Steve Kerr on Guns: ‘How Insane Are We?’

The coach of the Golden State Warriors has had enough
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Steve Kerr, coach of the Golden State Warriors, has spoken out in favor of gun control. Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr appeared on The TK Show, a podcast hosted by sportswriter Tim Kawakami of The Mercury News. The heavily favored Warriors had just lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and Kerr went through a painful, protracted dissection of what went wrong. He also spoke about the season finale of Game of Thrones and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, a World War II novel Kerr had read.

“Just a beautiful story,” he said. “Very sad.”

At the half-hour mark, Kawakami thought the interview was over. He thanked Kerr for his time, his voice hastening the show toward its conclusion.

But Kerr wasn’t through.

“One more thing,” he interrupted. He said that, as a basketball coach, he doesn’t often “get political,” but he needed to get political because he needed to talk about guns. The shooting in Orlando, Florida, had just happened, and then the sit-in by House Democrats in favor of gun control. After that, nothing had happened, just as nothing had happened after Sandy Hook and Aurora and all the other massacres. The Republicans deemed the sit-in a stunt. The National Rifle Association (NRA) reminded us all that the Second Amendment was sacrosanct, apparently more than life itself.

This was making Kerr furious, more furious than the officiating during the Finals. “Our government is insane,” he said. The lack of background checks is insane, he said, as is unthinking fealty to the Second Amendment by many in the GOP. He alluded to his own father’s murder in 1984. “It just devastates me every time I read about this stuff.”

I spoke to Kerr on Monday morning, and it is evident that his seemingly spontaneous outburst was, in fact, a statement of long-held conviction.

“It’s been bothering me for a long time,” he says. Kerr found the House sit-in, led in part by Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, “inspiring,” a welcome change to the usual put-ons of solemnity by Capitol Hill.

“It’s not enough to send thoughts and prayers every time people get massacred,” Kerr says. “People have to speak out. I’ve never really been one to use my sports status as a platform for anything, but I think it’s important.”

The NBA has aired commercials against gun violence, but this was something authentic and unvarnished. It was powerful because it was personal.

Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was the president of the American University of Beirut when he was shot to death by Islamic jihad gunmen on January 18, 1984. Kerr was playing basketball for the University of Arizona at the time. He says while the murder of his father is “definitely a part of” his objection to our freewheeling gun culture, there are more immediate sources to his anger—and bewilderment. Like many others, he thinks the nation has gone mad. Indeed, a nation in which toddlers routinely kill themselves with guns very likely has.

He is utterly unconvinced by the NRA’s assertion that a “bad guy with a gun” can be stopped only by a “good guy with a gun.”

“How’s that working out right now?” Kerr asks.

The position that more guns are the best antidote to gun violence is now championed by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has called himself “a very big Second Amendment person.”

So is he troubled by Trump’s rhetoric on guns? Kerr says he is troubled by “his rhetoric on a lot of things.”  

Some on the left would like to a see a national gun buyback program of the sort Australia instituted in 1996. Kerr thinks that a worthy political aim but notes that, with 300 million guns in the United States, it isn’t likely to happen.

Instead, the Warriors coach offered what he thought was a more feasible proposal: background checks, combined with mandatory training on the proper usage of weapons. “It's so sensible,” he says, “regardless of which side you’re on."

While there’s plenty of debate on how much such measures would do to attenuate gun violence, most everyone knows that the status quo will yield more Auroras, Orlandos and Sandy Hooks.

The last of these is especially troubling to Kerr: a slaughter of 20 children that saw no concession from the gun lobby, only more recalcitrance and more dishonest talking points about mental health and arming teachers, many of which Trump has reiterated in recent weeks, even after Orlando.

“How insane are we?” Kerr asks.

Kerr wonders if things would have been different if one of those murdered children in Connecticut had belonged to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Would he be as unstinting in his defense of the gun lobby? Would he still hold the Second Amendment in such immensely high esteem?

Kerr tells me he is willing to serve as a spokesman for gun control, whatever that may mean. Judging by the internet’s response, his voice was welcome in a debate dominated by politicians angling for elections. Kerr has to win ball games, not votes. If he complains about a referee’s missed call, he could be fined thousands of dollars by the league. But there is no injunction against speaking the truth on guns, no rule against telling the nation what it needs to hear.