(Cover story image of USA TODAY Weekend Edition for December 7-9)
David Leon Moore, USA TODAY Sports
(USA Today) -- Former NFL running back Thomas Jones was always around guns, long before he became a football-carrying member of that unofficial gun club within the National Football League.
As a kid, he and his buddies fired guns in the woods in Big Stone Gap, Va. They'd shoot bottles and go hunting.
His dad had guns.
Jones bought his first gun his senior year at the University of Virginia, and, as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals a dozen years ago, he learned quickly that guns were an ingrained part of the NFL culture.
"Most guys when they first come into the league is when they first start to realize they need protection," Jones says. "Because money brings a lot of positive things. But most of the time, it brings more negative things. People don't like you for what you have, for who you are. They don't like you for what you represent. And people will go to any length to take what you have or harm you in some way just because they don't have what you have. If you don't have a firearm to protect you from situations and God forbid something happens to you, you wish you would have a firearm."
Jones, who retired last season with the Kansas City Chiefs after 12 years in the league, was a big brother to young linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend, and then himself, last Saturday.
Yet less than a week removed from the tragic shootings in Kansas City, NFL players aren't ready to give any ground on their belief that carrying guns is not only a right but, in their world, a necessity. Indeed, numerous players told USA TODAY Sports that in their estimation, roughly three-quarters of NFL players owned guns, compared with 40% to 45% of households in the general population, according to the National Rifle Association.
Though no statistics on NFL gun ownership exist, and league spokesman Greg Aiello called the percentage estimates "a wild guess," even former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy - widely viewed, even now, as the moral compass of the NFL - says the number of players who armed themselves during his tenure "shocked" him.
When Dungy, now an NBC analyst, was coaching the Colts, he'd always ask at the first team meeting of the year, "How many of you guys have guns?" Then he would tell the players that they needed to register their weapons in Indiana.
"I was always shocked at the number of guys who raised their hand. ... That was kind of eye-opening to me. ... (But) it's just a fact of life. These guys had them. ... I think so many of these young guys have been around guns and have seen guns, and they just feel that's part of the landscape for them growing up."
Like Jones, Belcher owned guns. But Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, the mother of their three-month-old daughter, and then killed himself with a different gun in front of his coach and general manager in the parking lot of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.
"I'm not ... trying to tell guys in the league they need to purchase firearms," Jones says. "I'm just saying to be realistic about our lifestyle."
Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer for the NRA, dismisses any notion that guns are to blame for the tragedy, or that NFL players are in some way different.
"It's not a culture of athletes," he says. "It is particular behavior by particular individuals that is no different from the rest of society. We've got to stop making excuses. A murderer is a murderer."
According to numerous players, it's not a secret that the NFL is loaded with firearms. One of the reasons routinely mentioned is protection, and one of the incidents players often cite is the death of Sean Taylor, a Washington Redskins safety who was killed in a home invasion in Miami in 2007. He was 24.
Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks echoes the mantra that it's all about protection. The third-year player, who declined to say whether he owns a gun, says "70% of the NFL players have guns. Guys get them as soon as they start getting some money, when people start knowing where you live."
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Players in other pro sports leagues agree with that sentiment, including in the NBA where former Utah Jazz star Karl Malone, a noted outdoorsman, once put the number of gun owners at "close to 60%."
But just as in the greater society beyond sports, gun ownership isn't only about protection. For many players and millions of Americans, guns are simply the equipment for another popular
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls himself "a huge hunter" and says he owns rifles, shotguns and handguns. He estimates the percentage of NFL players who own guns at "over 75%-80%."
Roethlisberger's teammate, James Harrison, is a gun collector and one of the most avid gun advocates in sports. Harrison reacted to the Belcher story with sadness, but the all-pro linebacker is unapologetic about his passion for firearms.
"It has nothing to do with the guns," Harrison says. "Somebody goes out and kills somebody with a knife; you going to blame the knife? It's the person who did it who's responsible."
Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan no longer owns a gun. But he says he grew up in Washington, D.C., carrying unregistered handguns. He gave up guns "after one of my best friends got killed. That's when I had to stop. When you see so many people get killed and you witness so many deaths and go to so many funerals before you leave high school - and you've got 12, 13, 14 friends die from murder or get stabbed - you get tired of going to funerals. You get tired of crying."
Morgan says he knows a lot of players who own guns for protection, and he defends their right, even as he chooses not to exercise his.
"Some people just have nothing to lose," he says. "When you've got people like that, you've got no choice but to protect yourself and protect your family."
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The NFL's Aiello says the league educates players about guns and weapons every year. Each team conducts an annual mandatory preseason meeting with NFL security, club security and local law enforcement at which gun laws are reviewed and explained. At this meeting, NFL employees are urged not to own guns, according to Aiello.
Some players have followed that advice.
"I do not own a gun," says Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen. "It's something my wife and I have discussed. We (the team) are away a lot, so it gives me some peace of mind knowing she could protect herself (if she did have a gun). It also makes me nervous because there are a lot of issues with gun safety."
Paulsen, who puts the league gun ownership number at "70-80%," realizes that he's "definitely in the minority."
But Troy Vincent, the NFL vice president of player engagement who played from 1992-2006, disputes that the league has a gun culture, or that players commonly own and collect guns.
"No. No. I've never. ... You'll hear people say, 80%-90%, 20%. How do you know that? We don't ask that question. That's personal information. ... (But) we're not naive by any stretch of the imagination."
While echoing Aiello's comments that the league does all it can to educate players, Vincent shed tears and became emotional when asked about the Belcher tragedy.
"A young lady lost her life, and it didn't have to be that way."
Family and friends said goodbye to Kasandra Perkins, 22, at a funeral Thursday in Blue Ridge, Texas.
