BURKESVILLE, Ky. — As Stephanie Sparks cleaned the kitchen, her 5-year-old son, Kristian, began playing with a rifle he was given last year. She stepped out onto the front porch, poured grease out of a frying pan for the dogs, and “heard the gun go off,” a Kentucky coroner said.
Authorities said the boy had fatally shot his 2-year-old sister, Caroline, in the chest.
In rural southern Kentucky, far removed from the national debate over gun control, where some children get their first guns even before they start first grade, the accident stunned the community.
Kristian’s rifle was kept in a corner of the mobile home, and the family did not realize a bullet had been left in it, said Cumberland County’s coroner, Gary White.
“Down in Kentucky where we’re from, you know, guns are passed down from generation to generation,” White said. “You start at a young age with guns for hunting and everything.”
What is more unusual than a child having a gun, he said, is “that a kid would get shot with it.”
At the funeral for Caroline Sparks on Saturday, mourners seemed upset at the national furor over the case, saying people have been too quick to judge the rural tradition of youthful gun use.
In this case, the rifle was made by a company that sells guns specifically for children — “My first rifle” is the slogan — in colors ranging from plain brown to hot pink to royal blue to multicolor swirls.
“It’s a normal way of life, and it’s not just rural Kentucky, it’s rural America — hunting and shooting and sport fishing. It starts at an early age,” said Cumberland County’s judge executive, John Phelps said. “There’s probably not a household in this county that doesn’t have a gun.”
In Cumberland County, as elsewhere in Kentucky, local newspapers feature photos of children proudly displaying their kills, including turkey and deer. Even one of the latest reality shows on Country Music Television, “Guntucky,” features a family-owned gun range in Kentucky. The range, Knob Creek, says on its website that it is as a safe place for youngsters to learn about firearms and offers family memberships.
“The whole town is heartbroken,” Phelps said of Burkesville, a farming community of 1,800 northeast of Nashville. “This was a total shock.”
The company that makes the rifle, Milton, Pa.-based Keystone Sporting Arms, has a “Kids Corner” on its website with pictures of young boys and girls at shooting ranges and on bird and deer hunts. It says the company produced 60,000 Crickett and Chipmunk rifles for kids in 2008. The smaller rifles are sold with a mount to use at a shooting range.