Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend Dec. 1 and later the same day committed suicide. (Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images)
David Leon Moore, USA TODAY Sports
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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.
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"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."