What exactly did Ja Morant do wrong? The 23-year-old NBA superstar faced a barrage of criticism after he was seen in an Instagram Live last weekend waving a handgun while bopping to music in a car. This was Morant’s second public escapade with a firearm. He was suspended from his team, the Memphis Grizzlies, in March after a thematically similar video surfaced of Morant in a Denver nightclub.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in March that Morant’s behavior was “irresponsible, reckless and potentially dangerous.” Silver was dismayed by last weekend’s video, too, commenting that Morant “could have injured, maimed, killed himself, someone else with an act like that.”
All that’s objectively true, of course. But Morant doesn’t work in a place where such truth has any purchase. He works in Tennessee, where Republican legislators have dismantled so many safety regulations that only the fringiest gun rights — open carry for 18-year-olds is now on the menu — have yet to be enacted.
It’s unclear where exactly Morant was when the latest video was shot. But if he was in the Grizzlies home state, his behavior was not only legal, it was arguably beyond reproach. Irresponsible, reckless and dangerous are pillars of Tennessee firearms laws, which allow state residents, no matter how untrained or unfit, to be armed at all times. If Morant purchased his gun from a private seller without a background check, well that’s fine in Tennessee, too.
The state laws get results. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee had one of the highest gun fatality rates in the nation, at 22.8 per 100,000 residents in 2021. The comparable figure for the state of New York was 5.4.
There’s no prohibition on dancing with a deadly partner in your car, either. Since 2014, anyone in Tennessee legally permitted to possess a gun can keep a loaded handgun, shotgun or rifle in a car or truck. “It's essentially an extension of the ‘castle doctrine,’ that you can defend your ‘castle,’” said Republican state Senator Mike Bell, who sponsored the legislation.
Tennessee legislators didn’t just extend your castle to your car, they extended it clear across the state by adopting permitless carry, open or concealed, and a stand-your-ground law that removes the duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense — or at least what the surviving gunman claims to have been self-defense. As the Giffords Law Center notes, the state’s laws “also make it harder to properly investigate these cases by limiting law enforcement’s ability to arrest someone who claims to have acted in self-defense.”
Tennessee is so eager to arm its citizens that even domestic abusers have a good shot at holding on to their guns, making it easier to continue terrorizing partners and families. As ProPublica reported last month:
Tennessee’s current gun dispossession process has a significant and sometimes dangerous loophole, which kicks in immediately after an abuser is ordered to give up their guns. While other states require guns to be turned over to law enforcement, Tennessee allows someone to give their guns to a third party, like a friend or a relative.
The state also has no mechanism to ensure that the gun is actually ever turned over to that third party at all. Instead, the system trusts that a person who is abusing their partner will keep their word and surrender their weapons. The gun owner is supposed to fill out an affidavit indicating how they dispossessed, but advocates for domestic violence victims say that form rarely gets filed with the court.
Forget about “irresponsible, reckless and potentially dangerous.” In Tennessee, you can be known to be dangerously violent and still keep your guns. Mayors of Tennessee cities have pleaded with the state to adopt rudimentary laws to make it harder for violent men to kill. The state responded by further loosening restrictions.
Professional basketball makes heroes of exceptionally talented young men like Morant. In return for gobs of money and arenas full of adulation, however, the NBA demands that certain standards of decency and decorum be upheld.
Silver said he thought Morant shared his concern about the potential damage that could flow from Morant’s public display of recklessness, that “millions, if not tens of millions, of kids globally would see him as having done something that was celebrating” a casual disregard for human life.
The leadership of the NBA doesn’t want to glorify stupidity, recklessness and violence. But the leadership of Tennessee very much does. Indeed, Tennessee Republicans enable all that — champion it — every day.
With his gunplay, Morant has delivered a message that is fundamentally no different than the one telegraphed by GOP leaders in Washington and in state capitals. Morant was exercising his Tennessee right to be an armed fool and put lives, including his own, in danger. Is there a problem with that?
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.