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Ky. child shooting part of urban-rural gun debate

Thursday - 5/2/2013, 12:24pm  ET

A home in Cumberland County, Ky, is seen on May 1, 2013, where a 2-year-old girl was shot by her 5-year-old brother with a gun designed for children. Investigators say the Tuesday shooting was accidental. The children's mother was home at the time of the shooting Tuesday afternoon but had stepped out to the front porch for a few minutes and "she heard the gun go off," Cumberland County Coroner Gary White said. He said the rifle was kept in a corner and the family didn't realize a bullet was left inside it.(AP Photo/Dylan Lovan)

DYLAN LOVAN
Associated Press

BURKESVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- 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 didn't realize a bullet had been left in it, Cumberland County Coroner Gary White said.

"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."

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 multi-color 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," Cumberland County 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 CMT, "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.

Ruby Wright, who teaches hunter safety classes in Burkesville, said children younger than 9 can sit in, but they can't get certification. She also coaches 4-H shooting sports, requiring those children to be 9 as well.

Phelps, who is much like a mayor in these parts, said it had been four or five years since there had been a shooting death in the county, which lies along the Cumberland River near the Tennessee state line.

"The whole town is heartbroken," Phelps said of Burkesville, a farming community of 1,800 about 90 miles northeast of Nashville, Tenn. "This was a total shock. This was totally unexpected."

Phelps said he knew the family well. He said the father, Chris Sparks, works as a logger at a mill and also shoes horses.

The family lives in a gray mobile home on a long, winding road, surrounded by rolling hills and farmland that's been in the family since the 1930s. Toys, including a small truck and a basketball goal, were on the front porch, but no one was home Wednesday.

There's a house across the street, but the next-closest neighbor lives over a hill.

Family friend Logan Wells said he received a frantic call telling him that the little girl was in an accident and to come quickly.

When he got to the hospital, Caroline was already dead. "She passed just when I got there," Wells said.

White said the shooting had been ruled accidental, though a police spokesman said it was unclear whether any charges will be filed.

"I think it's too early to say whether there will or won't be," Trooper Billy Gregory said.

White said the boy received the .22-caliber rifle as a gift, but it wasn't clear who gave him the gun, which is known as a Crickett.

"It's a little rifle for a kid. ... The little boy's used to shooting the little gun," White said.

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.

Keystone also makes guns for adults, but most of its products are geared toward children, including books, hats and bright orange vests.

"The goal of KSA is to instill gun safety in the minds of youth shooters and encourage them to gain the knowledge and respect that hunting and shooting activities require and deserve," the website said.

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