As they descended on Houston for their three-day annual convention, the faithful of the National Rifle Association were not about to be knocked from their path to gun-owning righteousness by a little breaking news, even if it did involve a Kentucky boy killing his two-year-old sister with a gun made specifically for children.
“I don’t see a problem with that,” said Angela Armstrong from Ohio when quizzed about Keystone Sporting Arms, a Pennsylvania company that specialises in making guns for minors. It was one of their products, a .22 Crickett, that fired the bullet that killed the little girl on Tuesday. “They are not toys,” Ms Amstrong, a lifelong NRA member, said. “It’s all about adult responsibility. You have to be a responsible owner.”
Even so, it may be hard for the leadership of the NRA, fresh from its success in derailing efforts in Washington to pass new gun-control laws in the wake of the Newtown Elementary School massacre in December, to ignore the fall-out from this latest tragedy. A request from The Independent for a statement from the NRA about the incident went unanswered. It is certain also to galvanise the hundreds of pro-gun control protesters expected here today.
With the slogans “My First Rifle” and “Quality Firearms for America’s Youth”, Keystone makes Crickett and Chipmunk rifles specifically for children. They are light and have stocks in different colours, including swirls and pink for girls. But they are fully-functioning guns. It was a Crickett given to him as a birthday present that five-year-old Kristian Sparks picked upon Tuesday and pointed at his sister, Caroline, before pulling the trigger. His mother said it had been left in a corner inside their home. She didn’t know it was loaded.
“It’s a Crickett,” the coroner for Kentucky’s Cumberland County, Gary White, confirmed. “It’s a little rifle for a kid. The little boy’s used to shooting the little gun. Accidents happen with guns.” The victim’s grieving grandmother, Linda Riddle, said: “It was God’s will. It was her time to go, I guess. I just know she’s in heaven right now and I know she’s in good hands with the Lord.”
The Keystone website tells the story of the company and its owners, Bill and Steve McNeal. The father and son, both qualified auctioneers, first encountered a child’s rifle when they were approached at a public sale by a man carrying a .22 Chipmunk. “Both Bill and Steve were impressed by the look and feel of the rifle,” the website reads, “how compact and attractive it was, and the fact that it was made especially for youth shooters.” Having tried to buy some of the guns, the McNeals were instead offered the company. When the sale fell through they decided to make their own, and eventually they acquired the firm behind the Chipmunk. Now Keystone sells 60,000 children’s rifles from its 31,000sq ft facility in Pennsylvania and boasts of its efforts to meet growing demand.
The website, which either crashed or was taken down, also has a “Kids Corner” (which vanished but later reappeared with an “under construction banner”). It features photos of children at shooting ranges and on bird and deer hunts. There are even images of babies modelling weapons.
“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,” the website proclaims. Myron, an NRA member from Pennsylvania who gave only his first name, seemed offended by the mere notion that there might be something wrong with marketing weapons for children. “It’s fine, absolutely,” he said. His 11-year-old has been firing a “more sophisticated” weapon for five years. “The bottom line is that it’s a guardian issue. If the parents were doing their jobs this wouldn’t have happen. This isn’t about the five-year-old, it’s about the adult.”
But for “Occupy the NRA”, which will hold a rally today across the road from the NRA shindig, the deaths of children is the first reason why gun controls must be tightened. The group will begin the protest by reading out the names of all those killed in December in Newtown as well as the names of 4,000 other gun violence victims. According to a Bloomberg survey, in 2015 firearm fatalities are likely to exceed traffic-accident deaths in the US for the first time. Thus, in a two-year period more Americans will die from guns domestically than US soldiers were killed fighting in Vietnam.
“I don’t think it’s a losing battle at all,” Heather Ross, an organiser of the Occupy the NRA rally, said of the fight for gun control. But Ms Armstrong, who has taken three days off from her job at an air-conditioning company in Ohio, to come to the convention because a friend told her it would change her life, has her own idea of what needs to happen. “Gun control,” she offered with a smile, “is when you use both hands.”
Target audience: Guns for the girls
“I recently purchased one of your Davey Crickett rifles (My First Rifle) for my seven-year-old daughter and I have nothing but positive things to say about it. She loves it and looks forward to going shooting with me at every opportunity. It is obvious that a good deal of time was spent in the development of this product as it is perfectly designed for kids in regards to length and weight.
Jessie from Ohio
“My daughter started shooting, at the age of six, with one of your models. I have been impressed over and over again with the reliability, quality and accuracy of your product. When we go out plinking, eventually my daughter has to share with other adults who want to give it a try – then request more time with it. It’s a lightweight, wonderful, easily used and kid-friendly firearm. I cannot recommend it highly enough to any parent.”
“My wife told me to do something with my daughter after gymnastics today, she recommended going for hot chocolate or a donut. I thought, that’s not special, plus once you’ve consumed the item, where does that leave you? Instead we bought a pink Crickett for my six-year-old daughter and wanted to say thanks for making quality affordable firearms for new shooters. The “girls” option is especially appreciated because, as scary as it sounds, the colour really helped get her excited about it. Bethany says thanks too!
“Thank you for supporting the next generation of recreational shooters. My four-year-old daughter thought the “pink one” was far superior to a black synthetic stock, Who am i to argue? I never would have thought that a pink rifle would be sitting in the rack.”
Gunman opens fire at airport
An alert was sparked at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, close to the NRA's conference centre, when a series of shots were fired leaving one man seriously injured. According to unconfirmed reports he was declared dead at hospital.
Initial accounts suggested he had tried to get through security with a semi-automatic weapon before an air marshal shot at him but missed. Once challenged, the gunman is said to have shot himself. The shooting took place in Terminal B.