BURKESVILLE, Ky. — In southern Kentucky, where children get their first guns even before they start first grade, Stephanie Sparks paid little attention as her 5-year-old son, Kristian, played with the rifle he was given last year. Then, as she stepped onto the front porch while cleaning the kitchen, "she heard the gun go off," a coroner said.
In a horrific accident Tuesday that shocked a rural area far removed from the national debate over gun control, the boy had killed his 2-year-old sister, Caroline, with a single shot to the chest.
"Down in Kentucky where we're from, you know, guns are passed down from generation to generation," Cumberland County Coroner Gary 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 orange to royal blue to multicolor swirls.
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.
"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 Judge Executive John Phelps. "There's probably not a household in this county that doesn't have a gun."
"The whole town is heartbroken," Phelps said of Burkesville, a farming community of 1,800 about 90 miles northeast of Nashville. "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.
White said the shooting had been ruled accidental, though a police spokesman said it was unclear whether any charges will be filed.
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.