Ja Morant Gun Controversy Tests Colorado Law, NBA Rules

Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant is under investigation by Colorado police and the NBA for displaying what appeared to be a gun during an Instagram Live video on March 4, only hours after his team lost to the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena.

Morant, 23, was reportedly at Shotgun Willie’s, a Glendale, Colo., establishment that describes itself as “Denver Metro’s premiere and most legendary Gentleman’s club.” Morant has apologized and stepped away from the team, with no set date to return.

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It is generally lawful in Colorado for an adult to carry a licensed firearm. The state is considered “open carry,” which means an adult doesn’t need a permit to carry a gun in plain sight, including in restaurants and bars that do not post signage prohibiting open carry.

However, the Colorado Revised Statutes instruct that a person in possession of a firearm while under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance commits a class two misdemeanor—which is punishable by up to 120 days in jail. The Glendale Municipal Code expresses the same point: Possession of a firearm while intoxicated is illegal.

In the video, which for now can be found on YouTube, Morant is seen dancing and singing, but he isn’t shown drinking or taking drugs. There’s no reason to believe his blood alcohol content was measured.

As part of its investigation, the Glendale Police Department could attempt to secure other available video footage, including from nearby persons’ phones or Shotgun Willie’s security cameras. The police could also interview club workers and patrons. In addition, police could attempt to ascertain if Morant purchased alcohol on a credit card while there, though such a charge by itself wouldn’t prove he consumed the drinks he bought.

Morant could also have run afoul of NBA rules. Under Section 9, Article VI of the CBA, players are prohibited from possessing a firearm “of any kind” in numerous settings, including “whenever a player is traveling on any NBA-related business, whether on behalf of the player’s team, the NBA or any League-related entity.” Although Morant wasn’t partaking in a team-related activity while at Shotgun Willie’s, he was in Glendale as part of his team’s road trip and subject to team rules about personal conduct.

Should he own or possess a firearm, Morant also has a duty under the same provision to provide the Grizzlies proof that he has the proper license and registration. Morant’s relationship to the apparent firearm is not known.

It is the sole discretion of NBA commissioner Adam Silver to determine if Morant violated either gun requirement or otherwise engaged in “conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the Association.” In that scenario, Silver could suspend Morant for a definite or indefinite period and fine him as well.

A player brandishing a gun while partying in a strip club and streaming it on Instagram might be lawful under Colorado law. However, given Morant’s high profile, the NBA could still deem the activity damaging to the league’s brand and harmful to relationships with fans, sponsors and broadcast partners.

To that point, the NBA has a history of taking firearm matters seriously.

In 2007, then-commissioner David Stern suspended Golden State Warriors forward Stephen Jackson for seven games after he pleaded guilty to a criminal recklessness charge for firing a gun outside a strip club in Indianapolis. He claimed he was breaking up a fight, but it was still illegal.

Three years later, Stern suspended Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas indefinitely for bringing guns into the locker room and for an incident with teammate Javaris Crittenton in which both were armed and threatened each other. Arenas’ suspension lasted 50 games. He also pleaded guilty to carrying an unlicensed pistol outside a home or business and drew a sentence that included 30 days in a halfway house and two years’ probation.

In 2014, Silver suspended Dallas Mavericks guard Raymond Felton for four games after Felton pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a firearm in New York. Felton acknowledged he was in possession of a semi-automatic pistol without a license, and he was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

Two years ago, the NBA suspended Minnesota Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley for 12 games after he pleaded guilty to threatening to commit a crime of violence for the purpose of terrorizing another person. Beasley, who was arrested after pointing a gun at people in a car near his house, was sentenced by a Minnesota judge to 120 days in jail.

Last fall, Morant was named a defendant in a lawsuit where he is accused of punching a 17-year-old during an argument over a pick-up basketball game. Morant wasn’t charged with a crime and has maintained he acted in self-defense. According to The Washington Post, the teenager claims that “after the fight, Morant went into his house and re-emerged with a gun visible in the waistband of his pants and his hand on the weapon.”

So far, sponsors are sticking by Morant. Nike, which last December announced the Ja 1 signature shoe, issued a statement saying: “We appreciate Ja’s accountability and that he is taking the time to get the help he needs. We support his prioritization of his well-being.”

Should the situation worsen for Morant, companies with whom he has endorsement deals could invoke contractual language that authorizes termination or reduction in pay. Morals clauses, for example, concern a player bringing themselves into public disrepute or engaging in conduct that insults or offends the community in which the brand serves.

Last year the Grizzlies signed Morant to a five-year rookie extension that is worth at least $193 million and could top $231 million.

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