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 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.
No one at the company answered the phone Wednesday.
According to the website, company founders Bill McNeal and his son Steve McNeal decided to make guns for young shooters in the mid-1990s and opened Keystone in 1996 with just four employees, producing 4,000 rifles that year. It now employs about 70 people.
It also has a long list of testimonials from parents who talk about how grateful they are to be able to go shooting with their children. All of the guns have safety locks, and some even have ones that require a key.
Police did not release the model of the rifle Kristian had.
Sharon Rengers, a longtime child advocate at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, said making and marketing weapons specifically for children was “mind-boggling.”
“It’s like, oh, my God,” she said, “we’re having a big national debate whether we want to check somebody’s background, but we’re going to offer a 4-year-old a gun and expect something good from that?”
State Rep. Robert R. Damron, a Democrat and an outspoken gun rights advocate in Kentucky, said the problem is not guns, but the parents who do not teach gun safety and responsibility.
“Why single out firearms? Why not talk about all the other things that endanger children, too?” he said. “The Second Amendment doesn’t give anybody carte blanche freedom to put children and juveniles at risk.”