In a Minneapolis home normally busy with children, a grieving father recalled how a handgun he had bought to keep his family safe ended up killing one of his sons.

Kao Xiong thought the gun was adequately hidden in his bed, but on Wednesday, his 4-year-old found it and started playing with it. The gun went off. Xiong's third child, 2-year-old Neegnco, was fatally shot.

"My heart is broke," said Xiong, 33, tears welling in his eyes. "I'd come home and he would ask me to put him on my back. ... He is a lovely one.

"This changes my life. I can't imagine this terrible thing would happen to me," he said. "I wish I would be a new person."

No charges have yet been filed in what police call a "horrible accident." Police plan to present their investigation to the Hennepin County attorney. Child protection workers have at least temporarily removed the three other children from the rented townhouse in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

On Thursday morning, Xiong's wife, Ma Vang, sat on a stool near her husband, listening, her face a picture of sadness. She speaks little English. Other relatives, including the boys' grandmother, also sat in the small living room.

Xiong works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Goodwill/Easter Seals in St. Paul. He said he first acquired a gun for his own protection while living in Eau Claire, Wis., seven or eight years ago. Someone broke into his house while he was home, and he scared away the burglar.

About a year and a half ago, Xiong bought a semi-automatic Tokarev pistol from an online broker, for his "personal safety." He said the gun was shipped to Joe's Sporting Goods in Little Canada, where he filled out the appropriate papers and completed the transaction. He said he had a permit to carry it.

The pistol was loaded and tucked behind a pillow, next to the headboard, he said. Asked why it was loaded, he said he sometimes carried it with him when he went to a store or went jogging late at night. He said there have been recent car break-ins and a shooting in the neighborhood.

Three of his four sons, ages 1, 2 and 4, were at home Wednesday when he came home for lunch, he said.

The living room had gotten dirty from child's play, he said, and his wife, a stay-at-home mom, decided to vacuum-clean it. So Neegnco and the 4-year-old went upstairs and were rolling around on their parents' bed.

Xiong said that after three or four minutes, he and his wife heard a loud shot, and they rushed upstairs together.

He said he found Neegnco, hunched forward, face down on the bed, shaking and trying to breathe. Xiong told his wife to call 911 and picked up the boy and spoke to the dispatcher at the same time, trying to give his son CPR.

He carried his son outside, where paramedics had just arrived and told him to lay the boy on the grass, where they continued CPR. Neegnco died in the ambulance.

As a police officer stood in their home, Xiong said, he turned to his 4-year-old and said, "Why did you do this to your brother? He's dead." He said his 4-year-old son was crying and the officer was crying, too.

Xiong said he realizes it wasn't his son's fault. "Hopefully he won't know much about it." He said an officer said the boys might be returned to the family on Thursday, but they still were not back late Thursday afternoon.

A hunter, Xiong said he has other guns in the house, but they are in locked boxes. The lesson, he said, is that all of a family's guns should be locked up.

The parents were questioned Wednesday by police and allowed to return home.

"I don't think it will take that long before the case is presented to the county attorney's office," said Minneapolis police Sgt. Steve McCarty. It is a crime in Minnesota to store a loaded firearm where a child can gain access to it.

While relatives continued to come and go from the Xiongs' townhouse, a next-door neighbor, Judith Kroening, paused on the sidewalk.

"They're a nice family," she said. "I hate guns. It's really sad. It must be devastating for them."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224