BURKESVILLE, Ky. (AP) — In southern Kentucky, where some children get their first guns even before they start first grade, Stephanie Sparks was cleaning the kitchen as her 5-year-old son played with the small rifle he was given last year. Then, as she stepped onto the front porch, "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, her son, Kristian, had fatally shot his 2-year-old sister, Caroline, in the chest, authorities said.
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 orange 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," said Cumberland County Judge Executive John Phelps. "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.
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.