Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's opponents have pounced on his suggestion that teacher protests led to a 7-year-old girl getting shot. (Bac Totrong/Daily News/AP)

The question was about reducing gun violence in Kentucky. The state’s governor, though, wanted to talk about a favorite pet peeve: The thousands of public school teachers who have called in sick to protest legislation they complained weakened education and their pensions.

So he combined the two topics by suggesting that the teachers’ actions directly led to a 7-year-old girl getting shot.

“We had people pretending to be sick when they weren’t sick and leaving kids unattended too or in situations that they should not have been in,” Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) told a gathering at the Louisville Rotary Club on Thursday. “A little girl was shot, 7 years old, by another kid because they were somewhere that they weren’t intended to be and because the parents didn’t have any option, and put them into a situation so they could go to work.”

Bevin didn’t offer evidence that the shooting, which happened last month, was linked to the protests, as opponents swiftly condemned the governor, who is battling slumping poll numbers and has already apologized once for lurid allegations about the teacher protests.

“There’s plainly something wrong with Matt Bevin. You don’t politicize the shooting of a child,” tweeted Adam Edelen, a former state auditor seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Although Bevin didn’t go into detail about the shooting, he appeared to be referring to a March 12 incident in Shively, Ky., a city just southwest of Louisville. Around 3 p.m. that day, a 7-year-old girl was accidentally shot in the head by her 11-year-old brother after they found a handgun in a home while their uncle was outside, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. In an update on March 27, Shively police said the girl was recovering and in “good condition.”

On the date of the shooting, the local school district was closed because of the teachers’ “sickout,” according to the Courier-Journal, but it’s not clear whether the children — who haven’t been identified by police — attended public schools in Jefferson County.

The protests that day were part of weeks of action by Kentucky teachers who were demanding more funding for classrooms and for their pension systems — the latest in a national wave of similar strikes and walkouts from West Virginia to Oklahoma. In Kentucky, where teachers are legally forbidden from striking, educators instead have used coordinated sick days to shut down districts and travel to the state capital.

Bevin has previously aimed his fury at the protesters. Last spring, the governor claimed that the sickouts would expose children to sexual assault and drug abuse.

“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” Bevin told reporters outside the state Capitol in April 2018.

Facing backlash heated enough that the GOP-dominated state House passed two resolutions condemning his claim, Bevin backtracked and apologized to “those who have been hurt by the things that were said.”

Many of his in-state critics are demanding a similar mea culpa for his new allegation.

“Despicable. Matt Bevin is unfit to govern,” tweeted Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat challenging Edelen in the primary to take on Bevin in November. “Kentucky families, teachers, and kids deserve so much better than this governor.”

State Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Democrat who represents the Shively area, asked the governor to focus instead on reducing gun violence.

“Our community, like the family, is devastated by what occurred,” Jenkins said, according to the Courier-Journal. “This should drive us to enact commonsense gun safety, not further a spiteful agenda against teachers.”

Bevin’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on his claims. When reporters after the Thursday meeting asked him for more details about why he made a link between the accidental shooting and the sickouts, he chastised them for the question, calling them “pretty sad.”

Polling suggests Bevin could face a stiff reelection battle this fall, with a Mason-Dixon survey in December finding him struggling with a 53 percent disapproval rating.

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