WAMPUM, Pa. - Hunting is a way of life in the rural area where 11-year-old Jordan Brown regularly practiced target shooting with his 20-gauge, youth model shotgun.
Here in west-central Pennsylvania, hunting clubs are plentiful, the first day of deer hunting season means a day off from school and turkey shoots are held year round. A month ago, Brown won a turkey at a local shoot against older, more experienced hunters.
Days later, police believe Brown used the shotgun he planned to take hunting with his dad to fatally shoot his father's pregnant girlfriend. The crime was an anomaly in this small town, where guns are commonplace and children as young as 4 are taught to shoot.
"Life exists at the expense of other life. You have to kill in order to live," said Jim Tantillo, an environmental philosophy professor at Cornell University in New York, who is also a hunter.
"There's just something very honest about owning the responsibility for the life you take. When you pull that trigger, you know something's going to die," he said.
In many states, including Pennsylvania, children of any age can fire a rifle or shotgun and hunt with a licensed adult. Rifles and shotguns do not need to be registered or sold with trigger locks.
States often don't mandate how rifles and shotguns should be stored but do require hunting courses that teach how to store them.
Authorities believe Brown kept his gun, a Christmas present from his dad, in his bedroom. The boy has been charged as an adult with killing Kenzie Marie Houk, 26, and her unborn son Feb. 20 in an attack police say was planned: Jordan hid the weapon under a blanket so Houk's 7-year-old daughter wouldn't see it as he entered her mother's room. Later, he threw the spent shell casing in the woods, got on the bus and went to school, authorities say.
"It's one thing to learn to hunt, but it's another thing to let a kid keep a loaded shotgun," said Paul Helmke, president of the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"If you are keeping loaded guns around the house and you have kids, you're asking for a tragedy," he said.
No one tracks sales of youth shotguns, but gun control advocates said manufacturers increasingly focus marketing toward children with smaller, lighter models that are easier for them to handle. Some guns are pink to attract young girls to hunting, which has seen a decline in popularity over the years.
"The industry portrays (youth gun possession) as risk-free, and when something bad happens, they always blame the kid and not the presence of the gun. We think the risks clearly outweigh the benefits," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group in Washington, D.C.
The Monday after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of Pennsylvania's rifle deer season. Local newspapers are full of pictures of hunters proudly posing with their conquests and lining up at weigh stations to see who scored the biggest buck.
"It's nothing during hunting season to hear the dogs or the hunters because that's what people do: they hunt," said Kim Kennedy, a 52-year-old waitress who lives on a farm in western Pennsylvania.
In 2007, 8.9 percent of the 10,086 firearm homicides in 49 states were committed with shotguns and rifles. FBI statistics do not include Florida or Washington, D.C.
The Brown case "violated the basic tenets of firearm safety and hunting safety," said Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "This had nothing to do with hunting."
Mark Strohecker, 41, grew up a few miles from Wampum and has been hunting since he was 15. His father first took him to a shooting range when he was 14.
"Your adrenaline's going, your heart's racing, you're real anxious, you can't sleep, you know, you're thinking, 'I'm going to see that big 12-point buck,'" Strohecker said.
But he said he didn't ask his own son whether he wanted to go hunting until he turned 15. He believes children any younger are not mature enough to be around guns.
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