Last week, Kristian Sparks, age 5, shot and killed his two year-old sister Caroline with a rifle that had been given to him by his parents. The gun, a .22 marketed for children as My First Rifle, was kept loaded and standing in a corner of the Sparks home. Burkesville, Kentucky is the town where all this responsible behavior took place, and according to the Times, the people who live there don’t want to be seen as a symbol of America’s gun culture. A family friend says that “pointing fingers doesn’t really accomplish anything.” Three mourners at Caroline’s funeral attacked reporters across the street. And there’s this quote from county coroner Gary White:
Down in Kentucky where we’re from, you know, guns are passed down from generation to generation. You start at a young age with guns for hunting and everything.
That’s kind of a weird thing to say while standing in Kentucky.
First of all, pointing fingers might accomplish something in this case. Five year-olds do not get guns on their own, and the parent who gives his son a present he uses to kill his sister is ipso facto a bad parent. Don’t leave a loaded gun in a room with two small children. Second, we can’t really blame anyone for this senseless accident, because giving children guns is part of Kentucky’s culture.
It’s weird that White would explain this culture as if it were completely beyond what anyone could control. It is equally weird that he refers to the place in which he lives as “down in Kentucky, where we’re from.” You’re not really from a place if you’re still there, and it takes a particular mindset to refer to the county where you have lived your whole life as “down.” “Down” is for places that are south of your current location. In describing the place he lives as south of himself, White suggests that the cultural significance of Kentucky is very important to him.
In the context of this particular tragedy, the cultural significance of Kentucky is its love of guns. Only an idiot would leave a five year-old alone with a loaded rifle but, in the words of family friend Anne Beall, “terrible mistakes happen.” They might not happen in ways that involve children firing guns if we stopped giving guns to children, but that too is unavoidable, because we’re in Kentucky.
Even in the context of the accidental shooting death of a child, the county coroner of all people asserts that giving guns to kids is an important aspect of his cultural identity. If you believe the Times, pretty much everyone in Burkesville feels that way. And why shouldn’t they? If very small children running around with loaded rifles were not simply a part of who they are, they would have to take responsibility for what happened last week.
But it was an accident. A five year-old shooting a two year-old is the unavoidable consequence of arming a lot of children, which is in turn the unavoidable consequence of being down in Kentucky, where we’re from. Our culture determines what we do, and this determining power turns the extremely shitty things we do into accidents. Only a bad parent would leave a loaded gun in the living room with his toddlers. If that gun is there already, though, because there’s one in every living room in Kentucky, then the bad parent becomes the victim of a tragedy.
Consider it another way: if guns were not really important—so important as to be an integral part of our identities as Americans—we would have to admit that Sandy Hook and the Aurora theater shooting and all the other thousands of gun deaths that take place every year were kind of our fault. If we passed a law limiting what kind of guns people can own, or who can own them and if they can be pink for little girls, we might have to consider that we could have prevented previous deaths by passing that law earlier.
Or we could say that America has a gun culture and throw up our hands—as if our culture determined what we do instead of the other way around. Down in Kentucky, where we’re from, our culture is like us only more so. It excuses us for doing what we know is wrong, because we’re just so us. It turns our irresponsibilities into accidents, because we’re there. It’s the place that gives guns to children, not us. You wouldn’t understand, because you’re not from here.