updated 1/9/2011 3:19:50 PM ET 2011-01-09T20:19:50

The guns were kept in the boy's bedroom, resting on a rack mounted to the wall. The one investigators say was used to kill his mother— a .22-caliber rifle — was found lying on his bed.

On a cold winter evening in Big Prairie, a rural hunting town, the 10-year-old boy picked up the rifle and shot his mother, 46-year-old Deborah McVay, in the head, authorities say. Relatives said mother and son had been arguing over chores: He didn't want to carry firewood into the house.

The notion of a 10-year-old boy keeping a stash of weapons in his bedroom is a jolting one to some Americans, but not so in Big Prairie, where the sound of gunshots ricocheting through the air is familiar — even comforting. Here, children learn to fire guns as easily as they learn to ride bicycles.

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The child's tender age exposes an age-old divide between rural and urban in a nation where 80 million people are registered gun owners. It also raises anew the question of whether children should have access to guns — let alone be permitted to keep loaded guns in their bedrooms.

In Big Prairie, as in many other areas with deep hunting cultures, the answer is a resounding yes.

"You're in a rural area here, and a lot of people hunt," says Sam Crawford, a 65-year-old gas station clerk. "And we're gonna teach our kids how to hunt and how to use a gun."

There's plenty of open land for hunting in Holmes County, where acres of field and forest and swamp dominate the landscape. Seasoned hunters travel from farm to farm with the friendly query: "Mind if I hunt here?" It's a tradition passed down from each generation to the next.

"Out here, if you don't hear a gunshot in a day's time, then something's wrong," said Ron Martin, McVay's next-door neighbor on an isolated hill shrouded in trees.

The weapons found in the 10-year-old's room are commonly used for hunting, although it's unclear if the boy used them to hunt. The three .22-caliber rifles would be for small game like squirrels and coyotes, the 12-gauge shotgun for deer, said Jamey Graham, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Sheriff's deputies did not respond when asked whether the guns were registered.

State officials would not say whether the boy had a juvenile hunting license, citing privacy laws. Nearly 63,000 Ohio children, age 17 and younger, were granted hunting licenses during the current hunting season, which ends in February. In Ohio, as in many states, there is no minimum age required to earn that license.

Martin had seen the boy shooting a BB gun in his backyard, like lots of children who lived nearby.

"He wasn't going around threatening people or anything like that," Martin said.

The boy, who has pleaded the equivalent of not guilty to a charge of murder as a juvenile, dealt with "anger issues," family members say. He was enrolled in an elementary school that specializes in children with behavioral problems and had a history of poor behavior, including one instance in which he smacked his school principal in the face with a dust pan. His parents had recently separated and were planning to divorce, said his uncle Tony Miller.

The guns in his bedroom — given by his father — were a source of conflict between the boy's parents, his uncle said.

"She kept bringing the issue up about getting rid of them," Miller said, referring to the weapons. "But every time she did there was an argument about it with the father."

Psychologists caution that a 10-year-old cannot fully comprehend the long-term consequences of using a gun to harm another person.

Dealing with anger management is not an unusual problem for a 10-year-old boy to have — the difference in this case is that he had a weapon at his disposal, says Sherry Hamby, a gun control advocate and editor of the Psychology of Violence, an academic research journal.

By age 5 or 6, most children understand that hitting is wrong, and a 10-year-old would most certainly know the difference between right and wrong, Hamby said.

"But if you want to talk about having some sort of mature abstract reasoning capabilities," she said, "you're talking a minimum of 12 or 13 years old."

Research shows that children are not able to process long-term consequences because connections in their brains haven't been formed, which is why their decision-making is more rash, says Anne Nurse, a sociologist at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

The residents of Big Prairie, though shaken by the shooting, don't see it that way. In their view, this was a parenting issue — a question of personal responsibility. Not surprisingly, gun rights advocates share that view.

Roger James, a retiree who was born and raised near Big Prairie, says this child in particular probably shouldn't have been allowed near guns because of his behavioral issues. James says all his grandchildren hunt and were taught how to shoot a gun from an early age.

As for keeping them in the bedroom: "If there's no problem, that's probably where they would keep 'em," he says.

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At the heart of the debate is a cultural clash between the way of life in rural America versus how people live in the cities, says Harry Wilson, a professor of political science at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., who wrote the book "Guns, Gun Control and Elections."

Wilson compared keeping guns in the home to hanging the keys to the family car on a wall hook.

"Kids could decide to get the keys and figure out how to start the car, and they could figure out whatever they want to do with it," he says.

Wilson, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, remembers the loaded shotguns that his grandmother kept in various rooms of her home, used primarily for killing snakes. In some parts of this country, he says, most people don't worry about locking up their guns because "people don't go around shooting each other."

"I know kids who are 10 years old who have hunted," he says. "That 10-year-old's going to understand that when you shoot something, it dies."


Associated Press writers Doug Whiteman, Kantele Franko and JoAnne Viviano in Columbus and Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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