If you're not ready to expose them to it, you surely should not give the opportunity for them to be exposed to the firearm. —Joe Chapman, owner and instructor at J. Chapman Academy, which specializes in gun and security training

SALT LAKE CITY — How young is too young to have access to a firearm?

That issue is in the spotlight following a family tragedy in Kentucky, where police say a 5-year-old accidentally shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a rifle he received as a birthday gift last year.

For firearms instructors in Utah, it’s not a simple question to answer.

At J. Chapman Academy, which specializes in gun and security training, owner and instructor Joe Chapman said it’s a good idea to expose children to guns at younger ages. He said he started teaching his children about guns at ages 6 and 7.

“The more you help them understand the importance of the firearm, what it can do, you’re preparing them, you’re helping them stay safe,” Chapman said Thursday.

Investigators in Burkesville, Ky., said the 5-year-old boy discharged the .22-caliber rifle that had been left in a corner of the house. The family didn't realize a bullet had been left in it, Cumberland County coroner Gary White said.

The rifle was made by a company that sells guns specifically for children. "My first rifle" is the slogan, with colors ranging from plain brown to hot pink to orange to royal blue to multicolor swirls.

"It's a normal way of life, and it's not just rural Kentucky, it's rural America — hunting and shooting and sport fishing. It starts at an early age," said Cumberland County Judge Executive John Phelps. "There's probably not a household in this county that doesn't have a gun."

Tragic as the ordeal played out, Chapman couldn’t get beyond a key no-no highlighted in the story. Guns, he said, must always be secured.

“That was just totally irresponsible on the parents’ part,” Chapman said.

Chapman also discouraged the idea of giving a child age 5 or younger a gun as a gift.

“That child’s not old enough to even make a decision on what he wants to eat that day, no less put an instrument that could cause someone to lose their life in their hands,” he said.

Not every gun expert agrees with that assertion.

Utah Shooting Sports Council chairman and firearms instructor Clark Aposhian said he gave his daughter her first gun at the age of 6. Aposhian said what took place in Kentucky was an extremely rare accident.

“We’ve never had fewer gun accidents — let alone deaths — than we do right now,” Aposhian said, observing that there are now more guns in circulation than ever before.

In Utah, Aposhian said children cannot hunt until the age of 14, but there is no minimum age to shoot or receive gun training.

When parents decide to give children access to guns is entirely a family decision, Chapman said, although he has suggested that a reasonable time is when children take on other life responsibilities — such as when they learn to drive.

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Children's mere exposure to guns should be based on the parents’ ability to teach them safely, he said.

“If you’re not ready to expose them to it, you surely should not give the opportunity for them to be exposed to the firearm,” Chapman said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘Well I’m going to wait until he’s 10, but I’m going to have a loaded firearm in my desk drawer.' You’re really setting up an element of a potential catastrophic situation that could happen.”

Contributing: Associated Press

Email: aadams@deseretnews.com