by Greg Heakes, Agence France-Presse | 12/19/2012 6:48 PM
LOS ANGELES - US athletes were quick to denounce the Connecticut school massacre, but a string of shootings involving star players indicates that many are avid gun owners who pack their heat wherever they go.
The shootings have alarmed fans and drawn the wrath of league commissioners like Roger Goodell of the National Football League, trying to crack down on bad behaviour with tougher rules, longer suspensions and increased counselling.
Professional athletes have been known to take guns on team flights, carry them in their cars and even sneak them into their teams' dressing rooms.
Earlier this month, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher used a .40-calibre handgun to kill his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, in their home.
Belcher then drove to the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium, where he used a different handgun to kill himself in front of the team's coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
The Kansas City Star reported Monday that Belcher, who unloaded 10 shots into Perkins's body, had threatened to kill his longtime girlfriend in a text message he sent a couple of weeks earlier to another girlfriend.
Many American sports stars were shaken by the slaughter of 20 young children and six adults allegedly shot by 20-year-old Adam Lanza at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday.
Some, like Tennessee Titans player Chris Johnson, paid tribute to the victims by wearing shoes with the names of the children and their teachers written on them.
But Belcher's case is not an isolated one. There have been a number of off-field incidents over the years involving US athletes and firearms.
Three years ago, NBA player Delonte West, who was playing for Cleveland at the time, was riding a motorcycle when he was pulled over by police.
They found a 9mm handgun in his waistband, a .357 Magnum revolver strapped to his leg and a shotgun hidden in a guitar case slung over his shoulder.
Lito Sheppard, who played for the NFL's Oakland Raiders last year, reportedly owned around 17 guns, while former NBA star Jayson Williams was showing his gun collection to friends in 2002 when a gun went off accidentally, killing his limo driver Costas Christofi.
NFL player Darrent Williams was shot dead in his limousine outside a Denver nightclub six years ago following an earlier altercation.
In 2006, a total of 15 NFL players were arrested on violence-related charges.
Incidents like these have left experts asking whether there is an increased gun culture among athletes, or if they are a reflection of American society as a whole.
Many athletes say they need guns because their celebrity and wealth makes them a target.
The NFL's personal conduct policy requires players who engage in criminal activity to get a psychological evaluation and, if needed, take anger management courses.
Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy said that when he was coaching, he'd always ask at the team's first teaming of the season, "How many of you guys have guns?"
"I was always shocked at the number of guys who raised their hand. (But) it's just a fact of life. These guys had them," he told USA Today earlier this month.
"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."
America has suffered an epidemic of gun violence over the last three decades, including more than 60 mass shooting incidents since 1982.
The vast majority of weapons used have been semi-automatic handguns or military-style assault weapons obtained legally by the killers.
There were an estimated 310 million non-military firearms in the United States as of 2009, one for each citizen. People in America are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than someone in another developed country.
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