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 multi-color 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."
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.
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 Korner" 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 and bright orange vests and hats.
"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.
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?"
Associated Press writer Janet Cappiello in Louisville contributed to this report.