Too eager to arm?
Because Belcher was a gun owner, a person in his home would have been three times more likely to be involved in a homicide, and five times more likely to have killed himself, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
If that Saturday in Kansas City were an average day in America, 32 people were slain with guns and another 54 people were killed by guns in suicides or accidents, according to the Brady Center. More than 31,000 people in the USA die in gun-related incidents each year. This year, one of those deaths was the stunning suicide of recently retired NFL superstar linebacker Junior Seau, who had acquired a handgun for protection but, according to his friends, hardly knew how to load it.
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Whatever the reasons athletes give for gun ownership - or their Second Amendment rights to legally purchase firearms - gun safety advocates continue to be concerned about the link between guns and professional athletes. There's nothing wrong with owning a gun, they say, if the buyer is ready for gun ownership.
"You have young people with a lot of money, and there may be a quickness in a decision to buy a gun," says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center. "There's a kind of social norm that exists in certain professional sports around ownership of a gun. It's kind of encouraged. And I think there's a tendency among professional athletes not to look into the right equation in terms of risks versus benefits."
Not true, says the NRA's LaPierre, who blames the premise of a gun culture in the NFL on the media and anti-gun groups.
"You've got good Americans who love to play sports, who are disciplined, who are responsible, and they're no different from any other Americans," he says. "Owning guns is a mainstream part of American culture, and it's growing every day."
Gross says he and his organization aren't trying to ban guns.
They seek education and awareness, and they urge potential gun owners to pause and consider that - statistically speaking - placing themselves around guns increases their risks.
"What we saw with Belcher and Kasandra Perkins was a very clear manifestation of those risks, as was Junior Seau," Gross says.
LaPierre counters: "The one thing missing in that equation is that woman owning a gun so she could have saved her life from that murderer."
Other sports leagues
Just as with the NFL, other pro sports leagues have had their share of gun controversies.
In December 2009, Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton violated NBA rules when they had unloaded guns in the Washington Wizards' team locker room. Both were suspended for the remainder of the season. But gun ownership - for sport and protection - remains vibrant.
Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, now a commentator on TNT, says, "Most of the guys I played with over the years always had protection. We've had some players get mugged going home late at night, coming off a road trip or leaving nightclubs. But I've never heard of a situation like (the Belcher shootings) where everything went crazy."
Barkley, too, says that a tragic aberration like what happened in Kansas City doesn't diminish his right to own a weapon: Having a gun "is a personal choice. It's my personal choice, and I'm not going to change it. I don't care what anybody says."
NBA veteran and Los Angeles Clippers star Lamar Odom doesn't own a gun, even though he was once held up at gunpoint.
"I understand there are mixed feelings and mixed emotions about it," he says. "I think it's our right to be able to protect our homes, but I just don't feel the need."
Major League Baseball has long been associated with a hunting culture. This week, Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum revealed that former teammate Robin Yount accidentally shot him in the right ear on a recent quail hunt. And San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes spoke out on guns after one of his pitchers, Andrew Cashner, lacerated a tendon in his right thumb with a knife after a deer hunt this offseason.
"As a GM, I am concerned," Byrnes said Thursday, while noting that he supports gun control. "We can control things on the job, but away from it, we hope they make the right decisions."
But Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren argues that hunting lends itself to experience with guns.
"What's different is that the hunting culture for the most part are the most gun-savvy and the most careful and cautious of any group of gun owners," says Wren. "And we're also not talking about handguns. That's a whole other class that we don't see."
Wren has plenty of experience on his teams with avid hunters, among them recently retired star Chipper Jones and former Braves first baseman Adam Laroche. Wren recalls them often setting up targets under the stadium where the grounds crew stores sand and practicing with bows and arrows. But he says in his 25 years with several franchises, he's never come across issues with players and guns. He says part of that stems from many players coming from Sun Belt states, where guns are often introduced in childhood.
"The first thing you do as a kid in the South is go take a gun safety course," Wren says.
Saving lives, or taking lives?
But just a day after the Chiefs gathered at Belcher's memorial service, players question whether the murder-suicide will have any lasting impact on the league.
Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress, infamous for accidentally shooting himself in a New York City nightclub in 2008, called the Belcher shootings "very, very unfortunate" but isn't sure the tragedy will be a lasting lesson to a gun-heavy league.
"It will for a little while," says Burress, who served 20 months in prison because he was carrying the gun illegally. "But over time something else will happen and we'll be having the same discussion then. Things like this happen to people every day. It just happened to be Jovan, somebody that we knew."
Steelers safety and player representative Ryan Clark doesn't own a gun in a locker room where his quarterback estimates that most of his teammates do. He has twice seen gun-related tragedies up close. Clark's freshman year at LSU in 1999, a close friend killed himself with a shotgun blast to the face.
"Everybody sat around the next day when we found out, wondering what could we have done different. What could we have said to him? You don't see the signs. We never found out why," Clark says.
He was also a teammate and friend of the Redskins' Taylor, whom he played with from 2004-05 before joining Steelers in 2006. Taylor armed himself with a machete during the home invasion in which he was shot dead.
"If Sean had a gun, he's probably alive today," Clark says. "I choose not to own one. But guys are targets and they have their families and they have guns in their homes, they want to protect themselves and they have the right to. The law gives them the right to."
Clark recognizes the difficult calculus, and societal wrenching, over the issue of gun ownership.
"In that case, Sean Taylor, maybe it saves a life there. But in the next case (Belcher), it takes two lives."
Contributing: Jim Corbett in Pittsburgh, Lindsay H. Jones in Kansas City, Mo., Robert Klemko in Landover, Md., Mike Garafolo Florham Park, N.J., Paul White and Bob Nightengale in Nashville.