Deadly shooting of instructor by 9-year-old girl stirs debate over children and guns

PHOENIX — The accidental shooting death of a firing-range instructor by a 9-year-old girl with an Uzi has set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle a submachine gun.

Instructor Charles Vacca, 39, was standing next to the girl Monday at the Last Stop range in White Hills, Ariz., about 60 miles south of Las Vegas, when she squeezed the trigger. The recoil wrenched the Uzi upward, and Mr. Vacca was shot in the head. Prosecutors say they will not file charges.

Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety, a group seeking to reduce gun violence, said it was reckless to let the girl handle such a powerful weapon, and that tighter regulations regarding children and guns are needed. “We have better safety standards for who gets to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park,” Ms. Hills said. Referring to the girl’s parents, she said: “I just don’t see any reason in the world why you would allow a 9-year-old to put her hands on an Uzi.”

The identities of the girl and her family have not been released.

Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in the desert, said Wednesday that the parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened. Mr. Scarmardo, who has been operating the gun range for more than a year and had run another for 14 years, said he hasn’t had a safety problem before at his ranges. “We never even issued a Band-Aid,” he said.

Investigators released 27 seconds of the footage showing the girl from behind as she fires at a black-silhouette target. The footage, which does not show the instructor actually being shot, helped feed the furor on social media and beyond.

“I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that Charlie was killed in the incident,” Mr. Scarmardo said. He said he doesn’t know what went wrong, pointing out that Mr. Vacca was an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jace Zack, chief deputy for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office, said the instructor was probably the most criminally negligent person involved in the accident, for having allowed the child to hold the gun without enough training. “The parents aren’t culpable,” Mr. Zack said. “They trusted the instructor to know what he was doing, and the girl could not possibly have comprehended the potential dangers involved.”

In 2008, an 8-year-old boy died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with an Uzi at a gun expo near Springfield, Mass. Christopher Bizilj was firing at pumpkins when the gun kicked back. A former Massachusetts police chief whose company co-sponsored the gun show was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

Two gun experts said Wednesday that what types of firearms a child can handle depend largely on the strength and experience of the child — though the notion of giving a 9-year-old a fully automatic Uzi made some queasy. “So much of it depends on the maturity of the child and the experience of the range officer,” said Joe Waldron, a shooting instructor and legislative director of the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association.

Lindsey Zwicker of the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said that after the 2008 tragedy in Massachusetts, Connecticut adopted a law banning anyone under 16 from handling machine guns at shooting ranges. “This is an action states can do to prevent something like this from happening again,” she said.

Mr. Scarmardo said his policy of allowing children 8 and older to fire guns under adult supervision and the watchful eye of an instructor is standard practice in the industry. The range’s policies are under review, he said.

The Scottsdale Gun Club in recent years has allowed children and families to pose with Santa Claus while holding machine guns and other weapons from the club. Children as young as 10 are allowed to hunt big game such as elk and deer in Arizona, provided they have completed a hunter safety course.

It’s also perfectly legal in many states for children to fire guns of all types at shooting ranges such as the Arizona one where the accidental shooting happened, so long as an adult or instructor is present. “There are federal laws for minimum age purchasing of firearms,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Technically, anybody selling a gun in that context should look for age verification that someone is at least 18 years old.”

The gun used at the shooting range incident, an Uzi, is a submachine gun that could be classified as either a handgun or a long gun, depending on the model and any modifications to it. While federal law would prohibit minors from owning the pistol version, there are no such federal restrictions on the rifle version.

Accidental gun deaths make up a significant portion of overall U.S. gun deaths. The good news is that while gun injury statistics are notoriously spotty (by design), gun fatality data from the CDC shows that accidental gun deaths have been on a steady downward trajectory since at least 1999. There’s a similar, though less pronounced, trend for all accidental gun injuries. But it’s important to note that these numbers could be too low.

Mr. Webster believes there are both cognitive and physical limitations in children that make it more difficult for them to understand and apply rules they are taught from a young age. “What they don’t consider are the developmental issues and physical abilities of children to actually follow these instructions. It was obvious to me when I saw this 9-year-old girl holding an incredibly powerful gun like an Uzi. Why anyone was surprised when she couldn’t handle the recoil is beyond me.”

The Washington Post contributed.

United States - North America - Arizona - Phoenix


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