Gun experts: Arizona instructor didn’t follow protocol in fatal incident

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An accidental shooting similar to the horrific killing Monday of a firing-range instructor in Arizona by a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi is unlikely to happen in Western Pennsylvania because shooting ranges here do not allow the firing of automatic weapons, two local gun experts said.

Moreover, Philip Dacey of Shaler, a retired Pittsburgh police lieutenant, and Kim Stolfer of McDonald, an NRA certified firearms training counselor, said they and other shooting instructors have strict protocols that weren’t followed by slain instructor Charles Vacca, 39.

He should have been in control of the weapon by standing behind the girl with his arms around her and his hands over her hands on the Uzi, they said.

Instead, Mr. Vacca was standing to the girl’s left and after he switched the mode to full automatic and told her to fire, the weapon recoiled upward, which is known as “muzzle climb.” Still firing and out of control, the weapon swung to the left and fatally shot him in the head as the girl’s parents, who took her to the range, videotaped the horror.

Neither Mr. Dacey, a federally licensed firearms dealer and president of the Pennsylvania Gun Collectors Association, nor Mr. Stolfer, vice president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League, said they knew of any shooting range in Western Pennsylvania that either rents or allows the firing of automatic weapons by anyone.

Shooting submachine guns at ranges is popular in Western states. In fact, Mr. Dacey said, some people from this area take vacations out West to do just that.

Under federal law, in order to fire a weapon, anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian and have a note granting them parental or guardian permission, said Mr. Stolfer, Some ranges require minors to be at least 12, said Mr. Stolfer, who has taught more than 5,000 people to fire weapons, including children as young as 5 years old.

Mr. Dacey said the Uzi, weighing 4 pounds, is easier to control than a handgun when a single shot is fired. The girl in Arizona is shown in the video doing just that with Mr. Vacca standing to her left. After she fires a single shot, he commends her and says, “All right, let’s go to full auto,” and makes the adjustment. She begins to fire and immediately loses control of the weapon as it continues to fire. The video stops before showing Mr. Vacca being hit.

“It’s not so much her age but her size and stature that were limiting,” Mr. Dacey said. “Even an adult has problems with keeping a fully automatic weapon aimed. The recoil impetus is a basic law of physics, a law of action and reaction. I’ve seen people spin 180 degrees after firing one shot. She was someone who was too little to fire a fully automatic weapon by herself.”

Mr. Stolfer agreed: “Where the instructor got into trouble was not fully embracing the impact it would have on a young girl who could not adequately control the firearm.

“He did not have his own hands on the weapon to control it. You cannot allow a young shooter that age to have sole control. The cyclic action of fully automatic exponentially builds, and you have muzzle climb. A 9-year-old girl doesn’t have the physical attributes to handle that weapon by herself.”

Additionally, Mr. Stolfer said, the ammunition in the Uzi’s magazine should have been limited. He said there should have been a gradual buildup in automatic firing mode — starting with one bullet in the magazine, moving up to two and so on.

But the key, he said, was that the instructor didn’t have control of the weapon, which is baffling given that Mr. Vacca, as an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, would have had experience firing automatic weapons.

“In my opinion, it was incredibly inappropriate how he chose to handle that firearm with this young girl,” said Mr. Stolfer, a Marine veteran. “I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to me as an instructor and a military person for him to have that mental lapse. That young girl is going to have to live with this the rest of her life.”

Mr. Stolfer called “ridiculous” the intense criticism the girl’s parents have been receiving in some quarters across the nation over their decision to take her to the range in the first place and to allow her to fire an automatic weapon.

“I think the parents were hoping to take their young child to a range to safely fire firearms. It’s a misdirected effort by anti-gun people to say children can’t fire firearms safely, which is ridiculous.”

Michael A. Fuoco: or 412-263-1968.

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