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