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Who gives a four-year-old a gun?

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She stepped out onto the front porch, poured grease out of a frying pan for the dogs and "heard the gun go off."

That line, from an Associated Press story, captures the horror a young mother in Kentucky will live with forever, the moment her 5-year-old son accidentally shot her 2-year-old daughter with a .22 caliber rifle. The boy had been playing with the gun — his own weapon, unbelievably — which had a shell in it. He killed his sister with one shot to her chest.

The accompanying photo shows the family’s ramshackle mobile home in a grassy field.

You don’t have to be too sophisticated to pick up clues to the context of this incident. This is Gun Country, and the unfortunate victim and her family are gun people.

Who else presents an actual firearm as a gift to a four-year-old? (That’s how old the boy was when he got the rifle.) In Cumberland, Ky., guns are often put into the hands of little children. It’s a toddler-to-preschool rite of passage. Kids hunt. They target shoot.

Yet there’s more to this horrible incident than some irreconcilable difference between rural and city attitudes toward guns. The boy’s weapon was sold by a company that markets the product under the slogan "My first rifle." They make a blue one for boys and a pink one for girls. Who says the arms industry is cynical?

I don’t care where you’re from or what "culture" you purport to be a part of: You don’t "play" with guns. And if a child is too young to understand that fact, to respect weaponry, adults shouldn’t be giving them guns as gifts. And companies have no business marketing to children.

This little girl’s death has seized the public’s attention, and, in the wake of the failed gun reform legislation in Congress, it offers some slim hope that Americans might come to their senses about responsible gun laws and ownership.

Some observers, of course, dismiss any notion that this death has anything to do with the thousands of other gun fatalities that happen in America each year. But that isn’t entirely accurate.

While violent crime rates in general are dropping, accidental gun deaths are holding steady; at about 500 to 600 per year. (Suicides make up nearly two-thirds of the approximate 32,000 U.S. gun deaths annually.) More than 14,000 people are injured every year by accidental gunfire.

The key word is accident. These deaths and injuries are preventable.

Studies show that in all age groups, people are significantly more likely to die from accidental gun injuries when they live in states with more guns. In fact, they are nine times more likely to die than in states with fewer guns.

Accidental shootings, especially of children by children, just might be the one area where rational national conversations about access to weaponry can gain a foothold.

News stories are filed daily of such accidental shootings, across race and class barriers, in rural communities and in cities. Near the neighborhood where I grew up, the body of an African American 14-year-old boy was recently found by police, his hand sticking out of a pile of dirt. After investigating, it was found that his 12-year-old brother had accidentally shot him with a neighbour’s gun — and another teen buried the body afterward in panic.

Second Amendment zealots like to talk about "law-abiding" gun owners, and about how their ownership of firearms should not be regulated in any way. But law-abiding doesn’t mean responsible. It’s time that gun owners, manufacturers and sellers were held accountable for gun safety.

For its part, the gun industry just wants more guns in the hands of more Americans, period. So its line on this tragedy is: "Accidents happen."

This has nothing to do with criticizing hunters, or rural family life. It’s about at least trying to temper the gun industry’s efforts to market a product to younger and younger audiences, unabated by respect for the lethal nature of guns.

My maternal grandfather was an excellent shot. Like most Kansas farmers, he relied on his shotgun for hunting, for protecting the chicken coops from coyotes, and on one sad afternoon to kill his favorite dog. Old Foxie had gone rabid and was running in a circle in the field.

A lot of farmers kept their shotguns loaded and at the ready in that Depression era. Grandfather never did. He had a house full of children, and he knew that children are curious.

If he were alive today, he’d be saddened by the death of this little Kentucky girl — and equally horrified that the country has strayed so far from the respect for weaponry that to him was second nature.


Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.


— McClatchy Tribune

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