broke it over Arenas's head, I wouldn't have blamed him.

  • Mo||

    So if someone writes you a letter threatening to shoot you and then brandishes weapons, you wouldn't consider that a threat?

  • ||

    When did Arenas ever "brandish a weapon"? To my knowledge he didn't. That is the point.

  • ||

    Mo appears to have the all too comment talent for seeing what he wants to. (I'll give the benefit of the doubt that he actually *did* read the article.)

  • Mo||

    Definition 2: To display aggressively or ostentatiously. I'm not sure why making violent threats is ok by people. If he had been suspended solely for having guns, I would agree that he was mistreated and the punishment doesn't fit the crime. However, the additional background of making violent threats makes this more than being suspended for possessing unloaded weapons.

  • WTF||

    You've got it backwards, though. Crittenton said he would shoot Arenas in the knee. Arenas left a selection of unloaded guns on the desk, with a note saying "pick one". And then he confronted Crittenton and said "you said you were going to shoot me; pick one." Basically challenging him to go ahead and try to shoot him.

    So Arenas wasn't making the threat.

    But having the handgun within D.C. violated D.C.'s city code. We can argue all day long (here, at Reason? no way!) about whether that should or should not be a felony, but D.C.'s law apparently provided for it to be so.

  • Mo||

    You got the order wrong. Crittenton challenged him to a fight. Then Arenas said that he's too old but he’d burn his SUV or shoot him in the face. Only after all that did Crittenton threaten to shoot him in the knee.

  • WTF||

    Right - and then Arenas offered Crittenton a selection of guns with which to do it.

    “You said you were going to shoot me,” Arenas reminded Crittenton. “So pick one.”

    He never waved a gun at Crittenton and threatened to shoot him with it.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Arenas is hardly a poster-child for over-aggresive gun prosecutions

    I was not aware that only picturesque individuals were deserving of legal or intellectual defense. Thanks for updating me.

  • Abdul||

    TAO, you really don't know what the term "poster child" means?

  • The Angry Optimist||

    I am more than aware. Just curious why you are upset about the fact that Arenas is not one.

  • Abdul||

    Then you should know it's not based on his looks.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    "picturesque" was to be taken as "evoking a mental image" of a defendable candidate, and should have been taken more metaphorically rather than pedantically.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    There's not much point in defending the right of cute, fuzzy bunnies to be cute and fuzzy.

  • DADIODADDY||

    not yet...

  • ||

    The second amendment is my gun permit.

  • CE||

    And I don't need no stinkin' amendment to give me my rights.

  • ||

    Even though the gov't prohibits it, I still smoke weed, but in private. If one is going to challenge a stupid law, then go all the way and challenge it. Or stay underground. Going halfway will only get you trouble.

  • JEP||

    Thank God for Aaron Burr. That's all I'm sayin'

  • ||

    So, DC Government is a bunch of pantswetting pussies who waste resources to make an example out of someone to thumb their nose at the Supreme Court, Peter Vecsey is a panstwetting pussy who can't get simple facts strait, and David Stern is a pantswetting pussy when he thinks league dollars are in jeopardy when they probably are not, at all. Got it.

  • Basil Marceaux Dot Com||

    Everybody pray to God and...say A-Men.
    See you at the polls.

  • ||

    the tabloid heckler who mousetrapped the player with reckless smears

    Sports writers are even more abhorrent than other forms of opinion columnists.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    "Arenas, a sometimes exasperating but often endearingly free-spirited man-child"

    That is to say, an oversized asshole

    "the rhetorical equivalent of bear-baiting"

    That is to say, nothing at all like bear-baiting, in which, among other things, the bear is tortured and killed

    If Arenas wanted to make himself a test case for the impact of the Supreme Court's dcision on the DC gun laws, well, he got his reward.

    And if he wanted to act like an overbearing asshole, well, he got that reward as well.

  • ||

    No, you don't prosecute someone as a felon and try to imprison them for being an overbearing asshole. Not here. But imagine if we did ... you think our prisons are overcrowded NOW?

    And thank you for the helpful clarification: Arenas was not literally, physically, tortured and killed. That's why I referred to a "rhetorical equivalent" — to suggestion an analogy. The specific terms of the ANALOGICAL equivalence:
    1) Arenas — under investigation by team, feds and league — was not free to defend himself against accusers. As we learned: Merely for some feeble gestures of resistance to Vecsey he was suspended from basketball for most of a season.

    2) Vecsey's attacks were far more prolonged and vicious than necessary to achieve any plausible practical end. Vecsey seemed to delight in Arenas' misery for its own sake. The malicious onslaught of slurs was, in short, gratuitous. The way torturing a shackled animal for entertainment is gratuitous for the purpose of killing the creature.

  • Subsidize Me!||

    First, if Peter Vecsey was on fire, I wouldn't piss on him to put him out. The absence of malice in his reporting is at times questionable, but the presence of pure belligerent stupidity is always palpable. Mike Wise ripped him up pretty good for this and other things, but I can't find a good link to the transcript other than this. And he sucks on TV. Fuck him.

    Secondly, Arenas is a moron. I highly doubt he had any idea what Heller was, so the author citing Arenas' assertion that this affected his behavior (rather than a half-assed attempt at an excuse) is laughable. If one is so stupid/entitled/senseless as to think that firearms are a joke, surely the laws governing their use aren't a huge issue of concern, either. Furthermore, whatever the NBA does to him afterwards is not a matter of concern. Go practice your trade somewhere else, dolt.

    Third, DC fucking sucks. They use absurd examples like this to prohibit people like me from exercising my absolute right to protect myself (and my property) with the same force that others less bound by lawful behavior would use to control me. These fuckwads look for every possible excuse to squash gun rights, and their vigilance is unyielding.

    So fuck you, Gilbert, you stupid asshat. Fuck you on behalf of all the chumps like me that are forced to live in DC and are hurt by your "joke" and the resultant bedwetting by gun-grabbers. And fuck DC.

    /rant

  • CE||

    You guys obviously aren't basketball fans. NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas for the remainder of the season, without pay, costing him around ten million dollars, not for the gun confrontation with Crittenton, but for later pointing his index fingers like guns before a game to the TV cameras, thus (in Stern's view) mocking the Commissioner and making light of what Arenas was supposed to view as a very serious situation.

  • ||

    just watch an episode of LAW AND ORDER concerning a white man and a firearm and you will hear all of the conventional pc wisdom on gun ownership.
    A CHRISTIAN GUY AND A GUN.....WELL, HITLER INCARNATE.

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