Monday, May 6, 2013

Kentucky town hunkers down in the face of outside criticism over child's gun death

I wrote a few days ago about the shooting death this past week of a 2-year-old in Burkesville, Kentucky.  The girl was shot by her 5-year-old brother with his .22 gun when the children's mother stepped outside the home to take care of a household cleaning task.  In that story, I observed that the media seemed to be ridiculing the family by printing a photo of their trailer home and by describing the particular task the mother was doing:  pouring out grease for the dogs.

Now, today's New York Times picks up on that latter theme--or at least a related one.  The somewhat opaque and inartful headline is "Girl's Death by Gunshot is Rejected as Symbol."  In it, journalist Trip Gabriel explains that Burkesville wants "no part of being a symbol" in the national debate over gun control.  He writes:
The death has convulsed this rural community of 1,800 in south-central Kentucky, where everyone seems to know the extended Sparks family, which is now riven by grief. But as mourners gathered for Caroline’s funeral on Saturday, there were equally strong emotions directed at the outside world, which has been quick to pass judgment on the parents and a way of life in which many see nothing unusual about introducing children to firearms while they are still in kindergarten.
Gabriel quotes several local residents, including one who said, "I think it's nobody's business but our own town's."  Another also referenced the town's solidarity: "This town, there's nothing like it.  They pull together." One teenager "said strangers from around the country had written scathing comments online blaming the parents, deepening the town’s pain and anger."  Indeed, Gabriel reports that a couple of Burkesville locals punched the cameraman from a German television crew who were in town to cover the girl's funeral.  Those men told a newspaper reporter, "If you had any sense, you'd get out of here.  You're next, buddy."

Nevertheless, Gabriel found a few locals who "expressed skepticism of the parents for having a loaded, unlocked gun in the house."  I don't know if expressing skepticism is quite the same as blaming the parents--like many outsiders have done--but it sounds like there's some room for debate, even down in Burkesville.  (I note that one Burkesville parent Gabriel interviewed had taken the step of better securing the family's guns, "[s]ince that little girl died").

Some states have laws that make criminal the negligent storage of a gun, but Kentucky is not among them.

As for the media's behavior in all this, I go back to my original criticism that running a photo of the trailer home and using the detail about pouring out grease for the dogs serves only to fuel stereotypes of ignorant, unworthy "others," those I sometimes label retrograde rednecks to connote how the outside world--especially the world of liberal elite NYT readers and NPR listeners--see them.  I note that the New York Times also ran the photo of the family home--the same one from the earlier AP story, the same one NPR picked up--and they described the work of the children's father: shoeing horses and working at a sawmill.  I guess that completes the picture for us.  

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